A unique chance to fig­ure what fu­ture looks like

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT philip.kennicott@wash­post.com

About a decade ago, as the Amer­i­can Al­liance of Mu­se­ums was ap­proach­ing its 100th an­niver­sary, its board did some­thing a lot of boards do: It held brain­storm­ing ses­sions to come up with new ideas for the next cen­tury. Among them was to cre­ate some­thing in­side the or­ga­ni­za­tion that would be fo­cused on en­vi­sion­ing the mu­seum of the 21st cen­tury. And then they did what boards that like to brain­storm about the fu­ture so of­ten do: They de­voted no new resources to their bold new idea.

That’s when El­iz­a­beth Mer­ritt, who was a staff mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton-based al­liance, stepped up. She hadn’t been part of the group that came up with the idea, but she wrote a pro­posal any­way, which evolved into what would be­come the Cen­ter for the Fu­ture of Mu­se­ums.

“They es­sen­tially opened it up to ex­ist­ing staff and said, if you want to be in charge of any of the new ini­tia­tives, make a bid for it,” says Mer­ritt. “And I got it.”

Ear­lier in life, Mer­ritt stud­ied an­i­mal be­hav­ior and “wanted to be the next Jane Goodall.” But she didn’t rel­ish the idea of spend­ing months alone in the wild, and found that the so­cial cli­mate for fe­male sci­en­tists at Duke Univer­sity, where she was study­ing, was more con­ge­nial in cell bi­ol­ogy. Af­ter earn­ing her masters in that field, she piv­oted again: “I stopped and asked my­self, what is the best job in the world I could imag­ine my­self do­ing? And the an­swer was: work in a mu­seum.”

She is now one of the most sought-af­ter speak­ers in the mu­seum world and be­yond. You’re as likely to find her ad­dress­ing a con­ven­tion of orches­tra lead­ers as a mu­seum con­fer­ence. Usu­ally she is in­tro­duced as a fu­tur­ist, though she has be­come prac­ticed at de­flat­ing the com­mon and mis­in­formed sense of what that job ti­tle means.

“When­ever I in­tro­duce my­self at par­ties, the first thing peo­ple ask is what is the fu­ture go­ing to be?” she says. “And I say, I don’t know, and if any­body tells you they do know, you shouldn’t lis­ten to them. What a fu­tur­ist does is help peo­ple en­vi­sion a lot of dif­fer­ent po­ten­tial fu­tures.”

Per­haps the real ti­tle should be ex­trap­o­la­tion­ist — the abil­ity to draw out all the pos­si­ble fu­tures given the cur­rent state of af­fairs — if the word wasn’t so ugly. The most strik­ing thing about Mer­ritt’s con­ver­sa­tion, and her pub­lic ap­pear­ances, is the vast knowl­edge of the present she brings to bear on prob­lems. If there’s any­one do­ing any­thing new and in­ter­est­ing the mu­seum world, and be­yond, Mer­ritt is likely to be on top of it. She rat­tles off ex­am­ples ef­fort­lessly: a mu­seum that is of­fer­ing free mem­ber­ship and uses the in­flux of peo­ple to col­lect use­ful data, a house mu­seum that turns its cu­ra­to­rial de­ci­sions over to stu­dents. She seems most ex­cited by the things that most vex mu­seum tra­di­tion­al­ists.

She calls her­self a “whale shark” of the mu­seum world, con­stantly tak­ing in new data, fil­ter­ing it, and then us­ing so­cial me­dia, blog posts and an an­nual re­port, “Trends-Watch,” to dis­sem­i­nate it in strate­gic ways. Her day be­gins, she says, with two com­puter screens open on the desk and a cou­ple of hours of “scan­ning,” or quick, fo­cused read­ing through a lot of ma­te­rial. She fol­lows key­words to stay abreast of de­vel­op­ments in ar­eas she thinks may im­pact the mu­seum world.

Among them, re­cently: “3-D print­ing,” “crowd fund­ing,” and “per­son­hood.” The last, she says, is one of those “mi­crotrends,” that she says could po­ten­tially rear­range the ways mu­se­ums think about their hold­ings. So she scans an ar­ti­cle about an orang­utan in Brazil who has been given per­son sta­tus, and a river in New Zealand that has had le­gal guardians ap­pointed to pro­tect it.

“Of course, if you are a mu­seum and you are car­ing for an­i­mals or inan­i­mate ob­jects this is very im­por­tant, whether they have le­gal or moral rights,” she says.

The Amer­i­can Al­liance of Mu­se­ums in­cludes a dizzy­ing range of in­sti­tu­tions and en­com­passes a vast range of dis­ci­plines: art, his­tory, sci­ence, mil­i­tary mat­ters, zoos, ar­bore­tums, aquar­i­ums and his­toric sites. Mer­ritt has man­aged to cre­ate an en­vi­able job for any­one who as­pires to be a gen­er­al­ist. She has found work where the am­bi­tion to know some­thing about every­thing is use­ful to peo­ple who are fo­cused on much more spe­cial­ized mat­ters, like how to stay alive and rel­e­vant in an age of dis­trac­tion and me­dia sat­u­ra­tion.

“It’s a very 21st-cen­tury job in the sense that you’re never re­ally off duty,” she says.

PHO­TOS BY AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

El­iz­a­beth Mer­ritt, right, is the vice pres­i­dent for strate­gic fore­sight of the Amer­i­can Al­liance of Mu­seum’s Cen­ter for the Fu­ture of Mu­se­ums. “What a fu­tur­ist does is help peo­ple en­vi­sion a lot of dif­fer­ent po­ten­tial fu­tures,” she says. Be­low left is the al­liance’s head­quar­ters in Ar­ling­ton.

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