Trust. It seems trust in institutions is in short supply nowadays. At least, that's the conventional wisdom. But is it true?
The Pew Research Center regularly shares data on how much Americans trust various institutions, and the real picture is murky. In spring 2016, they found high levels of trust for the military and scientists, but not for the news media, business leaders, or elected officials. Additionally, only half of Americans trust most or all of their neighbors (my review of The Vanishing Neighbor may shed some light on this).
But what about museums?
This winter, AASLH asked me to find out by updating the trust findings from The Presence of the Past. Since I was sampling for trust in history museums, I decided a contextual knowledge against peers would be helpful; I also sampled trust in "museums" and in "science museums and centers." The results were heartening.
But trust is a fragile thing. Indeed, that 2016 data from Pew feels rather like the distant past, as politically and socially so much has changed since then. Content presented by museums can be contentious (think climate change, Confederate monuments that "belong in a museum," long-term overt and systemic racism, cultural appropriation, and more). Should we take a position on critical issues of our day, especially when presenting "just the facts" neutrally is also a position that may not be tenable? What about multiple viewpoints? All of them? Even the abhorrent ones? Or do we choose? What does that mean for trust?
These questions are increasingly on my mind, and I don't have answers. But benchmarking museum audiences, and the broader American public, is crucial so that we know what to expect from visitors and the public when we make individual interpretive decisions. This is work for which there is a crying need, so that museums can continue to maintain high levels of trust going forward.
More to come.