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What Does It Mean to be Trustworthy?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Who do we trust when it comes to telling the full stories of “great white men? Image: National Museum of American History - Horatio Greenough's sculpture of George Washington. Credit:  Wally Gobetz, on Flickr.
Who do we trust when it comes to telling the full stories of “great white men? Image: National Museum of American History - Horatio Greenough's sculpture of George Washington. Credit: Wally Gobetz, on Flickr.

On September 30, the Alliance released Museums and Trust 2021, the latest research to measure public trust in US museums. It was reassuring, though not surprising, that the results confirm museums continue to be highly trusted. However, it’s worth digging past the topline results to explore a more nuanced story. This is the first survey we know of to delve into the reasons that contribute to or detract from public trust in museums and examine that trust through the lenses of race and ethnicity, political affiliation, and attitudes towards inclusion. In coming months, we will feature a wide range of perspectives on this research—what it means, what museums can do to respond. Today on the blog, some thoughts from James Gardner, whose long tenure in the museum field has included leadership positions at the National Archives and the National Museum of American History (see bio at end of the post).

— Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

As I first read the Museums and Trust 2021 report, I had flashbacks to a report published in 1998 that became the focus of much discussion (and misunderstanding) about trust within the history museum community. That older study, The Presence of the Past, by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, was based on interviews of 1,453 US individuals and looked at how people use the past (note that they did not say “history”) in their daily lives. I’m not going to get into the weeds of the larger study and all its conclusions but rather draw your attention to a somewhat infamous statement: that the public trusted history museums “as much as they did their grandmothers.”

While that statement was celebrated by many in the history museum community as a flattering statement of success, a closer read demonstrates that it was not something to be proud of. As I have written about elsewhere in more detail, the study made clear that that trust was based on an assumption by the public that museums offer unmediated experiences and do not interpose ideas between the public and the objects. In 2020, about six months before the Museums and Trust 2021 survey was conducted, the American Historical Association and Farleigh Dickinson University (with support from NEH) revisited the Rosenzweig-Thelen study, polling 1,832 US individuals and both asking new questions and seeing whether and how things have changed over the past two decades. That study, History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey, finds that museums, while “of only middling popularity” as sources about the past, again rank at the top of the list in trustworthiness.

Which gets us back to the Museums and Trust 2021 report’s discussion of the larger museum community and issues of public trust. According to this report, people trust museums for a number of reasons, notably because they are fact-based, non-partisan, and thus presumably “neutral”—that’s very similar to the conclusions reached by the two studies of the history sector. More specifically, 48% of those surveyed said museums “should always be neutral,” something I would argue museums never are and should not pretend to be. While my context is history museums, others (especially La Tanya Autry and Mike Murawski) have forcefully argued that the fallacious idea that museums are neutral is a problem across the broader field. Indeed, every action that we take, beginning with what we collect and what we choose to exhibit, reflects a point of view that I don’t believe even the most sincere sharing of authority overcomes, whatever the discipline of our museum. Indeed, what strikes me as missing from the survey is consideration of the tension or dynamic between the disembodied institutional voice of museum authority and the collaboration of individual points of view and choices (within and outside the museum) that create the museum experience. When members of the public affirm the importance of neutrality, do they also recognize that museums are the product of the work of many individuals who as human beings always have points of view and can never be entirely neutral? I worry that they do not.

And what does “neutral” mean anyway? It may mean, as the survey indicates, “non-partisan/neutral,” but it may also mean what the Rosenzweig-Thelen study found—the idea that museums simply put things out and do not interpose ideas. I’m not convinced that all the survey respondents meant the same things when they responded on this issue no matter how carefully the questions were worded and that complicates things. While museums can satisfy the public’s interest in avoiding partisanship, we cannot legitimately disown our commitment to interpretation and making meaning. We continue to face, I would argue, the challenge that the public does not really get what we do—that we bring together different perspectives, make choices, and present ideas and arguments.

The reality is that museums are never really objective or neutral, even when we may claim to be. We should be uncomfortable with a trust that is based only on the authenticity of our objects and the authority of our institutions and does not acknowledge what we actually do. I would prefer that we earn public trust rather than celebrate a trust that rests on a misunderstanding of what we as museums and museum professionals do. I would prefer that they trust us because they have found us to be trustworthy (in all the complicated ways that may play out) rather than because they think we should be trustworthy “just because.” I think we should “show our work,” not hide, as we too often do, how we make choices, even in things as basic as choosing which objects to exhibit or juggling different viewpoints in an exhibit or program.

I’m also concerned that issues of trust are wrapped up in demographics in a way that we should all be concerned about. The Museums and Trust 2021 report indicates that white museum-going visitors are “significantly more trusting of museums,” which should come as no surprise to anyone, given that the perspective of so many of our museums remains that of whites, creating a self-referential experience. Too often even when we add the voices of people of color what we are largely doing is inserting them into a white narrative or story, with the authoritative voice of the museum remaining white (and male)—and language, sexual identity, and other fundamental aspects of identity get even less attention. It is no wonder that white people are more likely to find museums neutral and trustworthy—they see themselves so readily in much of our work. And the report describes museum-goers as slightly less diverse than non-goers—in part, I’m confident, because of issues of voice but also perhaps because of concerns about accessibility to what are arguably institutions of authority. Is it possible then that museums appear most trustworthy to those who not only make a priori assumptions of trust but also see self-validation in museum encounters?

We need to do better, not rest content that we remain trustworthy.

