Thursday, August 27, 2009

Please Touch the Objects: The Future of Museum Accessibility

CFM Council Member Day Al-Mohamed and I recently led a forecasting session at the Leadership and Excellence in Accessible Design Conference at the Kennedy Center. (An earlier post on the CFM blog solicited your input for this session. Thank you to those who contributed!)

We used a fairly standard format for a mini-tour of the future for any given issue. You can use it at your workplace, too:

• Start by questioning assumptions to free up your thinking about where trends may take us, and how the future could be different than the past.

• Examine and discuss data on trends related to the issue (for this session, we examined trends related to disability and accessibility in the areas of technology, medicine, demographics, and internal museum culture.)

• Generate, discuss and comment on scenarios based on the trends and your own knowledge of the field. (In this post about the MANY conference last spring I described this part of the process in more detail.)

I continue to be haunted by one of the assumptions that Day and I challenged our audience to question: the assumption that when museums balance preservation with access, preservation prevails.

To see how deeply embedded this assumption is in museum culture, consider these examples that I have experienced or heard about in my career:

• An exhibit is lit with annoyingly low light levels even though the artifacts on display are reproductions. Why? Because “that’s our standard” and “if the light levels are higher here, people will expect it everywhere.”

• A museum bans photography on the grounds that flash photography could harm the artifacts, when most of the specific artifacts in question are not light sensitive. Nina Simon recently did a good job of questioning this practice on multiple fronts.

Another good one from Nina: guards who stop people from interacting with exhibits designed to be interactive, because of course people shouldn’t touch things in a museum. Here’s a recent post by Colleen Dilenschneider with a further twist on this: a guard is fired for interacting with a piece of interactive art.

These examples show how deeply the presumption in favor of preservation is encoded in our current thinking. But what if, in the future, the paradigm flipped to favoring access? Ridiculous, you think? Maybe, but consider factors that could impel such a sea change:

• A shift in consumer expectations. Due to museums increasing commitment to transparency, and the rise in on-line cataloging, the public is better informed about the vast number of collections in storage that they don’t get to see, and will probably never get to see. Those who pay the bills set the rules—what if they want to touch the stuff?

• An increase in visual and cognitive impairments. The trends data Day and I examined make it clear this will happen—certainly an increase in the number of people with access needs related to disabilities, probably an increase in the proportion of the population as well. Say we got to a point where over 50% of our audience has such impairments. Would that change the way we think about “accommodation?”

• The rise of the virtual, and an increasing desire to interact with the real thing. Every forecasting exercise we have run projects that in the future, people will spend more time spent immersed in virtual worlds. Optimists predict a backlash that benefits museums, as people increasingly value time spent with the real thing. But, as the quality of virtual representations increases, as it will, how will that change our standards for assessing a real experience? How does getting to (virtually) put your nose two inches from a very high quality visual representation stack up against looking at the real thing, behind glass, from a couple feet away? How does being able to “touch” an object with virtual sensors compare to being told “don’t touch” the real thing? To compete with increasingly sophisticated virtual replicas, museum may have to let people have a “real” experience that can’t be duplicated.

• A shift in people’s thinking about time frame. Projections of the imminent collapse of human civilization, are not hard to find. Unlike the perpetual recurring doomsday theorists, these folks may have a point. The arc of human growth and resource consumption is, in the long run, unsustainable. And it is far more common for animal populations (human or otherwise) to collapse than to stabilize, when they exceed their environment’s carrying capacity. In any case, the question is, what if people come to believe that this is true? That civilization as we know it doesn’t have hundreds of years left, much less thousands? In that context the public might not care so much about preservation of objects for putative posterity. They might put more value on the immediate gratification of being able to touch, stroke, handle, manipulate original material.

Suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and roll with me on this one. If in the future access trumps preservation, how would museums change? How would you decide which artifacts still warrant preservation for all time, and how do you make that case? Then take a hard look at your existing collections: what things could be touched, or brightly lit, without permanent harm, and which would not be a permanent loss to humanity were they destroyed, through handling, in a few decades of use? Bends your brain, doesn’t it?…

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Crowdsource the Museum?

