Modern clock with wood balls on metal rays, 2018.
history history relevance practical history pragmatic historian purpose of history using history

Forecasting the Future with History

Modern clock with wood balls on metal rays, 2018.
Modern clock with wood balls on metal rays, 2018.

Between 2013 and 2014, the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Alliance of Museums offered an online program to teach willing museum staff how to think like futurists. Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, put out the call for students and led us through this course by providing us with assignments digitally.

Obviously, I was one of those willing students and I delighted in the course, which taught me how to look for trends and think about the trajectory each trend might lead to if left unchecked. I, and the other students, had to think about the sorts of “black swan” events that might occur. These are events that are typically sudden, unexpected, and change pretty much everything. Then, we had to think about how people could take action in response to trends or black swan events in order to change their course or mitigate their effects.

What Elizabeth Merritt and the Center for the Future of Museums understand is that history can be used to forecast the future. Most certainly history is what helps us figure out the trends we are living through. Without history, we wouldn’t recognize trends as events that are following naturally from the effects of other events.

While black swan events, with their sudden, unexpected nature, may seem as though they can’t be predicted from history, what history can tell us is the types of black swan events that might occur. Five hundred-year flood events can be black swan events for those of us who weren’t alive during the last five hundred-year flood event. (Were you around 500 years ago? I didn’t think so.)

We can also use history to look at how people coped with both trends and black swan events in the past. That allows us to use the past to take action now or in the future.

Because of how critical history is to predicting the future, I believe historians make natural futurists.

I earned a Museum Futurist Badge for completing the course, but that wasn’t the end of the Center’s teaching about futurism. The Center puts out a weekly e-newsletter called Dispatches from the Future of Museums that provides news items showing important trends for museums to follow. Since 2013, the Center has been producing an annual TrendsWatch publication that puts the trends it has been tracking into a larger context useful to museums.

And, the Center keeps a regularly-updated blog to discuss futurism and museums. A blog post that Elizabeth wrote on March 14, 2017, provides a nice encapsulation of the future-predicting process that historians and other interested souls can read. The article is called “Dealing With Disruption,” which feels particularly appropriate with all the disruption we have seen in the past year or so.