About a decade ago, as the American Alliance of Museums was approaching its 100th anniversary, its board did something a lot of boards do: It held brainstorming sessions to come up with new ideas for the next century. Among them was to create something inside the organization that would be focused on envisioning the museum of the 21st century. And then they did what boards that like to brainstorm about the future so often do: They devoted no new resources to their bold new idea.
That’s when Elizabeth Merritt, who was a staff member of the Washington-based alliance, stepped up. She hadn’t been part of the group that came up with the idea, but she wrote a proposal anyway, which evolved into what would become the Center for the Future of Museums.
“They essentially opened it up to existing staff and said, if you want to be in charge of any of the new initiatives, make a bid for it,” says Merritt. “And I got it.”
Earlier in life, Merritt studied animal behavior and “wanted to be the next Jane Goodall.” But she didn’t relish the idea of spending months alone in the wild, and found that the social climate for female scientists at Duke University, where she was studying, was more congenial in cell biology. After earning her masters in that field, she pivoted again: “I stopped and asked myself, what is the best job in the world I could imagine myself doing? And the answer was: work in a museum.”
She is now one of the most sought-after speakers in the museum world and beyond. You’re as likely to find her addressing a convention of orchestra leaders as a museum conference. Usually she is introduced as a futurist, though she has become practiced at deflating the common and misinformed sense of what that job title means.
“Whenever I introduce myself at parties, the first thing people ask is what is the future going to be?” she says. “And I say, I don’t know, and if anybody tells you they do know, you shouldn’t listen to them. What a futurist does is help people envision a lot of different potential futures.”
Perhaps the real title should be extrapolationist — the ability to draw out all the possible futures given the current state of affairs — if the word wasn’t so ugly. The most striking thing about Merritt’s conversation, and her public appearances, is the vast knowledge of the present she brings to bear on problems. If there’s anyone doing anything new and interesting the museum world, and beyond, Merritt is likely to be on top of it. She rattles off examples effortlessly: a museum that is offering free membership and uses the influx of people to collect useful data, a house museum that turns its curatorial decisions over to students. She seems most excited by the things that most vex museum traditionalists.
She calls herself a “whale shark” of the museum world, constantly taking in new data, filtering it, and then using social media, blog posts and an annual report, “TrendsWatch,” to disseminate it in strategic ways. Her day begins, she says, with two computer screens open on the desk and a couple of hours of “scanning,” or quick, focused reading through a lot of material. She follows keywords to stay abreast of developments in areas she thinks may impact the museum world.
Among them, recently: “3-D printing,” “crowd funding,” and “personhood.” The last, she says, is one of those “microtrends,” that she says could potentially rearrange the ways museums think about their holdings. So she scans an article about an orangutan in Brazil who has been given person status, and a river in New Zealand that has had legal guardians appointed to protect it.
“Of course, if you are a museum and you are caring for animals or inanimate objects this is very important, whether they have legal or moral rights,” she says.
The American Alliance of Museums includes a dizzying range of institutions and encompasses a vast range of disciplines: art, history, science, military matters, zoos, arboretums, aquariums and historic sites. Merritt has managed to create an enviable job for anyone who aspires to be a generalist. She has found work where the ambition to know something about everything is useful to people who are focused on much more specialized matters, like how to stay alive and relevant in an age of distraction and media saturation.
“It’s a very 21st-century job in the sense that you’re never really off duty,” she says.