Updated: Apr 13, 2022
What can museums do to stay connected to the NFT generation? How can they prosper in the Metaverse? Can they cope with the transformative investment required? These are some of the recurring questions that come up in our conversations with museum owners and curators. We had the privilege to discuss these topics with Dr. Sandro Debono, a Museum Thinker, Culture Consultant, and Writer who provided us with insights, and foresight into the future of museums.
This is the second and final part of our interview.
Dr. Sandro Debono: SD
Block Meister (Etienne Verbist and Joël Céré): BM
BM: The Metaverse, blockchain… These could be huge investments for museums who are already short of funds. How will they be able to fund that to stay relevant?
SD: Covid reminded us of the problems that were already there but that we had chosen to ignore. Financial problems were there before COVID came around so was public relevance. In my opinion COVID has made us aware of the absurdity that a very good percentage of a museum’s revenue depend only on one revenue stream: ticketing. How many businesses would go for that risk?
There are museums in Singapore that have created spaces for start-ups to produce content, including NFTs. Why not? This is a new point of departure for a museum to become a producer of film or content. There are museums that have been working on patents with creatives. The big museums such as Tate have done it for quite some time. They get in touch with an up-and-coming designer, invite him to create products for them and they sell them. 10 years ago, they already had a turnover of $8M to $10M. There are so many possibilities. Think of the richness of data and knowledge that museums have.
Let alone that you only have 10% on display in terms of physical assets. 90% is in storage waiting to be used. In Rotterdam, there's this very interesting project where for the first time, the storage facility has taken the vestiges of a museum. It's a beautiful building. Very modern, very contemporary and it's a storage facility. You can visit, there are lectures, a cafeteria and so on and so forth. What museums need to think about is their huge potential, the huge assets that they hold in trust. And what they can do with these assets beyond exhibitions or lectures.
BM: It seems obvious that museums are sitting on a treasure chest of IP, heritage and content. Why are they not changing? What's stopping them?
SD: Most of the work I do today, which is essentially museum consultancy is essentially this. To help museum think. There are many reasons that are stopping them: First, there is tradition. It's much more difficult for the Louvres, for example, to do things than it is for a small museum in the Netherlands. I'm not saying Le Louvres is not innovative, they are doing interesting things too, but not to the full potential that a small museum can do.
And then there's the Ben Uri space. It is a tiny museum that competes for attention against the giants in London. They have reinvented themselves to create their own space, essentially using technology, way before COVID. They had the agility to adjust, adapt and not to say: “But we've always done it that way”. Now it is time to change. The museum idea was invented 2 centuries ago. Much has changed since.
BM: Could one of the reasons why museums are often reluctant to change is that they do not have many business people or entrepreneurial types as directors?
SD: Most museums are staffed with talents from traditional backgrounds. Fantastic in terms of governance, knowledge, etc, but they are not business minded. Museums need more entrepreneurs on their boards. Let's take digital for example. How do museums think about digital? They will get a digital department. They might hire the best people in town to create and invent. What happens next? They get siloed because the rest of the of the org chart doesn't understand the language of digital.
There is a big problem with translation, and it happens all the time. We need to talk about digital maturity. There's an interesting report published by the Knight Foundation stating that less than 10% of museum leadership comes with a digital background. The challenge starts with how such skills are bundled, or not, in education. Covid did not create problems for us. We had created them ourselves and we ignored them because we knew we will survive. BM: If you had a magic wand, what would you do to help museums see the opportunities we are discussing and seize them?
SD: Getting museums to understand that tradition is not cast in stone. I’d like to change the mindset. What really happened in those museums that came up with brilliant ideas? For example, Nathalie Bondil went viral on social media in Canada in 2018 for suggesting that doctors prescribe a visit to the museum as part of a cure. It's been done in Europe now, but the Canadians were ahead by many years. This campaign started because there was someone with a vision. Now the problem for those people is to have the right support. When that is lacking, you really need to push hard and to literally contaminate to get people to move out of their comfort zone, which is human nature. It's not easy because it's a culture change. And sometimes when these innovators move out, things tend to retract again. Systemic change is a challenge. It can be done but you need to keep working at it. It's always three steps forward, two steps back. Three steps forward. two steps back. It is not going to be fast.
Museums can be true to their values yet still be able to reinvent what they do. But you need to know where to plant the right seeds in the right pots.
This is the last part of an exclusive interview with Dr Sandro Debono. If you have questions you would like to ask, do not hesitate to contact us.