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Exploring Museums and Trust 2021

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

The 2019 edition of TrendsWatch took a deep dive into the topic of trust, summarizing the global “trust deficit” and its effect on society. The subject was of particular importance to museums because, as a sector, museums had bucked that trend—consistently ranking among the most trusted institutions in the US. Research commissioned by AAM in 2001 found almost 9 out of 10 Americans find museums to be trustworthy—and no other institution rated a similar level of trust. Subsequent research, including reports issued by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (2008), Reach Advisors (2015), IMPACTS Research (2017), and Wilkening Consulting (2018), and IMPACTS Research (2020) tracked sustained high levels of public trust in museums throughout the beginning of the 21st century.

The events of the past two years have made trust more important than ever. Who do we trust to tell the truth about the history of our nation, and how that history has shaped how different groups are privileged or penalized by our systems of education, employment, and justice? Who do we trust to guide us safely through a global pandemic? And yet, globally and in the US, recent research has documented that trust in organizations we should depend on in a crisis—government, media, NGOs (nonprofits), and business—has dropped to historic lows.

To me, and to my colleagues at the Alliance, this begged an urgent question: in the face of the current profound challenges to trust, have museums retained their trusted status? And what do museums need to understand about the nature of that trust, in order to use it for the benefit of society?

To answer this question, we worked with Susie Wilkening, of Wilkening Consulting, to ask the American public whether and why they trust US museums. The main results are summarized in the new report Museums and Trust 2021. In coming months, Susie and I will give a webinar to discuss the findings in more depth, and AAM will publish blog posts from a variety of people inside and outside the museum sector offering their perspectives on the meaning and significance of this data, and how museums might use this information to inform their own decision making. This post provides some context for this research and summarizes the major findings.

IMPACTS researcher Colleen Dilenschneider has referred to museums’ enviable levels of trust as a “superpower.” As every superhero knows, with great trust comes great responsibility. Their trusted status brings with it the potential for museums to be thought leaders and influencers in American society. How can we use that power responsibly and effectively? In the best case, museums can build on their trust to influence the public dialog on critical issues. By understanding the nature of that trust we hope to help museums maintain their trusted status, and to wield that trust skillfully to help build a better future.

Who did we ask?

The survey went out in May 2021, collecting over 1,200 responses from a group that is a close demographic match to the adult US population by age, educational attainment, race, and ethnicity.

What did we ask and why did we ask it?

The core of the survey invited respondents to rank their trust in museums as well as a range of other institutions (including the US government, nonprofits/NGOs generally, news outlets, corporations, and business), as well as their trust in specific types of museums from art museums to zoos. To dig deeper into how trust may vary across difference segments of the public, we also collected information on demographics (race and ethnicity, age, gender, educational attainment) as well as respondents’ museum-going behaviors. To test whether museums have remained above the partisan fray, we asked about people’s political values.

We also explored why people trust museums. If we don’t understand the foundation on which it rests, we risk inadvertently damaging the trust the public accords to museums.

Finally, we explored what people expect of museums: their attitudes towards how museums do and should present information to the public, and their attitudes towards inclusion (i.e., towards the presentation of content beyond white, heteronormative norms). Understanding these expectations may hold the key to museums successfully building on their trustworthiness to introduce people to new ideas and shape behavior.


Museums and Trust 2021 confirms that the public continues to regard museums as highly trustworthy—ranking second only to friends and family, and significantly more trustworthy than researchers and scientists, NGOs generally, various news organizations, the government, corporations and business, and social media. For respondents who had visited a museum in the past two years (one quarter of respondents), museums are the number one trusted source of information. This high level of trust is consistent for museums of all types, from art museums to zoos. The top three reasons cited as contributing to this trust are that museums are fact-based, present real/authentic/original objects, and are research oriented.

The demographics of trust

The report examined trust through the lenses of race and ethnicity, political affiliation, and attitudes towards inclusion. A few highlights from these analyses: People from households that are made up solely of people who identify as white are significantly more trusting of museums than people from households comprised of people who identify as people of color and/or Hispanic/Latino/Latina. Respondents across the political spectrum have high trust in museums, although those who self-identified as liberal have slightly higher levels of trust than those who identify as conservative or moderate. Generally, people who express inclusive attitudes are significantly more trusting of museums than people who express anti-inclusive attitudes or are ambivalent about inclusion. That said, the general pattern of museums being highly trusted holds true across all segments of race and ethnicity, political beliefs, and attitudes towards inclusion.

Nonpartisan trust

In the US, one of the major forces driving the growing trust deficit is political partisanship. This is particularly fraught since, at the moment, practically any issue—including those related to history, science, and public health—is considered by some to be political, and partisan. For that reason, we wanted to measure (for the first time, as far as we know), whether US museums have nonpartisan trust, and whether there are any potential gaps in trust related to people’s political leanings.