I got hooked by the title of this blog post--Get Ready to Participate: Crowdsourcing and Governance—energized by a momentary leap of hope that it was going to be about nonprofit governance. It’s not, but it’s still really interesting. Daren C. Brabham offers his thoughts about potential public applications for crowdsourcing—the process of opening up problem solving through online participation. The “crowd” (a large number of unregulated contributors) both generates potential solutions/designs/ideas and rates/vets those of others. This has turned out to be a very, very useful and powerful tool in the for-profit sector, and in his post Brabham talks about some projects that take crowdsourcing into the realm of government. Patent review, for example, and the design of municipal bus stops.

But what about the potential for crowdsourcing in the nonprofit realm? Museums are past masters of the community meeting, advisory groups and open forums to get input on various decisions. But, as Brabham points out, such formats actually often involve relatively few voices in the decision-making process. And many people feel inhibited, in such settings, from speaking up and contributing their best ideas. (Or they are drowned out by people who feel no such inhibitions.)

Some museums are already experimenting with crowdsourced design. Here is a project to crowdsource the design of merchandise to sell through museum stores. Most of the examples I know of, though, are in the realm of exhibit development. The Minnesota Historical Society’s MN150 exhibit was partially crowdsourced. They held open nominations for the 150 people to be featured in their sesquicentennial exhibit, but the final selection was by committee. The only entirely crowdsourced exhibit I know of is Click from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In that exhibit, an open call for photographs was followed by crowdsourced jury selection and installation of the work according to their relative ranking in the juried process. Brooklyn approached this as a research project, however, as much as an exhibit, and the photos were presented as data, not art per se. (I encourage you to read this thoughtful commentary by Nina Simon on the exhibit.)

So, what are other processes in which museums might productively employ crowdsourcing? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Institutional Planning. If an organization wants to serve the community, what better way to find out what the community wants it to do than to ask? Provided with some basic background information (mission, financial snapshot, overview of challenges and resources) it would be very interesting to see what kind of plan would be created by a community of users interested enough to weigh in.

2) New building/expansion design. Often the museum is asking the community (both as individuals and through government support) to help build these structures. Why not let them participate in designing a structure that would fit their needs? It might be challenging to figure out how to brief crowdsourcers on the programmatic needs of the building. Then again, could it be much worse than trying to get a “name” architect to pay attention to these needs?

3) Collections planning. Museums that exist to document their community’s history too often end up documenting a narrow version of that history that reflects the backgrounds and inclinations of the founder(s), governing body, staff and volunteers. If this group is not broadly representative of the community, the museum is in danger of spiraling into irrelevance. What would community members suggest the museum collect were they asked? Perhaps they could be invited to create, critique and curate a virtual collection representing the stories and heritage they feel are worth preserving, and the museums could then build the real collections around that framework. (The flip side of creating a virtual collection that mirrors the existing real collection!)

What museum decisions or processes do you think are amenable to crowdsourcing? And do you know of any museums that are already doing this? Please do tell…

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More News from the Future--Today

Next in our series of “tomorrow’s news today”—this article from the New York Times about the National Geographic Society’s archives plan to sell its original black and white prints, and, later color photographs. While the initial sale taking place now in New York includes only 150 prints, Maura Mulvihall, VP of the society’s image collection and sales, is quoted as saying that National Geographic has “decided to hold nothing of that collection back if the right buyers were interested.”

Evidently it’s difficult to paint too bleak a picture of the future. In the forecasting game Superstruct, players envisioned the future of museums in 2019. One of the predictions was:

“Some archives, after creating electronic copies, are auctioning off original documents, both to build their endowments to support basic operations and because they cannot provide adequate security in the face of escalating theft. This has created enormous tension between the economics savings of going digital, and the unique strength of museums as purveyors of authentic experience and guardians of the real.”

Interestingly enough, the society does not cite financial distress as an impetus for the sale. The article implies that its motivation is altruistic—making the collection more accessible to the public. Noting what a pity it is that many of their 11 million images have only been seen by the society’s archivist, the society decided to “open up the holdings to the fine art market” with the goal of “find(ing) a way to get it out into the world.”

Does this mean this resource, which Mulvihall describes as “vast and amazing,” will be lost to the public and to researchers? Not to worry—the society is digitizing their images, which they note has “cleared the way” for them to sell the originals. (Note the jury is still out on how long digital images will last, not to mention the ongoing an escalating costs of migrating digital files to new formats over time so that they can still be read.)

And to answer the question that museum professionals will inevitably raise—revenue of the sales, the article says, will “support the overall mission of the society.”

