Interview with The Center for the Future of Museums' Elizabeth Merritt

AMT Lab Chief Editor Patrick Zakem recently interviewed Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President for Strategic Foresight at the American Alliance of Museums and founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums – a think-tank and research & development lab for the museum. Elizabeth Merritt is the author of the Alliance’s annual TrendsWatch report, and writes and speaks prolifically on the trends shaping the future of nonprofit organizations. She has her M.A. from Duke University and a B.S. from Yale and completed the Getty Institution’s Museum Management Institute as well as the University of Houston’s certificate course in Strategic Foresight.

If you’re interested in learning more about Elizabeth Merritt’s work, you can attend her talk on Future Scanning this Thursday at the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Studio. You can also follow her on Twitter @futureofmuseums.

Patrick Zakem: Some might label you a “futurist.” How would you respond to this title?

Elizabeth Merritt: I am a futurist! In fact, I am a member in good standing of the Association of Professional Futurists. Futurism (or future studies) has roots going back to H. G. Wells, at least. It really took off as a field of academic study and practice after WWII, with the work of Herman Kahn. He was a cold war strategist who tried to envision how humanity would exist after a thermonuclear conflagration. I’m happy to be looking at somewhat smaller challenges.

PZ: Before arriving in the Museum sector, your career included an eclectic mix of experiences. Can you recount some of your previous endeavors, and how this diverse set of fields have led you to American Alliance of Museums and the Center for the Future of Museums?

EM: Ooo, let’s do this with fashion snapshots. *Click* 1978--That’s me in jeans and a National Zoo t-shirt as I sweat in the heat of DC summer, studying mother-baby interactions in ungulates. *Click* 1980—I’m sporting a wetsuit, fins and a so-chic respirator as I flip off the back of a boat in Discovery Bay, Jamaica to research shrimp living on sea anemones in commensal (and consensual) relationships.  *Click* 1985—Red-and-black checked wool coat, wool gloves, two scarfs and a balaclava aren’t enough to ward off the cold as I “sugar off” maple sap for a program at the Dartmouth Children’s Museum in Massachusetts. *Click* 1995—that’s me in a Tyvek jumpsuit, wielding a cleaver as we butcher a baby walrus in the parking lot of the Geier Research Center. (We didn’t kill it! It died at the Cincinnati Zoo). *Click* 1997—Hey look! Me in a suit, finally, with padded shoulders and everything. I’m heading into a senior management meeting at Cincinnati Museum Center. *Click* 1999—looking very Washingtonian in a new grey suit (smaller shoulder pads) for my new job at the American Alliance of Museums. Now, as a futurist, I get to rock 5” platform shoes.

PZ: Trendswatch 2015 is the fourth publication of its kind. Can you talk about how the publication has evolved in its various iterations? How has your approach in creating it changed, and how has its reception changed?

EM: CFM launched in 1998, just as social media was really beginning to take off. I tried to find as many ways as I could—blogging, tweeting, pinning—to share what I was reading and thinking in real time. To that end, in 1999 we started putting out a weekly e-newsletter—Dispatches from the Future of Museums—that has turned out to be one of our most popular publications. In it I share a dozen or stories I’ve read over the past week that illustrate trends and how they are playing out in the world. After doing that for a few years, however, my colleagues and I realized it was a bit much to expect that even the most devoted reader would remember, analyze and synthesize all that information. So we started writing TrendsWatch to summarize the “so what”—what patterns emerged from the news over the course of a year? What should museums be paying attention to, and why?

PZ: Though the Center for the Future of Museums is primarily targeted towards museum professionals, you often draw examples from across the creative sector. How can arts organizations besides museums apply the lessons of Trendswatch? 

EM: Actually, I spend most of my time looking at everything but museums! There are already plenty of smart people looking inward at our field. My work is about noticing what is going on in the world, and then translating that into thoughts about how these changes may affect any organization, including museums. That seems to give it broad applicability—I’ve shared CFM’s work with the League of American Orchestras and Opera America, and now I’m working with the American Library Association, which is starting its own futures think-tank. I’ve had people from radically different sectors—ecology, education—say TrendsWatch is relevant to their work, too.

PZ: One of the trends identified in TW15 is Openness. Can you talk about how the trend of transparency and access has affected your own work at the Center for the Future of Museums?

EM: What I said before, about trying to let people see my work in real time? That shapes how I plan projects, too. I’ll often go on the blog, or Twitter, and say “I’m thinking of trying this thing, and I’m not quite sure how this will work, but let me know if you have ideas or want to help.” This is in keeping with our mandate to be a “skunk works” and idea lab for the field, but a big change from tradition. When I worked in a museum things were always planned to a fare-thee-well before the public ever got a glimpse of the final product.

PZ: How do you see the emerging Internet of Things and the visitor's need for personalization changing the way museums work? 

EM: These trends are having a huge effect on our field. Sometimes they interact with each other, as when the Dallas Museum of Art creates check-in systems throughout the museum to gamify the visitor experience. But personalization doesn’t have to rely on technology—I like to point to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts personal art mentor program as an example of how good old fashion face to face interactions can create the ultimate personalized experience. Of course, then the challenge is scaling it up. The power of the Internet of Things is that it could enable museums to collect and aggregate masses of data that we can then use to create personalized experiences that can be scaled up to any number of users.

PZ: What is the future for the Center for the Future of Museums?

EM: We’re in the middle of launching two new projects: a Fellows program and something I’m calling FutureLab. Recruiting fellows will enable us to devote deep dives of two or three years into important topics, in additional to the ongoing “mile wide inch deep” work of scanning for change. Our first fellow, Dr. Nicole Ivy, comes to us from the American Council of Learned Society’s Public Fellows Program. She just started this summer and is going to work on issues of labor relations, social justice practices and diversity in museums. We are about to begin the recruitment process for our second fellow, supported by the Ford W. Bell Fellowship for Museums and K-12 Education. (Dr. Bell retired as AAM’s CEO earlier this year.) That person will help us explore the future of education “with museums in a starring role.” FutureLab is going to be a way for CFM to catalyze experiments around important challenges to the field. We are thinking the first project may play around with new tools that help organizations avoid unconscious bias in hiring.

PZ: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or the Center for the Future of Museums?

EM: Almost everything CFM produces is freely distributed, so please take advantage of our resources! Readers can find links to our newsletter, blog and reports at