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  1. Well spoken! A strong argument for even greater efforts at explaining notions of evidence, interpretation/meaning, scholarship, and revision.

  2. Museums agonistes, or as Walt Kelly might have commented, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. We might as well tell the museum going public that they are wrong to support these institutions. “You should know better than to trust us.”

    1. I’m not arguing for giving up but rather for doing more—for engaging the public more fully in what we do, being more open and honest, earning their trust, not just expecting it. I don’t understand why so many of us continue to hide hide behind our institutional facades and speak with some authoritative voice that doesn’t really reflect who we are or what we do. What I am arguing for can both reinvigorate our museums and engage our communities in ways we too often do not do—a win all around.

  3. Great points, Jim. As you make clear, there’s still a lot to be done. Shared authority, real engagement and involvement with community, inclusive approaches, institutional diversity, and lifting the curtain on our work (as Bob Weyeneth and others have put it) will eventually earn museums more trust. We also need to do a better job at communicating about our work, how we do it, and why it matters.

  4. Well said, friend Jim–miss you!!–but to “authenticity” & “authority,” I would add “accountability” for what information we impart to our audiences & how we do it. I was often concerned with how museums I worked for partnered with marginalized or minority communities. The scenario usually went this way: “We/the museum should do an exhibit on this particular minority/community. Who can we [usually Euro-American staff] find in that community to do this with?” The result was often that one or a few people would come forward from that community–inevitably its most educated, well-to-do & most vocal–& we would partner with them to do a celebratory exhibition. I was never reluctant to hand over the reins, as it were, to the community to do *their* exhibit about *themselves* but what I was acutely aware of was who was accountable for the exhibit’s intentional content when it was presented by a largely Euro-American institution. How does authenticity & authority link up with institutional accountability?

    1. Yes—accountability and actual engagement of communities are linked. If we’re really going to engage diverse communities, we must step away from hierarchical roles and embrace truly collaborative and participatory processes—not just talking with them but sharing authority. The concept of the dialogic museum provides real guidance here.

  5. It seems to me crucial to define what “neutral” means because it is so easy to conflate “neutral” and “objective.”

    I would assert, however, they are not the same.

    For example, a theoretical museum presenting a “neutral” view of, say, slavery — that is, offering no moral judgement at all of the practice — would be despicable. On the other hand, a museum presenting an “objective” view of slavery must present it as “bad” (to say the least) precisely because an objective review of the facts demands such a conclusion. Indeed, only a person guilty of the worst bias would declare slavery anything other than “bad.”

    As for the current trend of denigrating “objectivity”: the complaints do not — it seems to me — actually target “objectivity”, but rather the falling short of “objectivity,” in other words “bias,” the exact opposite of “objectivity.”

    I also hear the inevitable protest “Well, can never be completely objective” — as if that were ever the goal.

    It is true we can never be completely objective . . . but it is the striving for objectivity that elevates research, writing, and scholarship to a higher, more accurate level. Otherwise, to throw out “objectivity” because complete objectivity is unattainable is comparable to throwing out morality because no one can be completely virtuous all the time. I would assert that the solution to the problem of “objectivity” is, as is usually (but not always) the case, found somewhere toward the middle — a position often overlooked in our increasingly polarized times.

  6. All good points. But I still have nagging concerns about the issue of objectivity. Continuing your discussion of how we view slavery, I immediately thought of Time on The Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, first published in 1974, reprinted in 1995, and still available today. The authors were Robert Fogel, a Nobel prize-winning economist, and Stanley Engerman, an economist and economic historian. In their Bancroft Prize-winning quantitative study, they argued not only for the efficiency and profitability of slavery in the South but also for the material and social benefits the system provided to the enslaved–a very controversial argument to say the least. Despite our tendency to dismiss such a thesis as absurd (and I won’t go into the arguments and counter arguments here), it was rooted in a larger argument for a more scientific history (cliometrics) that would lead to a presumably more objective history than that based on more traditional humanist approaches. In other words, even the quest for objectivity can lead us in questionable directions, and we need to be careful in our museums that we not delude ourselves about the accuracy, objectivity, and/or neutrality of what we do–I’m concerned that such claims, whether articulated to/by the public or not, can be misleading and even damaging to our work. Again, we should not take public support for granted but should work harder to engage the public in what we do and why that’s important.

  7. I agree with your sentiment that museums must do more to truly earn the trust of the public. Candidly addressing that museum’s display institutional perspectives would contribute to that effort. To expand upon your criticism of the Museums and Trust Spring 2021 report, I am more concerned that the underlying survey, conducted in May 2021, is inherent fallible and ill-timed. Because of the pandemic, most museums have been shuttered to visitors since March 2020, and they have been largely out of the public-eye due to the lack of new exhibits and attractions. It is very likely that this altered the perceptions of surveyed individuals. Most people have preconceived notions of and opinions on museums that do correlate with their ethnicity, location, and political affiliation, but those opinions are influenced by public coverage of museums and visiting the galleries in person. Given that many generally reflect on the pre-quarantine times with rose-colored glasses, asking individuals to form an opinion on the trustworthiness of museums during a pandemic seems ill-timed and likely results in inflated responses.

    1. I agree about the context and timing of the survey—it’s always an issue with surveys, not only timing but how questions are worded, what terms are used, etc. But I’m also not sure it’s entirely possible to do a survey without encountering influences or factors of one sort or another. The key remains how we interpret the survey—which is my concern.

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