Sneak Preview of a New Museum Game

CFM has from its inception has explored what museums can learn from games, and game design. In this guest post, John Maccabee, of San Francisco based CityMystery, gives readers an early glimpse into the creation of a new, multi-museum alternate reality game (ARG), PHEON, that will enlist players to help the participating museums explore mission-based themes.

For the past couple of months CityMystery has been building a new game, called PHEON. (A pheon is an ancient Greek arrowhead that has come to symbolize nimbleness of wit.) The purpose of our game is to celebrate (and reinforce) the American impulse to innovate. An economist friend of mine recently said that we have to “invent” our way out of our current mess. With PHEON I am promoting the idea that Americans understand innovation as a reoccurring utility of our democracy, one that matches our ability to adapt and succeed. PHEON’s subtext has to do with how ideas are passed along: how one person articulates a wish that another fulfills.

PHEON is also a story about transformation, which is the subtext of all innovation. Narratives don't arise all at once – they develop incrementally through character and situation, and a lot of what I have been doing lately (as we pick up sponsorship) is tell and retell the story, editing and embellishing as I go, which feeds the game, which feeds the story, and so on and so forth. PHEON is a multi-institution, mission-based game - with missions emanating from the expertise of participating institutions and agencies. What that means is, let’s say, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has a robust folk art collection, and the missions it may choose to sponsor focus on folk art, or any other collections they want to feature.

A game element that worked well for our first game with Smithsonian American Art Museum, Ghosts of a Chance, asked players to make artifacts for the game, which has given rise to what I refer to as maker-players. A rule of thumb for ARGs is that at any given time you can find that 1% of players are playing daily (the maker-players). 10% are participating, attending to the game, on a twice or three times weekly basis and the vast majority are what hardcore ARG-ers call "watchers." It is why ARG demographics trend 18 to 45 and older. Some players enjoy the "display" of the game, just watching the story unfold. With PHEON we're designing a game that appeals to makers, participants and watchers by programming on as many platforms as possible – from websites to 3G phones - and the way I have been explaining it lately is to have people think of the following syllogism: Sitcoms and hour series are to TV (cable and network) as ARG-like games like PHEON are to mediums like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc., using social media as narrative tools. For instance, in we had six in-game characters, four of which were dead (ghosts) who were all killed on the same night in 1858. But two of the characters, Daniel Libbe and Daisy Fortunis, existed in the present as young curators who were compelled (by ghosts) to curate a show called Ghosts Of A Chance. We established characters in terms players understand, on plausible Facebook and MySpace pages, with actors playing (blogging, vlogging and friending) as their in-game characters. What was surprising to me was the amount of interaction that occurred, especially on Daisy's page, and most especially among women. While some of the conversations are postings from people who have linked all their networks, much of it is an adhoc meeting place, where a woman can offer that she "has red shoes that she loves but are killing her feet," and others suggest alternatives.

All of us, players, participants and watchers, are created to consume and produce narrative. It is what we mean when we say that our lives have meaning; our lives fit into either someone else’s recognizable story, or one of our own invention, and even then (at the very least) our individual stories appropriate themes that came before.

Finally, the puppet masters of PHEON will require apprentices … we’ll be calling …

John Maccabee can be reached at

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Questioning Assumptions: the Future of Education

The recent CFM posts about museum studies (here and here) have spun off in all sorts of interesting directions, including discussions at New Curator and MJ Writes. People propose that graduate programs should guarantee jobs for graduates, that AAM take a position on salaries (should AAM start a union, folks?), and debate the importance of experience (volunteer work, internships) relative to a degree.

But as a good futurist in training, I am going to leap over these arguments and question the underlying assumption—the continued importance of formal, site-based certification programs in general.

There is widespread dissatisfaction with the U.S. educational system, with criticism coming from both inside and outside the system. Clearly there is an impetus for change. For a good overview of trends that will shape the future of education see:

The Map of Future Forces by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and the Institute for the Future.

The National Education Association's scenarios on the future of education

The Spellings Commission report and ensuing discussion

The challengers to the traditional educational models range from
slice and dice educational programs that offer a menu of training in highly targeted, specific skills to students to a host of online experiments. An article by Anya Kamenetz, “How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education,” is a whirlwind survey of some of the efforts to provide an alternative to the time-honored, debt-ridden college/graduate degree programs, including such organizations as the OpenCourseWare Consortium that provide free, online educational resources.

