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Attending AASLH? Join us for:
"Wanting to Know? American Perspectives on Bias, Trust, and Inclusive History"
Thursday, August 29 at 1:45 p.m.
With Donna Sack (Naper Settlement), Dina Bailey (International Coalition of Sites of Conscience), and Sabrina Robins (African Heritage, Inc.)
We all know we live in, well, interesting times. Especially when it comes to history, identity, and inclusion.
These interesting times are opening up fears and challenges in ways that are sometimes unexpected. Such as in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers.
This survey didn't focus history specifically. Or inclusionary interpretation and practices. Or social justice. (If you are looking for that audience research, stay tuned … I'm deep in analysis of new research fielded this fall.)
But the survey did ask about the impact of museums, and a handful of respondents took the opportunity to share their thoughts about these topics, likely because it was on their mind and this was an opportunity to do so.
So I did what every good researcher does: I flagged them. Clearly, this is something important that we need to know about.
Let's start, however, by backing up and considering history specifically.
No museums = no history
For many museum-goers (and the broader population as well), museums are repositories of history. Since museums house the tangible remainders of the past, they embody history. Just look at the sense of loss and national identity in Brazil after the catastrophic fire at their National Museum.
Similarly, when I asked museum-goers last winter to consider their community (or the world) without museums, many suggested that, without museums, history and identity would be lost:
"Museums are a depository for all sorts of items, art work, literature, etc. that are so important to the history of the world we live in. Who would protect these precious artifacts if it were not for museums. How much of ourselves would be lost without them?" - Respondent, 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers
Given that heavy responsibility (and opportunity) for museums, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise then that presenting more inclusive history stirs a response.
Revisionist history fears (the unsolicited comments)
Since the survey didn't ask about history methodology, inclusive history practices, or social justice, only a handful of respondents spontaneously brought up these topics. That should be absolutely clear, as these comments are not representative of all museum-goers. But there were enough of them to suggest that the concerns they raise (as well as the appreciation some expressed) are more widespread.
The majority of comments I flagged did not care for history being "changed." Examples include:
"This past year I was saddened to see the culture from the south wiped away - statues removed - building names changed … removing and hiding them is not the answer." - Respondent, 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers
Some seemed both critical and contradictory at the same time:
"To learn about the past. Do not try to bring social justice issues into the museums." - Respondent, 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers
To be honest, I'm not sure how history can be presented in ways that we both learn from the past and not touch on politics and/or social justice and/or other difficult history.
And while no one actually used the term "revisionist history," it was a lurking undercurrent. There was a clear sense that history as they felt it should be presented was the appropriate history, and likely aligned with the type of history many museums presented throughout most of the twentieth century: white history. Similarly, there seemed to be a lack of awareness that other stories, voices, and perspectives of the past are equally valid, illuminate history more clearly, and sometimes give a more accurate and complete account of the past.
The cynic in me would also like to point out that most museum-goers, and the broader population, also think museums should present all perspectives of the past. Apparently, for some, what they want in theory (all perspectives) isn't what they want in reality if they are crying foul when those more inclusive perspectives are actually shared.
Frustrating, isn't it?
How we handle this, however, matters deeply. 81% of Americans trust the information presented by history museums and historic sites. But in this age of alternative facts and divisive opinions, that trust is fragile. And while I don't have specific recommendations right now (… analyzing fresh research on the topic now), failing to present a more complete, inclusive history perpetuates a greater wrong to the real truth of history, and all that that means.
I'll leave you, however, with a far more hopeful comment that I also flagged for similar, yet totally different, reasons. I'll let it speak for itself.
"As a Native woman, I appreciate museums that are actively aware of the (post)colonialist implications of museums and their representation of cultures and history. Some museums make me feel better about that, because I can see how hard museum staff are working to equalize the representation and improve the ethics of museums … And because museums are a touchpoint between cultural representation and the general public, I appreciate and value museums that do this difficult work." - Respondent, 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers
There's still time to join the 2019 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers!!
Do you value this research? Does it help you in your work at your museum? Do you want it to continue to help you and our field?
