What every museum reveals about past, present and future

Museums have important roles across multiple timespans, according to futurist and museum director Kristin Alford.
A dark exhibition space with a series of lit up globes hanging in it.

Climate change. Social inequity. Global pandemics. These subjects are just as relevant to the present as they are to past and future, and for Museum of Discovery (MOD.) Director Kristin Alford, museums should offer free-ranging dialogue on all of it.

‘There’s a fascinating discussion to be had here about theories of time,’ Alford told ArtsHub from her base at the University of South Australia’s MOD. ahead of her keynote address at the 2022 Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) conference – HEAR.US.NOW.

‘If you look at neuroscience, the part of our brain that’s responsible for imagining the future is the same part that holds memory,’ she continued.

‘So, I think there’s something important there in terms of how we imagine and interpret stories of the past, present and future – it’s important to acknowledge those similarities,’ she said.

Museums bringing the future forward

Alford admitted that as a museum director and futurist she is highly attuned to what’s coming next, but she also sees how closely her forecasting aligns with historians’ journeys through the past.

‘Futurists always talk about there being multiple futures, and that the future is uncharted and uncertain,’ Alford explained. ‘But when you speak to historians, they talk very similarly about the past. 

‘Historians talk about how there being many interpretations of the past, and how the past is up for imagining and reimagining.

‘So, thinking broadly about how people engage with museums, they are coming into spaces where they are expecting to hear stories of place and of people and sense-making out of that, and that applies just as much to the past as it does to present and future,’ she said.

What is ‘futures literacy’?

A lot of Alford’s work champions futures literacy – a term coined by UNESCO as part of their advocacy for museums and learning worldwide.

UNESCO describes futures literacy as the ability to ‘better understand the role of the future in what we see and do’ and our capacity to empower our imaginations to prepare, recover and invent in response to changes brought on in the 21st century.

Alford said that in her work at MOD. and as a consultant to other museums, she routinely applies these big-picture ideas to local contexts.

‘When I think of futures literacy it’s about the need for our communities to be thinking about the future, and to ensure they have the capabilities to imagine some alternatives futures, and then put some of that imagination [about what the future will look like] into action,’ she said.

Read: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s new Director is a scientist who loves art

At MOD. Alford’s focus is on helping young people, especially those considering tertiary study and careers in STEM, to navigate the future.

‘We want to present plausible representations of what the future might entail, so we can help them work through some of those uncertainties,’ she said.

In terms of what other museums can do to filter futures literacy into more of their existing programs, Alford advised that it could be as simple as using their collections to tell stories that can be extended into the future.

‘Or, they might think about what future questions might be prompted by the collection their featuring,’ she said.

The value of museums as high-trust institutions

Alford sees museums as facilitators of curiosity as much as they are experts in their fields, and said this formidable reputation is not something that’s likely to be threatened by any new curatorial directions.  

‘Letting people in to discussions around future possibilities, and the ethics around those possibilities is something museums are well placed to do as high trust institutions,’ Alford said.

‘Yes, there needs to be that body of expertise and evidence that is held by the institution,’ she continued. ‘But there are also ways for the museum to invite other ways of knowing into the discussion of a topic.’

Alford said this open-mindedness to other knowledge systems is something often seen in the actions of highly capable leaders.

‘Good leaders will have a good body of expertise and they will know what they are talking about, but they’ll also open opportunities for other people to share their lived experiences and share other perspectives, and they’ll allow paths of mutual discovery to open, to find out things we don’t know,’ she remarked.

‘So, good leadership is about being prepared to reconsider and reframe and re-tell. And that’s absolutely attributable to the changing nature of the expertise of museums – in their being less fixed and authoritative, and being more about capable leadership.’

Kristin Alford’s keynote address at the 2022 AMaGA conference takes place on Tuesday 14 June, Perth. Browse the conference program.

ArtsHub's Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).