But education in the virtual world is leaping beyond provision of online content. Flat World Knowledge also provides volunteer mentors to grade and comment on work, provide certificates of course completion, and experiments with different formats, such as classes with an online role-playing format. Peer2Peer University provides an open community of online study groups. This thoughtful post by Leslie Madsen-Brooks at WestMuse explores the use of social media for continued professional development.

Taken all together, these changes encourage us to take a fresh look at the changing educational landscape. Maybe the question isn’t “should museums hire museum studies graduates?” or “how do we attract a diverse matriculating class to our MS programs?” but “what will education and certification look like in the future?” And how can museums help shape these new options, and contribute content to the proliferation of free or low-cost online resources training the next generation?

So here is my mini-forecast of the future of education (keeping in mind that I am not an expert in educational trends, but maybe this will provoke comments from people who are):

In 2034, 25% of K-12 and 40% of secondary school is delivered through online programs and resources. Learning cadres based on age are a thing of the past, and standardized tests are the touchstone for assessing achievement. Homeschooling has gone mainstream, particularly for teenagers, with informal consortia of families banding together to create learning groups that design curricula and access content from a variety of sources. Classwork takes place both online and dispersed in the community—often at libraries and museums. The attainment of college degrees peaked in 2020 and has steadily declined ever since. In the wake of the mergers and closings of colleges following the economic collapse of 2008, traditional four-year colleges continued to dwindle in number and importance. Well-established, well-endowed private universities continue to thrive but occupy an increasingly elite niche. State colleges have steadily diminished in funding (and enrollment.) Community colleges, for-profit educational colleges, virtual colleges and skill- and discipline-specific certification programs fill the breach. The last decade has seen an increasing number of students mainstream into the workforce in their late teens and early twenties, rounding out their training throughout their life through continued education from a variety of sources.

So, what do you think?

If you agree this may be true, why?

If you disagree, and what is your forecast?

In this scenario, how would training in museums studies best be delivered?

And, most importantly, do you see this as a positive development (in which case how can we help it come to pass), or negative (in which case, how can we head it off)?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Future of History Museums

I encourage you to browse these interesting posts created in preparation for a workshop on the future of history museums being held now at Brown University, organized by Steve Lubar and Kym Rice. Dan Spock suggests that perhaps "in pursuing our trade with relentless logic, we've cauterized something in our own souls," and, as an antidote, encourages museums to embrace nostalgia. Ron Chew raises important questions facing history museums, including the impending demise of fixed category museums and the need to create shared collections. Bill Adair celebrates playful and innovative behavior in history museums, including the integration of beer into the culture of the National Trust's Cliveden (they now have a curator of collections and fermentation), and comic webisodes about Abe Lincoln presented by the Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Explaining the background of the workshop, Lubar tells me "We would like the meeting – someplace between a conference, a conversation, and a workshop – to address a range of aspects of history museums, including collections, interpretation, and audience. We are interested in the high-tech future and new forms of institutions as well as in more traditional presentations and connections. We’d like to look at the past, to learn from successes and failures, as well as to the future. We think that it might be time to reconsider the goals and purposes of the history museum, or at least to think hard about what those are. We’re interested in reconsidering the boundaries of the history museum, how it might collaborate with other institutions."

I hope they publish the proceedings. Anyway, it already makes for good reading. You can also follow the progress of the conference on Twitter--#historymuseums

Where the Boys Aren't

My colleague Elizabeth Merritt's last blog post noted two facts in passing that deserve to be linked together more closely: the dominance of women in museum studies programs and the significant cadre of museum studies graduates who are "unhappy that they are underpaid compared to the jobs they could get with their level of education."

As a new study by Ohio State sociologist Donna Bobbitt-Zeher shows, the increasing feminization of any academic field can be (and usually is) associated with lower salaries. Bobbitt-Zeher also shows that "[college] majors that are more popular with women are becoming increasingly dominated by women"—which is just as true for master's-level programs like museum studies (see below) and public history. In other words, museum studies is part of the larger problem of academic gender segregation. As a result, museums should probably be thinking about ways to recruit more male employees and to encourage a better balance among the various academic domains with proactive counter-programming (e.g., more vigorous offerings of, say, science programs for little girls and humanities programs for little boys). These recruitment efforts should be part of the same pipeline from museum-struck 7-year-olds to museum workers. Plus, a higher percentage of male workers in museums could raise the salaries for everyone.

