The museum of tomorrow: 8 things to know about cultural institutions in today’s society

Entertainment-based experiences, personal journeys, and community engagement are among the key themes that cultural institutions must embrace to stay relevant, write Gensler's Diana Lee and Richard Jacob.

May 13, 2015 |
The museum of tomorrow: 8 things to know about cultural institutions in today’s society

Digital Revolution at Barbican. Photo: Gensler

Last year, Gensler London’s Education and Culture practice area hosted its first roundtable debate on "The Future of Museums." It explored how museums, galleries, and cultural intuitions are evolving to develop new ways of attracting and energizing visitors.

The discussion brought together a diverse range of delegates to stimulate a varied and, at some points, controversial debate into the challenges cultural institutions face. It also highlighted eight key themes cultural institutions should embrace in order to thrive in today’s society. They are:

1. Crafting Personal Journeys: Individuals want to experience your institution in a personal way. Letting them craft their own journey means new narratives that speck directly to them are created. Individuals who experience your institution in this way become personally and emotionally connected to your institution, because of the links between themselves and what they experience.

Embracing new technologies and ways of accessing your institution digitally can help in creating these types of experience and allow users to essentially curate their own exhibitions.

2. Entertainment Based Experiences: An element of entertainment as well as education is vital for larger groups and audiences. Bland tours are counterproductive. Lively discussions and presentations that present detailed information in an entertaining way are highly satisfying. Intelligent and entertainment-savvy experiences will keep groups engaged throughout their visit. Exhibits that entice, mesmerize, and foster a sense of wonder makes your institution a vibrant, integral part of its city’s fabric.

Such tours could mean using performers to bring the information to life, allowing experts to express their lifelong passions or interactive exhibitions that give the users the chance to get involved.


Serpentine Pavilion late night event. Photo: Gensler


3. The Need for Flexibility: With society now working typically longer hours and museums generally closing too early. Flexible opening times can totally transform your institution and increase footfall. This could be based on paid exhibitions, events, appointments, shows, and selected openings. You could even allow other functions to be held within your institution.

Consider teaming up with event organizers and leisure groups who can help and advise on how to make this a profitable and beneficial venture rather than a drain on existing resources.

4. Seeking Community Engagement: Cultural institutions need to integrate with their communities. Doing so through community projects and programs will break down any social, economic, or intellectual barriers and ultimately make your museum more socially sustainable. While collaborating with local businesses, nonprofit organizations and charities could increase financial stability.

Collaborations can help promote both the exhibition and events you host, but also create new opportunities. If space is at a premium, consider that pop-up exhibitions and remote and off-site exhibits are a fantastic way to engage the local community in their own environment.

5. The Blurring of Boundaries: How can your institution can blur the boundaries between culture, lifestyle, and retail? What would your new role in society be? Your institution could act as a third space between home, work, and school; a social hub; or an entertainment hotspot. What would it need to fulfill that role and how would it fit your institution’s cultural history, philosophy, and ideology? If you were to explore those questions your institution could become a busy and exciting space in the city.

An institution that trades on its cultural roots but also taps into the retail and lifestyle genres will not only generate extra revenue but be extremely relevant to society.

6. Tourists Needs vs. Local Needs: The needs of tourists and locals are vastly different, but your institution needs to address both. Tourists are essentially visiting your "crown jewels." Locals need more in depth, detailed information, and a sense of the inner workings of your institution. Community engagement will be key in making your local users view themselves as stakeholders of your museum.

Tourists generate revenue but locals need to be engaged over the long term, as they will be your most vocal supporters and champions in the long run.

7. Embracing the Urban Scene: How does your institution sit within its environment? From traditional palace museums to modern, location-less galleries, there are a whole set of architectural forms that express the notion of a museum. Does your museum encourage guests to enter, or does it do the opposite? Examining how your "front door" effects your potential guests will be essential in finding out how your institution is viewed by the public.

Allowing for flexible architecture will encourage flexible future programming, while creating friendly "front doors" will encourage all elements of society to be potential visitors.

8. Online vs Offline Presence: Digital experience versus physical experience is a critical turning point in the future of all museums today. Your physical museum will attract viewers to the original exhibitions, artifacts, and shows, while your online museum will attract users who might have no possible opportunity to visit your institution.

Artists, media tech companies, and retailers are incorporating technology into their projects to create immersive experiences for users. Cultural institutions should make use of these technologies to portray and curate their exhibitions in new and inventive ways too.


Design Junction pop up exhibition at The Sorting Office. Photo: Gensler


Ultimately, staying relevant in today’s age will mean finding new audiences, creating new community social spaces, using technology in creative and effective ways, and generating revenue. To do this, cultural institutions will need to look outside themselves to the wider world and find examples of how society and other fields are changing and implement those changes in culturally specific ways. By doing this, cultural institutions can actually influence and guide this change for the better, and in so doing ensure that their voice is loud, clear, and most importantly relevant.

About the Authors: Diana Lee works closely with architects and engineers on projects from London to the Middle East, developing schemes from small private courtyard design to city-scale master planning. These projects often range from concept design stage to construction design stage. Diana is now part of the London Museums research team focused on the challenges museums and cultural institutions are facing and how these are being tackled and approached. Contact her at

Richard Jacob is an award winning architect who has worked on master planning projects both in the UK and the Middle East. Since joining Gensler he has been involved in creating architectural renderings and animations that have helped clients understand the scale and potential of a site. Richard is now part of the London Museums research team focused on the challenges museums and cultural institutions are facing and how these are being tackled and approached. Contact him at

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