R&D, or research and development, is commonly associated with innovation. Museums, traditionally, are not. Museums are associated with history. Even when displaying contemporary art, they look back into a recent history, not the future. Innovation demands looking into the future, conducting research into the unknown, without a concrete, expected outcome. A leap of faith.
I work for MoMA R&D (Research and Development), a department that was recently created by Paola Antonelli. MoMA R&D’s primary function is to look “into the future,” searching for bridges to connect museum and cultural sectors to the rapid social, economical, political, technological, and behavioral changes in our world. The question we ask ourselves is simple: how can museums be sustainable and relevant, and become new sites of R&D for society?
One might argue that innovation is related to business, technology, science, or design, but museums have all the tools to be more future oriented, more connected and active in their participation within the society at large—from policy making to social and cultural change. Museums are by nature research- and education-based institutions, displaying creative work across disciplines from art to science to history. We analyze culture, write about it, and discover creative innovators. As institutions, we are thoroughly entrenched in the “research” part of R&D. The “development” part is what I am looking for. Inspired by the conference I attended in Amsterdam, What Design Can Do, I came back with this burning question: What else can museums do for society?
When I set myself on this journey to understand innovation, ironically, I left the New World for the “old” continent. My quest: to see innovation where it happened, and bring back insights to make it happen here, inside a museum.
My first stop was the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, the apparent birthplace of “innovation” as we know it today. There I talked to Leah Armstrong, from the Research Department, and Kieran Long, Senior Curator of Design and author of the provocative “Curating for the Contemporary: 95 Theses.” As design and innovation walk hand-in-hand, I also visited three of the most important design schools in the world. At the Royal College of Arts in London, a conversation with the brilliant Jane Pavitt opened my eyes to where I should be heading in search of innovation: people. She connected me with other brilliant minds in Amsterdam and New York. At the Technology University, my talk with Stephan Wensveen and Oscar Tomico highlighted the human factor surrounding every interactive project they develop at the TU. Tet Reuver and Tonny Holtrust showed me how freedom is important in fostering a creative environment at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. I was pursuing innovation in its true sense, from concept to product, in the academic labs. These schools are all renowned for forward-thinking, radically conceptual, hyper-interactive design projects that push and stretch design to its limits—and beyond.
The next stop was NESTA, an innovation charity in the U.K., where Hasan Bakhshi is creating the ground for a scientific approach to museum and cultural institution R&D. His answer for cultural institution sustainability? Metrics. He is creating suitable metrics that encompass the complexities of the culture sector, beyond just numbers. How do you measure, for example, connections and projects generated as the result of an event?
I then spent two days getting inspired (and awestruck) at the What Design Can Do conference. Richard van der Laken, creative director and founder of the conference, brought together an array of creative ideas and thinkers from different walks of life: from the fashion giant Paul Smith, who actually started with almost nothing, to young designer Laduma Ngxokolo who brought African rituals and culture to the runway; from Architects being inspired by spiders to solve Venice’s oldest problem, to designers using algorithms to help chefs innovate when food pairing—making use of information from food molecules to generate database-style combinations.
Coming full circle, and back to museums, I had an online conversation with John Stack, head of “digital transformation” at Tate Modern. Inspired by the notion that digital is a dimension of everything, Stack is decentralizing it from the IT or digital media departments and creating a cross-institution digital culture. Educating old and new staff, executives or assistants, so they are up to date with the tools of our time.
As a result of my exploration, I found out that the most important factor for innovation is people—passionate, audacious, curious people. It seems clear that there are some keys underlining every innovative project: interdisciplinary approaches, collaboration, exposure to different ideas, community, belief, freedom, discipline, organization, lateral thinking, and the courage to question the status quo and see an idea through—no matter the scope or the resources at hand.