Also, here's an addendum to Elizabeth's suggestion that museums recruit employees more actively from their communities. It comes from a 1972 report that AAM prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Museums: Their New Audience):
"[Our Committee recommends] the institution of training programs designed to open careers in museum work to persons and groups who would otherwise never have the chance to even to consider such careers, these programs to aim at the very young as well as the more mature and to be aimed at eliminating the academic barrier."
File under "some things never change."

Phil Katz
Assistant Director for Research, AAM

Friday, August 7, 2009

More on the Future of Museum Studies

I recently contributed to a discussion hosted by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum/Parsons School of Design on the future of museums and what a museum studies program there could do to benefit future museum professionals. I wasn’t able to attend the physical conference in New York on June 22, but I spoke with Sarah Lawrence, director of education at the Cooper Hewitt phone, before and after and read the blog recording the thoughts of attendees. Here are three points that evolved from these discussions:

Start Before the Students Matriculate

What is the responsibility of museums and museum studies programs to shape the composition of the field? Right now, we are about 80 percent Caucasian and 80% female. This creates two unhappy groups: museums as employers who want more diverse staff and complain that they cannot attract ethnically/culturally diverse, qualified candidates and museum studies graduates bearing large amounts of debt from student loans, who are unhappy that they are underpaid compared to the jobs they could get with their level of education.

These parallel problems suggest a potential solution. Stop hiring museum studies graduates. Museums could go instead to their local high school or community college, whose students are more likely to reflect the composition of their community and neighbors, and convince some of the best and brightest students that museums can be a good career choice. They could offer to support the students’ continued education (including specialized museum training) on the job, and if they need other kinds of support (day care, flexible hours, transportation allowances), provide that as well. We may well find a cadre of bright, diverse young adults for whom the salary you offer is competitive with their alternatives, while the work might be a hell of a lot more interesting.

If the norm continues to drift towards a museum studies degree being a prerequisite for museum work (though I am not sure that we are moving in that direction), then I think that museum studies programs bear some responsibility for actively recruiting a diverse student body. Again, this may mean actively courting diverse students on their home turf, providing scholarships, lining up work-study opportunities and convincing these young people that museum jobs (curation, education, registration) are desirable careers.

Mainstream the Students

With the plethora of social media available to connect students to the wider community, why not do so from the beginning of their training? If students are going to be asked to do research, they should be encourage to a) open it up for ruthless peer review of its quality and utility and b) share the results online in an indexed, organized way so that it doesn’t add to the overwhelm body of gray (unpublished) literature that hides in files doing no one any earthly good. Besides, once students are encouraged to reach beyond the boundaries of their program, via the Internet, they could begin their apprenticeships with museums from day one. Pair each student with a small museum that needs help researching collections, maintaining its website, developing marketing material, etc. Or encourage them to enroll as virtual volunteers with larger museums that have the resources to coordinate sophisticated online projects in design, data collection or analysis. A few museum graduate programs – notably the program at Johns Hopkins University – are already moving online.

Reevaluate the Curriculum

I continue to think the most valuable foundation for almost any museum-specific position (registration, curation, education) is a deep grounding in some area of expertise. Any area of expertise, in fact—art, history, the taxonomy of wombats. The drawback is that many people who self-select to delve deeply into, for example, wombat anatomy, are as one friend of mine so gracefully put it, “independent knowledge workers.” They are frequently introverted, work well on their own and have been trained through the process of academic natural selection to fiercely defend their theories and positions and test those of others by ruthlessly questioning. In other words, they may not fit easily into an environment that depends on teamwork, as museum do. This mismatch is compounded by the fact that, as discussed in the CFM report “Museums & Society: Trends and Potential Futures,” we are entering an age in which people don’t just want to be lectured to by experts, they want to contribute and curate their own content. In this environment, curators may evolve from being lecturers and authors to being moderators of discussions and editors of content. This requires a different set of soft skills, and calls for a different set of training. Is this something that can be provided at the graduate level in an academic environment, or is it best learned (and consciously taught) on the job?

As always, I hope to provoke you to respond. So, you recent museum studies graduates—was the debt worth the degree? What training was the most useful, and what in retrospect do you wish had been included in the curriculum? And museum employers—are you looking to museum studies programs as your primary source of future workers? And if you are actively trying to recruit a more diverse professional workforce, what are your strategies?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Train as a Futurist!

