Rachel Kelnar writes:

I went to two really interesting futures events last week and was struck by the extent to which some emerging learnings were common to both, despite having expected beforehand that the topics would have little in common.

First, I attended a debate at the London Transport Museum (LTM) on the future of transport – ‘Survive or Thrive: What will urban life be like in 2055?’ The LTM used the intelligent infrastructure scenarios which my colleague Andrew Curry and I wrote for the UK Government’s Foresight Programme as the starting point for this discussion. I also participated in ‘Museums in the Long Now’ – a roundtable exploring the future of the museum, organised by the Cultural Leadership Programme at City University and Compton Verney, with funding from the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprise (LCACE).

An emerging theme of both sessions was ‘we are where we are’ – that if we were to design a transport system for the UK, we would not set out to design what we currently have, and neither would we fund or develop our museums in the way we do now. However, ‘we are where we are’ – and we therefore have to temper our views of the future with the reality of this starting point. We don’t have the luxury of a blank slate.

However, it’s important that this doesn’t limit us in terms of what we strive for, and both sessions used scenarios to help participants resist the temptation to think too short term, or too negatively.

Another interesting reflection for me was the potentially changing role of museums. They are generally considered windows to the past and this is pretty uncontroversial. But, if museums are to remain relevant in the future, they perhaps need to do more than reflect on what has already happened. They need to start providing a window on the future as well. The LTM has certainly embraced this idea, with the Future Generator, which allows every virtual or real museum visitor to explore how their choices can impact the future of London and the type of city we will all live in. It’s about putting the Museum at the heart of the debate about our transport system, sustainability and the London we might have in 2055, and pleasingly, it’s also based on the scenarios we were involved in writing.

Discussing the Museum of the Long Now, it became increasingly clear that many museums may well be a natural home for such futures exploration. They are naturally places where people go to learn – to be challenged, provoked, and to understand a culture, a society or a particular event in our history. This mindset is a good one for thinking about the future of our culture and our society – because thinking about the past is the first step to thinking more effectively about the future.

This shift is not without its challenges – it requires, for example, that museums get a bit more comfortable with conflict than many are at the moment. If museums can successfully place themselves at the heart of our future – regardless of the issue – than they are helping to cement their role in our lives going forward. We are where we are – but we don’t have to be stuck here.

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