the future of the museum in asia

For more than two millennia, museums have been a defining feature of high civilisation, from the earliest recorded in the Neo-Babylonian Empire around 530 BC, to the iconic Tate Modern in London. They are a paradoxical phenomenon, at one and the same time a preserver of past culture and a shaper of contemporary culture. Witness the huge influence of classical Greek art in private collections on the Renaissance.

But that span from the Neo-Babylonian museum of Princess Ennigaldi to the Tate Modern defines another important contrast. Back in the day, museums served primarily as private collections meant only for the enlightenment of the elite, while commoners were widely deemed undeserving of such pleasures. Museums were largely the preserve of the rich – in fact, one way for elite individuals to elevate their social status was to become collectors and organise large-scale showcases. In a nutshell, while art was widely acknowledged to be of educational benefit, access to it was determined wholly by one’s social class.

From private to public, from novelty to knowledge
Over time, museums have become increasingly public-oriented, catering to a non-selective set of visitors. The Ashmolean museum, founded in 1683, was lauded by many as the first modern museum that was truly public. For the first time in history, men, women and children from all walks of life were free to enter the Ashmolean and view its exhibits. By the early 19th century, unrestricted public access to formerly private collections became more and more common, signalling the slow but sure transformation of museums into centres intended for public good.

This evolution of a more public reformist agenda increased, and visiting museums came to be seen as a form of cultural education enlightening society as a whole, enabling people to understand themselves better, as well as peoples and cultures from other times and places. They also became a major force driving tourism too, as travellers flocked to popular museums in countries they visited.

New purpose, new paradigm
As we have said above, museums by their very nature have always been shapers and catalysts of culture, even as they preserve what has gone before. Today, that culture-shaping role has come to the fore and become more intentional. And this change is driving a new paradigm shift in the way collections are exhibited and promoted, and in the way museums interact with each other. Even as museums continue to compete for visitors and funding, they are becoming much less inward-looking and much more interactive with their peers. Museums are increasingly collaborating with each other and institutions outside the sector, in the common pursuit of shared knowledge. In this way we are seeing the growth of a museum ecology.


Inside the museum, there has been a move towards a more engaging presentation of the exhibits, along with a blurring of the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Gone are the days of mute exhibits in dusty glass cabinets, making the appreciation of them a challenge. Gone also is the expectation that visitors must first come to the museum. Now, the modern-day museum reaches out to the public using multiple channels, and within the museum is bringing the exhibits alive, placing visitors at the core of the experience.

The museum experience has progressed from just being a monologue, into one that is more dialogue-oriented and two-way. One where the museum is an arena for interaction between artwork, visitor, museum and society.

For example, drawing the above two strands together, in the UK recently a group of museums and galleries in Yorkshire launched a marketing campaign to promote art collections at 35 venues across the county. The campaign chose not to shout about how great the art in these museums and galleries was, but instead asked the public to participate in the campaign by sharing stories about their favourite works. Then at London’s Natural History Museum, their “Extinction: Not the End of the World?” exhibition invited visitors to share their thoughts about extinction on leaf-shaped paper and pencils at the end of the exhibit. These “leaves” were featured in a dedicated seating area enabling everyone to read one another’s comments.

Here we can begin to see the museum becoming a rallying point for communities to reflect, discuss, collaborate and flourish. We can also see more clearly the huge potential for museums to become an agent of change, in which a sense of cultural identity and self-awareness is promoted.


The Universe and Art Princess Kaguya by teamLab at Mori Art Museum, Japan, image courtesy of teamLab

Museums in the SE Asian context
So far we’ve been looking at the development of the museum and a museum culture in a western context, where the concept has been evolving over two millennia, and there is much public and private support. But what do all the above trends mean for the future of the museum in an Asian context, and in particular, in South East Asia?

First of all it must be acknowledged that the history of their development in this region is much more recent – it began little more than 100 years ago, so in that sense the sector is still in its infancy. Secondly, a brief survey across SE Asia would reveal that there is little support for the idea of a museum (in the modern sense of the word), both from the public and private sector…even though there is a rich tapestry of regional culture and art – both past and present – to preserve and celebrate. Consequently there isn’t a strong museum culture in the region, although there are exceptions, for example in Singapore and to a lesser extent, the Philippines.

There are two reasons for this lack. First because of the limitations of cultural and art education in the region, and the lack of international exposure to global trends in cultural development. This has knock-on effects in the appreciation of art and culture in society as a whole. Related to this is the second reason – the absence of a cultural infrastructure, for across SE Asia there are pitifully few public museums with the right stature and facilities to showcase art or culture in a meaningful way. Private organisations have tried to fill the gap, but have failed miserably due to a chronic lack of proper space, funding support or curatorial expertise.