If so, consider how useful it would be to know how your museum's stakeholders feel about your museum, lifelong learning in museums, and more. By enrolling your museum in the 2019 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, you can easily benchmark the visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographics of your stakeholders. Additionally, you can compare your results to your peers, begin to track them over time, and gain far more contextual information through your custom results and report. The fee for 2019 is only $1,000 per museum.
Understanding. Empathy. Tolerance. Museums have the capacity to connect us to humanity. To make us consider different viewpoints. Become aware of different life experiences. To not fear "the other" so much. To be compassionate.
In my opinion, these are some of the most important impacts museums have in our society. Our ability to open individuals up to caring about others. And after working in this field for 20 years, I know many of you feel likewise.
Happily, when I asked regular museum-goers in the 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers to share with me the value of museums in their life, 21% were able to articulate, and convey to me, similar feelings. That museums had made them more open-minded. More accepting. And better able to navigate a complicated world because of their experiences in museums. (Since this was from coding of an open-ended question, 21% is a lot.)
But this impact wasn't consistent among museum-goers. While a quarter of the most intrinsically motivated museum-goers spoke of these themes (as well as a quarter of young adults without children), only a tenth of parents of young children (10 and younger) said likewise. But then, as I'll share in a few weeks, that is the most extrinsically motivated segment of museum-goers.
So it seems that intrinsically-motivated learners care more about these goals than, I suspect, the more extrinsically-motivated broader population. Which makes what I am about to share make much more sense, as much as I don't like the results.
Preparing for two pending projects dealing with institutionalized racism and LGBTQ history, I fielded test questions asking the broader population about the appropriateness of museums sharing these histories.
A third of respondents said yes, unambiguously when it came to the LGBTQ history of a historic site. A history of institutionalized racism in a community was more complicated, with a third saying yes, but some of the respondents equivocating more, saying "carefully." ("Carefully" may have seen as a "safe" response when they didn't really want to say "yes, absolutely." Thus, it could really mean a "no.")
But that means that nearly two-thirds of respondents said, effectively, "no." Two thirds. That museums should not be tackling these issues. It pains me that not only was I not surprised at this finding, but that I expected it. Though I will confess I was surprised that the LGBTQ approval was more definitive than that of institutionalized racism.
Given how museum-goers, overall, responded, I suspect they are much more likely to fall in the "yes, absolutely" camp than non-visitors. Museums likely are not running much risk of turning off most of their core audiences (some perhaps, but not most, as I shared in my last research release).
Yet if we are working to expand our reach to broader audiences, working on social justice issues may turn off those very same new audiences. It's a bit of a Catch-22, as doing it appears to mean preaching to the choir, while not doing it is morally wrong.
But putting numbers and data to the question … it helps. It helps because it means we are not going into these areas of work blindly. We are better prepared for challenges. For friction. We can have more confidence in doing social justice work, while also respond more quickly to criticisms.
As I mentally prepare for these projects (pending funding), I'm considering ways that I can probe that 2/3 of the population more closely. What questions do I need to ask to understand the why behind their answers. What life experiences are they coming from that make them say "no?" And what would it take to change their minds (realizing we are realistically only going to change some of them)?
And by pushing social justice issues more in our work, will we also open up new audiences as well? I suspect yes … and in ways that may make our work more meaningful to more people.
A note about fielding research. I hold dear the idea that research for the field, about the field, should be shared with the field. But that only works when museums work together to make it possible. Since individual museums are needed to field this work, the survey also benefits participating museums on an individual level by providing benchmark data on visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographic questions … all of which can then be tracked over time in the future. Participating museums are also allowed to add 1 - 2 custom questions specific to their needs.
Which means if you value this research, want more of it in the coming years, and want to track your own museum's progress over time, please support this work by enrolling your museum in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum Goers. The fee for 2018 is only $1,000 per museum.
The questions for this survey have been inspired by ongoing conversations within the museum field (who does/does not go to museums, why they do/do not visit, and what that means for communities) and ongoing research in the fields of education and psychology around lifelong learning and intrinsic motivation.