What is the future for museums throughout Europe?

Twenty years ago, Friedrich Waidacher wrote in his publication “Handbook of Museology”: "Museums have a nearly insurmountable ability to survive. Hardly ever a museum ceases to exist, but many museums are founded."

The last decades can be seen as a golden age for museums in Europe. Huge investments in museum buildings delivered some of the most stunning examples of architecture. Blockbuster exhibitions have come to the stage and pushed visitor numbers sky high. Museums have become centrepieces of remarkable urban regeneration planning and even landmarks of national identity. The museums make Europe the best destination for cultural tourism.

Parameters have changed since then. Europe is in economic and political crisis. Public spending is in debate, also spending on museums. This is more than just a temporary phase.

Museums need to face the debate about their role as places for conserving memory and knowledge, about their role as educational institution, and even as a social meeting place. How does the future look like for museums? How can they help to shape it and contribute to a well-being society, an ageing society, a virtually connected society?

Museums need to re-position themselves in the growing free-time market, but also act on the potential of volunteers and private patronage. The digital born society will question the classical authority that institutions like museums have had since their origin. The may ‘like’ it, or just ignore it.

Another increasingly visible field of action is the sustainability. One can question the museums’ contribution to that – keeping their storages on a constant climate for future generations, on the costs of the global climate that threats those future generations.

So what’s the answer to the question about the future of museums? What can museums do to make their future looking bright? The best answer to give is that museums need to adjust to the changing paradigm and shifting values in society, without really knowing what that paradigm will be. That means that the best strategy for any museum will be to act as a facilitator of transition, by having impact on individuals, communities and society. By empowering others to face the changes that they experience and find new ways in having a valuable life.

How can museums, holding collections, displaying them and letting people enjoy and learn from them, contribute? Their basic tasks won’t change. But it is in the way they do it, with and for whom, where, when and why. All these aspects of museum’s work need to be questioned and debated. Constantly.

Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern, said that the proximity to the audience, to the people, will be crucial factor for a successful museum in the future. “Society does not feel represented by politics or media anymore, society is in search of a new sovereignty.” And it is the museums’ task to help them find it.