But bearing in mind the power of the museum as both a preserver and catalyst of culture, the potential is there to create an outlet for a kind of regional flowering and celebration of culture, particularly in the visual arts, at just the right moment in SE Asian history.

With a growing middle class characterised by rising levels of education, cultural awareness and disposable income, as well as exposure to global cultural trends through the internet and social media, we believe now is a moment of opportunity for SE Asia. By which we mean, a chance to create a regional museum ecology and a growing appreciation of regional art and culture using lessons learnt from the development of the museum in more mature contexts.

But to truly realise that ambition, it is important for the modern SE Asian museum to become a forum in which art, artists and the public are brought together in a way which facilitates the growth of a vibrant culture. Which means to foster learning and cultural development in the context of a two-way conversation, as well as to create a platform for regional art, artists and curators.

We believe the following trends in the evolution of the modern museum in more mature markets are key to the development and success of the museum in SE Asia.


Natural History Museum, London, image courtesy of SEGD – The Society for Experiential Graphic Design

From top down to bottom up
Today, engaging the public in the museum experience is not seen as an added value, but as the central purpose for all that the museum is built around. And this paradigm shift matches the spirit of the age. Not only are the millennial generation in Asia more interested in social interaction and self-discovery than more traditional learning, the internet and social media have democratised learning to the extent that everyone is becoming their own ‘curator’. So museums today have to embrace a style of interaction that is less didactic and more bottom-up. They have to recognize that as sites of dialogue they have a responsibility to encourage and facilitate an evolving conversation where museum, artists and visitors – whether inside or online – are linked in a three-way dialogue. So museum spaces need to move beyond simply showcasing exhibits to include activities that help visitors learn, engage and discuss. Engagement, learning, experience, enjoyment, inspiration; these are essential elements of the modern museum.

From highbrow to high tech
The realisation that public engagement is their central purpose is driving a revolution in the way that museums are displaying their exhibits. Museums are tearing down their walls. Combined with the explosion of the internet and the advent of the social media generation, user experience design and cutting-edge interactive tools are enabling exhibition designers to transform museum displays into agile and responsive platforms for information exchange and social engagement. The modern museum needs to allow not only for interaction with audiences both inside and outside the museum, but also for flexible, updatable exhibits that can respond to and dialogue with social media savvy visitors on a continuous basis. From simple mobile apps that enable a more fulfilling museum experience, to aggregator platforms where museum-related discourses flow fast and free amongst artists, curators, academics and laymen, technology has become fundamental to the museum experience. This is not just a strategy to stay current, technology has become a key enabler of the social mission of the museum – the democratisation of learning.

From competition to collaboration
In the past, museums – particularly those in private hands – have been very parochial and competitive in their outlook, competing for visitors and donors. Added to that, it’s in the nature of museums and academia to have a silo mindset – everyone is an expert in his own specialist area, and is not aware of anyone else. While this is understandable, it hinders the dissemination of knowledge, because no single museum can claim to be ‘the definitive museum’. It is crucial that museums bind together in a collaborative network of influence, pool their resources and work together to create a shared resource aimed at deepening knowledge for everyone. In the future therefore, museums will be built on collaborations. Collaborations between other museums, universities, libraries, government bodies, visitors, sponsors, donors and communities. In this way, museums will become cultural networks that everyone can access and feel part of.

From irrelevance to influence
The current SE Asian context is best characterised by its growing middle class and young demographic, but with a very low awareness of the value of the museum, or a museum culture. If museums in Asia are to fulfil their true potential as shapers and catalysts of culture, they will need to promote the concept and value of the museum, and explain why it matters. In this aspect the importance of branding cannot be overestimated. Museums will need to brand themselves in a manner which explains their social and educational relevance to a young Asian audience. The focus of the branding here is not just on the collection or standing out from the competition, but about revealing the incredible power of museums as agents of learning and social change. Whether it’s highlighting the unique and vibrant cultures in which they are situated, or serving as forums for dialogue around the provocative issues of our time, museums are not just witnesses to history, they are a force shaping the social future.

This last point brings our earlier discussion back to the fore. In light of the nature of the modern museum as a shaper of contemporary culture, museums, governments and private benefactors in Asia need to wake up and take a good hard look at what they are doing. To realise the social and educational power of museums, a revolution in the way they are conceived, designed and branded is required, but a revolution that benefits all, not just the wealthy elite. The benchmarks are all there.