This report confirms that museums do enjoy robust, nonpartisan support. Museum trust levels are high overall for people who identify as conservative, moderate, and liberal. Museums tie with “friends and family” for #1 among moderates. They rank #2 to “friends and family” for conservatives, and #2 to “researchers and/or scientists” for liberals. And museum goers (people who indicated they had visited a museum in the past two years) are evenly distributed across the political spectrum.

Influencing public attitudes and behavior

It is increasingly hard to have civic discussions on difficult issues. Sometimes it seems like we (the America public) don’t even share a common vocabulary anymore. Many terms have become shibboleths—words that signal core beliefs or affiliations. For example, scientists use the word “theory” to mean a framework for understanding about the world that has been validated by repeated experiments and testing. Large segments of the public, however, interpret the word pejoratively—to call something a “theory” is to cast doubt on its truth.

Research studying how people talk about museums has surfaced a potential linguistic stumbling block for the museum sector as well. Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society (Museums Association, 2013) reported that a significant segment of the British public use the word “neutrality” in a positive way, to describe behavior they expect of museums. We have noted this attitude towards the words “neutrality” in the data collected through the Annual Survey of Museum Goers as well. This public interpretation of the word is in tension with the growing awareness in the museum profession that museums are not neutral—they  inherently present a specific point of view (Murawski, 2017; Rodriguez, 2017; Sentence, 2018; Autry and Murawski, 2019). Many in our sector believe that, in choosing that point of view, museums have an ethical obligation to influence public attitudes and behavior on important issues (Janes and Sandell, 2019; Bryant-Greenwell, 2019, Murawski, 2021).

In light of this linguistic tension, Museums and Trust 2021 shares information that can inform how museums craft their dialog with the public around the positions they take, and the impact they want to have on the world. Over a third (35 percent) of respondents indicated that one reason contributing to their trust in museums is that museums are “nonpartisan/neutral,” and 27 percent believe it is never appropriate for museums to suggest or recommend behaviors or actions to the public. Museum-goers are more likely to think museums have a point of view, but just as likely as non-visitors to think museums “should” always be neutral. People who think museums are neutral express higher levels of trust (in organizations overall, and in museums specifically) and are two times more likely to consider museums to be credible sources of information than people who believe museums have a specific agenda.

Which isn’t to say that museums cannot or should not influence public opinion. But as we noted in Audiences and Inclusion: A Primer for Cultivating More Inclusive Attitudes Among the Public, (Wilkening Consulting and AAM, 2021) museums need to cultivate a deeper understanding of the values and attitudes our audiences express towards museums and the idea of neutrality. That understanding will enable them to pace their work to the “speed of trust” in order to be effective forums for civil discourse. The fact that museums are trusted means they have the potential to influence opinions and attitudes. To be both trusted and influential, museums, like scientists, need to be skilled communicators, and study the most effective ways to talk about their work, and present their messages.

What’s next?

It is our hope that Museums and Trust 2021 will bolster museum advocacy, making the case for museums as essential public resources. The results reaffirm that, in a time when trust is both a vital and a scarce resource, museums are trusted sources of information, and can be essential partners in helping the public make sound, informed decisions. I look forward to exploring this research in more detail in coming months, and to sharing commentary from others via guest posts on the blog. Susie and I are planning to give a webinar to discuss the results—watch the AAM calendar of events as well as AAM and CFM social media feeds for an announcement of this event. Meanwhile, please weigh in with your questions and observations in the comments section, below.

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  1. The Alan J. Friedman Science Centers Dialogues session on October 6 at the ASTC Virtual Conference discussed scientific misinformation and its spread. While public trust of museums wasn’t a centerpiece in this conversation, it would be interesting to connect the two in some way. Are science centers/science museums more vulnerable to the erosion of public trust today because of wide-spread misinformation? Or do they have an opportunity (or obligation ?) to “lean in” heavily on the public trust factor to renew their role as credible “explainers” bridging the gulf between scientific research/process and popular culture/understanding?

  2. By all means advocate for museums as “essential public resources”. However tempting it may be to promote museums as economic assets, tourist attractions, “public anchors” or in other identities, it is notable that the vast majority of the general public INSTINCTIVELY understands the role of museums: to provide concrete references to facts and knowledge. The greatest threat to trust in museums may, in fact, emit from museums themselves. Notable throughout the AAM literature is evidence of a museum-born crisis of confidence. Let’s please resist this self doubt and move on, maintaining the customary bastions against fraud and manipulation: concrete reference points to nature and culture, and reliance on the central traditions of scholarship, teaching and learning.

  3. Will the full report and results of this research be released to the AAM community and the broader museumm field? I have a lot of questions about the research, and I’m hoping we can find ways to discuss this as a field. The report would be great to review, once it’s ready to be published. Thank you for sharing what the next steps will be on this.

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