Three upcoming opportunities to get some futurist training:

The Symposium on the Future is an on-line conference presented the New Media Consortium (NMC) October 27–29, 2009. Particularly aimed at educators and creatives, the conference will explore the "actual and potential applications of technology that could impact issues of global importance over the next five years and beyond." Keynote speakers will include Gardner Campbell of Baylor University; Beth Kanter, social media activist; and invited speaker Anne Haywood, NMC program consultant to the National Geographic Society.

If you are interested in something a little more broad ranging, consider the
2010 annual meeting of the World Futures Society which will be held July 8-10 in Boston, Mass. I went last year, and it was an interesting blend of professional futurists (largely marketing their services to the energy industry), academics, interested amateurs and, of course, my favorite futurist fringe element, the Transhumanists.

And, if you want to go hard core, I highly recommend the
Certificate in Strategic Foresight at the University of Houston's Futures Studies program. This 5-day, project-based, face-to-face workshop is being offered Jan 11-15, 2010. The graduate program in Futures Studies at the University of Houston is led by Dr. Peter Bishop, who is a member of the CFM Council.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Next Generations

Eric Meade, on the Authentic Futures Blog, has forecast the coming generations. Applying Strauss and Howe's theory of a cycle of four “types” of generations, Meade looks forward the next 50 years to forecast what he dubs the Globals (2004-2026) and the Spirituals (2027-2049) and speculates on their world view and behavior. James Chung and Susy Wilkening write in "Life Stages of the Museum Visitor" how different generations interact with museums in characteristic ways. Take a look at Meade's article, and think about how the characteristics he forecasts for coming generations may shape our field.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Forecasting the Future of Accessibility in Museums

I am getting ready for a presentation at the Leadership and Excellence in Accessible Design (LEAD) conference to be held at the Kennedy Center later this month. The presentation will ask and try to answer two big questions—what will the accessible museum of the future look like, and what do we have to do now to create it?

Usually I approach forecasting by applying my imagination to the current trends, and projecting them into the future to tell “what if” stories. This works pretty well with areas of operations in which I have been immersed (collections care, for example, or finance.) It’s harder with areas in which I have no “hands-on” experience, like accessible design. So, what does one do nowadays when one runs up against limits of knowledge or imagination? Crowdsource, of course!

That’s where you come in! Be my collaborators on the presentation, and contribute your experience, intuition and imagination. Here are a few of my thoughts about trends in relevant areas, offered mostly to fuel yours:

  • Museums—I think we have made slow progress in the last couple decades, impelled largely by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most museums (even the smallest historic house) make at least a nod to accessible design. Some excel. But my impression is that the progress is mostly incremental, and sadly insufficient. When I talk to people who need accommodation, I mostly hear frustration about the ragged edges of museums’ efforts. For example, a friend who uses a guide dog has stories of being hassled in museums, not because they didn’t have the right policies in place, but because not all the floor staff were well trained.
  • Disability—the data I have reviewed suggests a slow increase in the number of Americans with disabilities, mostly tied to a population bulge as Baby Boomers reach their golden years. There are a few trends that might lead to increased rates of certain problems—the “obesity epidemic,” for example and the disorders that come with it, including impaired sight and mobility. But, this increase might be offset by trends in… 
  • Medicine—every futurist I have talked to says the most dramatic and least predictable developments in the coming decades will be in the field of biomedicine. If you believe the transhumanists, we are on the cusp of a transform the whole species, extending our lifespan (without attendant infirmities) and giving us the ability to replace/enhance all kinds of biomechanical and sensory failures. Transhumanists aside (and they are kind of the lunatic fringe of the futurist movement) just reading the weekly Science section of the New York Times provides a hint of coming advances, for example, implants that allow the user the control robotic limbs with brain impulses
  • Technology (non-medical): we are also still on the fast curve of development of assistive technologies that may radically change the ability of museums to provide accessible experiences, and the way in which visitors choose to experience the museum. As more of these technologies become cheap, portable, and tied to ubiquitous devices (like smart phones) the old “what font size should be use for accessible labels” may be left in the dust. 
  • Cultural—I think there is a growing expectation that disabilities of all kinds, physical, cognitive, developmental, psychological, be accommodated in public services and public facilities, whether or not it is mandated by legislation. We have a growing cadre of highly educated, politically savvy parents who aren’t shy about the needs of their children, and willing to rally the power of public opinion to assure equality of experience and opportunities. This may radically expand the scope of what a museum might have to take into account under the rubric of “accessible design.”
Ok, those are just a few thoughts to kindle the discussion. Help me out here folks--- tell me what you see coming in the realm of accessible design.