This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Museum magazine, a benefit of AAM membership.
Distrust and skepticism in many of our country’s institutions is increasing, making the fragility of trust painfully clear. Despite this, museums continue to be the most trusted sources of information in the US. The responsibility that comes with holding this level of trust is paramount, but what does that mean for museums and how can we honor the trust the public holds in us?
Over the course of the pandemic, museum professionals across the country have been demonstrating through their work the very reasons that our communities’ trust in our institutions is well placed. Examples of museums rapidly shifting to become responsive to their communities were countless. You rose to the occasion by providing virtual education, donating PPE, encouraging civic engagement and voting, combating disinformation, providing space for respite, educating the public about COVID-19 and vaccines, and so much more. You transformed your museums to be adaptive to community needs by also serving as schools, warming shelters, food banks, and ballot drop-off and vaccination sites. This is the power of museums when we engage deeply with our broad communities and find ways to meet their needs.
When the pandemic finally reaches our rearview mirror, we know museums will play instrumental roles in helping their communities heal and in preserving the stories and lessons learned from this time. But do not forget how unbelievably creative you have been with your spaces and resources during one of our world’s greatest crises. These mission-centric ways of serving our communities should continue to guide us in responsibly harboring our communities’ trust. How can we continue to innovate, transform, and adapt to the needs and wants of all our publics? How can we share and celebrate all of our stories? And, critically, how can we measure the impact of our work to not only evolve but continue to make the case for the invaluable role museums play in society?
The pandemic not only taught us the fragility of trust, it also shed light on the vulnerability of our structures and systems. Knowing the difference you make in the lives of your community members, and quantifying that difference, offers new roles for your museum to play in public life and the financial security that accompanies being considered vital, essential, and relevant.
In 2022, I am challenging you to continue the momentum created by this crisis—to adapt to meet the needs of your communities and not only serve as a public asset but also make clear that your museum is an indispensable part of your community. As your Alliance, we will continue to champion the vital roles of museums with decision-makers. We will continue to provide our museum community with the tools, resources, and inspiration you need to further these conversations and strategies. In this issue of Museum, you can find inspiration from museum professionals engaging in this work and planning for an increasingly vibrant future informed and enriched by thriving museums.