Dobrawa Brach-Kaluzna :

Into the Future of Design Museum

During my fellowship at Design Museum Helsinki in Spring 2016 I conducted an international benchmark study for applied arts and design museums.

The Study was conducted between 20 February and 10 March, 2016 on behalf of Design Museum Helsinki. It was aimed at and distributed amongst over 60 Applied Arts and Design Museums’ directors and heads of departments, of which a total of 14 organizations – 13 in Europe and one in Australia – took part in the survey.

The study focused on asking questions about Applied Arts and Design Museums’ current missions and roles as well as challenges they are facing in the changing society. The aim of the study was to analyse what are common partnership strategies and networking practices and how Museums engage with their audiences, and whether or not they see the need to expand beyond traditional forms of engagement and outreach programmes.

We also wanted to ask what is the future of Museums of Design and Applied Arts: how they can be more relevant; can they be drivers of change and leaders; is there a new model of partnership being developed and/or needed for Museums and their cultural (and not only) counterparts.

The complete report is available on request from Design Museum Helsinki.

Mission, roles, challenges

For the majority of the Museums that took part in the survey their mission is about enriching peoples lives, raising awareness of value of design, educating and disseminating knowledge about design and to promote good design. There is a consensus amongst respondents that Museums have an obligation to be active voices in the current discourse, not only taking part, but also initiating and posing questions about our past, today and the future. With regards to whether the role of Museums is changing or should change from predominantly educational and that of preserving the cultural heritage, there seems to be a consensus amongst the respondents that Museums should maintain traditional objectives of preserving cultural heritage and educational responsibility, and those roles will continue to play crucial part for Museums operation going forward.

If there is a new role identified for Museums it is that of being a meeting space for new ideas and critical thinking, a place for exchange and inspiration, a platform for fostering in-depth debate about pressing current issues and visions of tomorrow, a place of research and experiment. Museums should be more open towards international exchanges and networking and be less competitive.

Regarding the biggest challenges Museums are currently facing and how they try to overcome them it is very clear that for the majority of the Museums the biggest challenge is financial stability. In that context few Museums are developing new ways of engaging partners and sponsors and more business oriented modus operandi. Staff resources, engagement and development and staff up-skilling were mentioned as common challenges also.

To overcome those challenges the priorities are long-term strategies, carefully drawn up partnerships based on exchange of expertise more than monetary arrangements, constant revision and evaluation of the offering, better communication with decision makers. It’s been suggested that Museums should form a network of support to exchange ideas and expertise, to share best practice and interchange learnings.

Partnership strategies, networking practices, audiences

There is an understanding that Museums must develop new models of collaborations that are long-term, strategic and based on mutual benefits. The collaborations are not solely based on monetary/sponsorship arrangements anymore, but more importantly on cross-institutional exchanges and collaborations that make use of expertise available from different partners.

It’s been suggested that Museums’ expertise could be shared with industry and business even as an income stream. Interdisciplinary approach across industries has been recommended and forming a modular support networks consisting of museums, cultural organisations and businesses as the way to go forward. Museums must develop projects beyond traditional presentations and place themselves as important partners in industry based research and develop business focus or industry focus projects.

There is a consensus that local politicians must gain a better understanding of the role and value of Museums in the society. Lack of current understanding amongst decision makers is linked to weak communication on Museum’s part. Museums must be better at communicating their own value and role. In order to that they must be relevant to society and deal with current issues.

Museums are willing to up-skill and find ways of engaging with the current practice: they already give platform to young, emerging and experimenting designers and makers and take part in academic research. All respondents cooperate with universities and third level education providers on research projects. The majority of the respondents tell they are involved in universities extracurricular programmes and in masters or other diploma programmes.

The majority of the Museums are working towards engaging with tourism sector in order to promote local destinations to international visitors, but less than half is offering a space to locals, and only a third is involved in the decision-making process for the local people.

There is also a consensus that Museums should continually review how they serve their visitors, re-evaluate methods of content delivery in order to respond to changing demographics and expectations and to better interact with visitors. Museums should be more active and vibrant, and offer a broad and inspiring portfolio of programmes and hands-on experiences.


According to the survey, Museums see themselves influencing current social issues, yet they are not yet actively taking part in the decision-making process. However percentage of Museums that are involved in the strategic planning would suggest that this is something Museums could look into. Also one of the findings suggest that if Museums struggle with politicians understanding the role of Museums, then maybe working even closer with local municipalities is the way to gain respect and boost the importance and position of the Museums locally.

Overall the future Museum of Design / Applied Arts is active and engaged. It initiates and facilitates discourse and research, is leading by example in debating and dealing with pressing current issues the society is facing. At the same time it is constantly up-skilling, re-evaluating and re-examining its position and standards. It is sharing its expertise and best practise as part of a network of international cultural institutions, as well as is bridging the gap between the industry, users and governments on local and national level. It voices and examines concerns about our today, derives learnings from our past, and is looking for the best solutions for our future.