Highlights from TrendsWatch 2017


The Center for the Future of Museums, the forecasting operation of American Alliance of Museums, has released their TrendsWatch for 2017. Every year, we look forward to this curated list of the most influential global movements. This annual list explores current social and technological trends and examines how they might play out for museums, while sharing examples of museums already embracing or addressing the topics.

CFM highlighted five trends for 2017: empathy, criminal justice reform, artificial intelligence, migration and refugees, and agile design. Why are these the trends to watch?


Tragically, studies show that our ability to empathize with others is declining on a global scale. The results of this are higher suicide rates and cultures of isolation, as individuals and communities seek to sequester themselves in bubbles of familiarity. The decline in empathy also has larger ramifications for the other trends CFM highlighted, including the worldwide refugee crisis and criminal justice reform.

What part can museums play?

Museums can play a significant role in encouraging the practice of empathy. Artistic, cultural, and historical exhibitions all allow us to better understand an individual or group. By interacting with the art and culture of other societies and historical civilizations, we gain a deeper understanding of their experiences, which in turn flexes our empathic muscles.

“Analysis of data from the US General Social Survey shows that engagement with the arts (including visiting museums) is predictive of civic engagement, tolerance, and altruism.”

CFM suggests that museums:

  • Embrace and focus their capacity for teaching empathy and social skills through exhibitions and workshops.
  • Create environments that foster dialogue and exposure to different cultures, beliefs, and experiences.

Check outEmpathy Museum, The Human Library, and The Museum of Broken Relationships.

Criminal Justice Reform

While countries around the world are reexamining what criminal justice means, this is an especially pressing issue for the U.S., which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While this issue may not directly affect museums, cultural institutions have enormous power to change public perceptions.

CFM suggests that museums:

  • Design exhibitions that focus on the idea of justice and spark dialogue about these issues while addressing the need for reform.
  • Take on a larger social role by acting as places of healing and “advocates for social justice.”
  • Review hiring practices, especially with regard to criminal background checks
  • Consider whether your security systems (including guards and bag checks) may intimidate or exclude segments of your audience.

Artificial Intelligence

AI has made incredible inroads in the areas of transportation and health care, and may even be able to tackle social issues such as poverty and homelessness. However, one of the most fascinating sectors that AI may revolutionize is education. AI-fueled educational models could make high-quality education accessible to students all over the world. As of now, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’sEducational Dominance program is using “digital tutors” to train Navy recruits.

As educational institutions, museums will likely be heavily impacted by advances in AI. AI will allow museums to efficiently manage the vast digital records they’ve amassed in recent years, while AI-powered interfaces may interact with visitors and answer questions based not only on the museum’s resources, but also the entire store of knowledge on the web. AI may even prove to be an incredibly effective tool for art authentication.

CFM suggests that museums:

  • Make use of this new technology within their own operations. Cognitive conversational technologies can help visitors access online resources and book tickets, while AI-powered personal digital assistants can streamline internal processes.
  • Help inform the public about AI technology while facilitating conversations about the future of AI.

“Museums can foster familiarity with AI and encourage discussion about the values we as a society will apply to laws, regulations, and ethics controlling the application of AI, as well as how we will respond to the resulting displacement of labor and income.”


Interested in learning more about how artificial intelligence will impact the museum field? We’ve covered the topic extensively in our paper, “Examining The Impact Of Artificial Intelligence In Museums.”

Migration and Refugees

The world is currently facing unprecedented mass migration and more than 65 million refugees. Refugees who are resettled face an uncertain future that may include learning a new language, finding work, adapting to an unfamiliar culture, and, increasingly, encountering unwelcoming attitudes from host communities. With all of the challenges that refugees face, communities need to stand up to prejudiced fears, and museums can play a critical role in this.

What part can museums play?

As cultural and educational institutions, museums can do so much to welcome refugees and ease their adjustments. Museums can support refugees and migrants by providing context and historical connections to refugees’ home countries through their exhibitions. Reflecting the histories and cultures of refugees in museum exhibitions can also help soothe the uncertainties of the host community by sparking dialogue and reflection.

CFM suggests that museums:

  • Seek to counter the “worst case scenario” often presented by the media by telling real stories and inviting immigrants to share their own histories.
  • Support immigrants in finding work, perhaps by adjusting their own hiring policies.

Check out the initiative from Berlin Museums and the German Culture Ministry

Agile Design

Agility is the ability to move swiftly and adjust quickly to obstacles and road-blocks. Traditionally a term associated with physical or mental acuity, the concept of agility has taken on expanded meaning in the business and technology world.

Instead of delivering polished finished products, companies are recognizing the value of releasing a product in progress, finding out what works, adapting to the feedback, then finalizing the product afterwards, all while acknowledging stumbling blocks or failures along the way for their ability to improve your process or product.

What part can museums play?

Of all of the trends highlighted this year, the concept of agile design falls furthest from museums’ traditional ethos. According to CFM:

“Museums are at risk of lagging dangerously far behind the rapid changes shaping audience, culture, and technology. The traditional time frame for major projects is too long for truly responsive design.”

And yet, as with all social movements, museums have the potential embrace and address the trend, all while shaping its future course.

CFM suggests that museums:

  • Incorporate design thinking in the development of new projects and exhibits.
  • Encourage creativity and risk-taking within their traditional organizational structure, perhaps by dedicating a small fund to innovative projects or designing an experimental “lab” for developing new ideas.
  • Share their own experiences with failure to help remove the stigma.
  • Incorporate positive stories of failure within their exhibits.

Keep an eye on how these trends play out in 2017 and beyond!

Download the full CFM TrendsWatch 2017 report here.

Has your museum taken steps to incorporate or adapt to any of these trends? Let us know!

Further reading:

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