Curating the future

Curating the future

Here are some fieldnotes from a fun museum of the future moment from 2012. then Wendy Schultz and I had been working and researching together for 7 or 8 years. We met when Sparknow was running an evaluation of Defra’s Horizon Scanning and Futures research portfolio and have continued to explore the frontier that lies between Sparknow’s narrative method and Wendy’s futures and foresight expertise (our outing to Cairo with the ILO in December 2016 was a recent manifestation of this work.)

That time, in the autumn of 2012, Wendy invited Victoria to help her design and run the opening evening of the Association of Professional Futurists’ annual conference, taking place in Oxford. It was an experiment, fusing Wendy’s scenario development skills with Sparknow’s interest in using objects and cultural spaces as a stimulus, a vehicle for making new stories.

Muddling our influences up with wild abandon, we constructed a layered derive (Guy Debord, Situationists, much beloved of Clive Holtham at Cass Business School too) and invited people to participate, in pairs, in developing a kind of curiosity cabinet of the future (pretentiously labelled by Victoria Die Wunderkammer der Zukunft), or future Songlines if we’re nodding at Bruce Chatwin.

As Marshall Ganz, who teaches story at the Kennedy School of Government says:

‘Stories are specific – they evoke a very particular time, place, setting, mood, color, sound, texture, taste. The more you can communicate this specificity, the more power your story will have to engage others. This may seem like a paradox, but like a poem or a pointing or a piece of music, it is the specificity of the experiences that can give us access to the universal sentiment or insight they contain.’

We also had a little bit of Mark Twain in mind. He used to have a game he played with his daughter where she’d line up a handful of objects on the mantelpiece in random orders and Twain’s task was to construct a plausible story using the objects in the sequence she’d lined them up.

The 15 or so objects, the Wunderkammer, that the 30 odd people who were there conjured were gorgeously precise and eclectic, with whole worlds that they lived in. We’d asked people loosely to stay with the themes of the whole conference, which was emerging forms of governance and economy. So for example, springing out of the tattoos and body ornament cabinet came a new, invisible tattoo, which could be used to monitor the environment and guide someone to know whether they were in an area of high toxicity in which they needed to protect themselves. A Rubik’s Cube conjured games and gaming. The currency and forms of exchange cabinet had an imagined object added, which dreamt up a new form of exchange. We also had a long and interesting conversation about how to show the increasingly nano-sized world invisible to the naked eye: could we show the presence of a future invisible object by representing it with the absence or corrosion in use of an object that exists today?

As a fusion of ideas and experiences from very different disciplines and clients, this was a great outing. We imagined that it's the kind of experiential future (to borrow from Stuart Candy) that one could offer it to Boards, Trustees, business leaders, museum directors as a different way to exercise the imaginative muscle and disrupt assumptions and mental models. This could involve working outwards from the very precise locations of the imaginary objects, and the worlds in which they might be situated, and then connecting them together to construct plausible new worlds. Those worlds in their turn could provide a new perspective from which to look back from tomorrow and out from today.

Unfortunately, hunting down the photos on Sparknow's now defunct Facebook page, they seem to have taken on a heritage hue of their own, so you'll have to look beyond the graininess and lack of focus to peer back into 2012. I do recall that it was just after the London Olympics, so I had (I think at Wendy's suggestion) taken along my marshalling outfit, complete with blue Bowler Hat with lightbulb on top. So the ghost of Olympic volunteering at the time is also in the pictures.

Curating future trails
LED lit future trails

In piecing together the curated future trails that were part two of the process, we were lucky that Wendy had some leftover LED lights from another project. So we used these to light the trails. (Note to self, LED lights very useful equipment for the  curator of the museum of the future.)

Wendy tries on the Olympic Bowler and light shines out of her