An internationally respected writer, designer and curator, Brendon McGetrick has worked all over the world, exploring new avenues in design, invention and innovation. His career has taken him from London to China, Russia to the USA.
Since 2015, Brendon has served as the director of the Global Grad Show at Dubai’s Design Week. And in 2019 he assumed the role of Creative Director at the Museum of the Future in Dubai – the visionary cultural institution that transports visitors forward to the year 2071 and gives us a glimpse of what life may be like when we get there.
Ahead of a presentation at MuseumNext, Brendon gave a sneak preview into what he would cover in his talk and what drives the philosophy at Museum of the Future
“A lot of the motivation for taking on my current role was the opportunity to take a different approach to the museum experience and think about how to change the way we communicate with an audience.
“For me, it was about relying less on the tried and trusted museum model of presenting an object, labelling it and giving an explanation to provide context. Instead, we’re trying to create something that is more experiential and leaves more room for interpretation, so that people can draw their own conclusions.”
Opened officially in February 2022, the Museum of the Future offers a multi-sensory experience across three large floors. But as Brendon explains, getting to the grand opening was made more of a challenge thanks to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
“Getting together to test things is a critical part of developing any exhibition or experience. And that wasn’t possible for large portions of 2020 and 2021.
“We were creating environments and installations that involved soundscapes, scents and a sense of visual scale. But that’s not easy when you’re conducting meetings and collaborative sessions via Zoom or Teams. Of course, that’s extremely frustrating as everything feels very abstract.”
He continues, “But what I would say is that Covid-19 really brought people’s nervousness about the future and that sense of uncertainty to the fore. Because we are committed to presenting a positive vision of the future, I believe that our museum experience has really resonated with people. And perhaps it’s also difficult to find too many examples of that kind of positivity in the media.
“In many ways, what we are creating is a monument to positive thinking and empowered thinking for the future.”
Thinking beyond the museum experience
As a new cultural institution, Brendon explains that Museum of the Future did not face the same need to perform a digital pivot as so many established institutions did during the course of the pandemic. Instead the focus was always on getting the on-site experience launched in spite of the curve balls being thrown by the effects of Covid-19.
However, he does suggest that an integral part of getting the museum up and running involved thinking carefully about the pre and post visit experience:
“Many museums and galleries welcome people in and provoke an emotional response or introduce new ideas by confronting them with beautiful exhibitions. But then it’s easy to just dump them out onto the street and that experience is over.
“What I think is really important for museums is to consider how we continue that relationship and consider the next steps. That’s part of the obligation of museums going forward. Certainly, that is something that has preoccupied us when we have put together our website and the off-site presence of the Museum of the Future.
“All museums now exist within a multimedia ecosystem. And so we, as museum professionals, must explore how we use the tools we have available to maintain relationships with people in a way that can evolve over time and be multi-directional. This is extremely important and also exciting for museums, I think, because it presents opportunities. Certainly, it warrants more attention.”
Christopher Pike / Reuters
Letting go of the immersive and reaching for the transformational
At December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit, Brendan will share his view on the so-called “immersive” museum experience and the widespread use of this term within every cultural institution. Asked to expand on this view, he says,
“I suppose it’s a term that has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost lost all meaning, in my view. One of the things I’ve noticed is that in arts and culture, organisations are feeling the need to reassure people that they are having an ‘immersive’ experience. But the reality is that even a conventional museum environment can be deemed immersive. You are in the building; in the collection and in the experience.”
Brendan suggests that the architecture of a building, the staff training and even the wayfinding tools all contribute to immersing visitors. He believes that looking critically at that term is important because it may ultimately be misleading or do a disservice to what museums and other cultural institutions want to achieve.
“I don’t think there’s a way to assess relative quality of an immersive experience in that sense,” he says. “It’s not just that more digital technology equals more immersive.
Christopher Pike / Reuters
“What I hope to share in my presentation is the approach we have taken at the Museum of the Future – to think beyond immersive to look more broadly at the environment and what impact that has on visitors. For us, it has been about mobilising all of these tools and using them in an effective way.
“The term we have used is ‘expansive experiences’ because the idea is to expand what the audience thinks is possible. That’s the goal we are trying to achieve.
“We want our audiences to leave feeling differently about the world; to leave with new interests and new passion.”
In a fast-moving world, Brendan says that visitor demands today are different to those even just a few years ago. Where once upon a time the museum may have simply been “a place of quiet reflection”, many institutions now find themselves needing to develop engagement tools and interactive elements.
In adapting to those needs, Brendan suggests that thinking “expansive” rather than “immersive” is a more beneficial approach if they wish to stay relevant.
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