5 key insights into industry trends from the 2022 conference season

People gathered inside a large conference venue.

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At Art Processors, we recognise that thriving in the attention economy requires challenging the status quo through a process of ongoing innovation—and better yet, when we can collaborate with partners looking to do the same.

Our Business Development team has a constant eye on these possibilities, particularly within the museum space. With in-person industry events now happening with more regularity since 2019, we attended several regional conferences across the United States in October.

These events shared a commonality of themes. The Mountain-Plains Museums Association Conference (Oct 4-7) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, championed “Resilience and Reinvention: Embracing Change.” The Western Museums Association Annual Meeting (Oct 6-9) in Portland, Oregon, was unambiguously titled “FORWARD.” Echoing this, the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Annual Meeting (Oct 9-11) in Washington DC declared “ONWARDS! What’s Next?”

Like a pressure cooker of ideas and concerns, of introspections and observations, there was a palpable feeling of participants yearning to reconnect with their industry peers and unpack a plethora of post-pandemic thoughts. Here are our insights.

Insight 1: Museums getting back on deck through tech

When the pandemic forced the closure of exhibition spaces, institutions had no choice but to operate in a digital-only environment. This acceleration into online services and platforms resulted in museums introducing their content to an even wider audience, blurring the lines between physical and digital spaces of delivery.

This is an opportunity for evolution in how museums engage with visitors, both during and after a visit. As such, museums, galleries, and design firms will need to be cognisant of rapidly changing technologies. There is a desire for both evergreen experiences and for experiences that can be constantly changing—and in a cost-effective way, because museums are still rebounding from the pandemic. How can we help museums develop these experiences that can change over time?

We need to ask what can foster the desire to revisit a museum or exhibition, and how the experience can be continual. The takeaway experience must be accessible and captivating, and we want to work with organisations to create technologies to provide this engagement and continuity for the visitor.

Insight 2: The right partnerships can push boundaries

Our full-service design and technology offerings are a natural fit for museum storytelling, and our BD team is always looking for new ways to evolve our work through collaboration and crossover.

SEGD’s Xlab event (Oct 14) in New York City, run back-to-back with Branded Environments (Oct 13) at the Museum of the Moving Image, was the perfect forum to explore these kinds of partnerships. We teamed up with Electrosonic, Nanolumins and Pixera to sponsor the welcome reception for these two events, held at the Gagosian Gallery.

Given that Xlab is widely regarded as a leading symposium for exploring emerging technologies in experience design—with this year’s theme being “The Art of Storytelling”—raising our hand to support this event was an obvious choice.

Design firms have a greater presence at SEGD Xlab compared to the regional museum conferences, giving attendees a rare opportunity to step outside the arena of industry competition, “talk shop”, and learn from one another.

In continuing to engage with potential partners beyond the museum sector, our team also attended the IAAPA Expo (Nov 14-17) in Orlando, Florida, to examine the newest developments and technologies in the global attractions industry.

Insight 3: Visitor wellbeing is key

Immersive and engaging technology is often a strong takeaway for museum visitors, but the experience is rarely universal. Certain variables that contribute to a lasting impression, whether positive or negative, are sometimes overlooked in favour of design or mission principles. 

At the MAAM Annual Meeting in Washington DC, Sarah van Haastert, Group Director – Business Development, presented a talk on “When is an Experience too Immersive? Exploring Wellbeing and the Museum” together with staff from the Rubin Museum of Art, Virginia Commonwealth University, and English-Hudson Consulting. The talk explored how museums can ensure the personal, intellectual, social and physical wellbeing of visitors are nurtured as part of their experience.

As part of the presentation, Sarah and her colleagues provided a toolkit of wellness-based questions to ask themselves when approaching a new project. They urged attendees to be committed, to be vigilant in observing visitors and addressing feedback, and to not be afraid to fail.

Insight 4: Museums can be leading advocates for social activism

The past few years have been a radical test of our capacity for optimism, even beyond the pandemic. Racial injustices, deterioration of women’s rights, struggles for indigenous recognition, climate crises, just to name a handful—these developments challenged our ability to find that silver lining within a cloud of social division and political upheaval.

Unsurprisingly, but certainly as a matter of necessity, there was substantial focus on DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusivity) initiatives in the regional conference programs.

There is also an increasing push for institutions to engage with Indigenous peoples and culture beyond symbolic gestures. A simple land acknowledgement may be considered a meaningful step for some organisations in the early stages of recognition, but true collaboration should be looking beyond those statements into more tangible actions.

As storytellers and designers, we are privileged to work with museums as they increase representation of, and collaboration with, communities as part of this transformation. We can all start by doing our own research to understand the histories and contemporary realities of our diverse community members, and begin to build meaningful and equitable relationships from that grounding.

Insight 5: Reaching the community through co-creation

We also observed a desire to broaden the museum experience across the community. How are we reaching underrepresented audiences in unique ways? And in creating the museum, making the museum a more accessible place for all types of people and walks of life? This idea of the museum being an exclusive space is being reassessed.

The combination of technology and social activism may, in fact, propel the democratisation of exhibitions. A number of conference sessions addressed the idea of community co-creation, with plenty of discussions on taking the visitor experience out of the museum and into public spaces.

The museum experience doesn’t have to be limited to the walls of the institution itself. Exhibitions can be held in public locations, in unique areas not typically considered as exhibition spaces, where people are compelled to discover neighbourhoods and spaces they would not otherwise explore.

The idea of public installations is not a new concept, but leaning into representative community co-creation—and then bringing visitors back to the museum as a result—may become a trend we see in the future.

Seizing the moment with optimism

Our recent social disquiet gives us an opportunity to reset our compass and take action. There are few chances in life to look and act upon something with a fresh set of eyes, but emerging from the hardship of the pandemic is allowing us to do just that. This moment is ephemeral, however, and while we have shown our capacity to adapt to radically new ways of doing things, we also need to ensure we exercise this optimism before resigning ourselves to formulaic practices and routines.

If the momentum captured throughout the regional conferences can be sustained, we may be looking at a very different museum experience in the future. “Life will never be the same” has become a well-worn mantra of late, and while sometimes spoken with a tone of despondency, it can also—and perhaps should—become a pledge to our collective humanity as we turn an eye towards the future.

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.