Museums and galleries throughout the world are at a point of renewal. New forms of museums, new ways of working with objects, new attitudes to exhibitions and above all, new ways of relating to museum publics, are emerging. At the end of the twentieth century, old structures are being replaced to prepare for a new century. Many social institutions are reviewing their roles and potentials, and museums and galleries are among them.
What are the functions of museums likely to be in the twenty-first century? One thing is certain. Museums must develop a clear social function. During the 1990s a new age has dawned, a knowledge-based age that will replace the post-industrial age that has existed for the last hundred and fifty years. As the heavy plant of industrial production is replaced by the micro-circuits of the computer, the emphasis changes from the production of technology to the production of ideas, the pace of knowledge transmission increases, and possibilities for intellectual action multiply. Knowledge races around the world in a micro-second, information is accessed in new ways, and new levels of interconnectivity become possible.
What is the role of the museum within this cultural shift? As electronic media move centre-stage, what is the function of the three-dimensional object? As the importance of knowledge and information grows, how can museums play a genuine part in the production and dissemination of knowledge? How should museums renegotiate and redefine their functions? What is the way forward for the twenty-first century?
During the next decade, the relationship between the museum and its many and diverse publics will become more and more important. And this relationship must focus on genuine and effective use of the museum and its collections. In the past, museum visitors have been content to stroll through the displays and have rarely sought more than a tangential visual experience of objects. Now, there is a clear and consistent demand for a close and active encounter with objects and exhibits. A physical experience using all the senses is called for.