As many in the history museum community look to our institutions to be more present in contemporary social issues—and wonder why they don’t—this issue of trust keeps coming up. In short, a number of studies since the late 1990s have discovered that American (and British) audiences have a great deal of trust in museums. I’ll get to that in a minute, but in the question of why don’t history museums engage in controversial topics, the point ends up being that we defer to a cautious approach so as not to (among other things) break the trust the public has in us. Fair enough. Considering the numerous ways an institution needs to approach change—leadership, funding, interpretive mission, metrics of success, stakeholder buy-in—getting to a point where trust is tested is a long haul indeed.
What is the nature of trust that these studies uncover?
The (British) Museum Association report states it most succinctly: museums are perceived to be “guardians of factual information…presenting all sides of the story,” as opposed to other institutions (like the academy, politicians, journalism) that “are seen as biased and operating under agendas.” Further, museums are perceived to have a core function of collecting, preserving, and presenting history and culture. Deviations from that core mission—particularly in attempts to address “controversial” topics—are seen as capitulations to subjectivity and illegitimate political concerns. Artifacts, images, buildings, landscapes all strike visitors as unvarnished truth, “unbiased and non-politically driven information.” This perception of museums as telling unbiased stories works in tandem with the sense that museum-goers want a family friendly, enjoyable and educational, day out. No one wants to have a day with the family and be annoyed by a difficult topic. Even I agree you shouldn’t do that to a visitor.
There is a critical miscommunication on the matter of trust and objectivity. When visitors think of trust and objectivity they think they’re getting unmediated truth. When professionals think of objectivity we think that we are handling historical material with good disciplinary standards. These are two different things. Professionals should know the difference.
Objectivity (the professional historian kind) and a subjective interpretive voice can be one and the same, and we already do it. Museums educators and curators make interpretive decisions from the topic of an exhibit, the nature of a special event, and from the moment we select one artifact and then put another next to it. All these decisions are subjective in some way or another. As historians, we should not be lulled into self-satisfaction about our own objectivity because our audience does not understand how history works.
When we hear our audience say that we are trustworthy because we present unvarnished facts, what I hear is that we are telling the audience something they already agree with. In the intellectual economy of our time, disagreement with a topic or theme is equated with the illegitimacy of that topic or theme. Hearing something you don’t agree with signifies—according to the respondents in this Reach Advisors survey—that a museum has capitulated to political correctness, or engaging in a whitewashing of history.
So we tell consensus histories that please the majority of our audiences. (Again, nothing wrong with that.) We operate in a medium that uses mid-twentieth century ideas of objectivity, tells consensus histories, with battlefields and historic homes and farms of white folks, and using interpretive methods tuned to a pre-Internet age. This is considered mission-focused work. Step outside of these bounds and we are charged with being political, distorting history, and being untrustworthy.
The thing is… I can do an exhibit on the Confederate flag that prioritizes its use as an object of intimidation and fear in the Twentieth Century. It will have a voice and a point of view. It will overlook some people’s opinions while elevating others. It will be rigorously objective and factual. And it will be condemned for telling only one side of the story. My larger question is this… how do we transition from our present status as trusted institutions because of a perception of objectivity regarding a narrow interpretive mission, to a place where the audience trusts us for our ability to occasionally handle difficult topics in a trustworthy fashion?
Figuring this out is important, because we’re approaching a time when increasing numbers of our audience are skeptical of the narrow interpretive mission we presently offer.
This conversation needs to be informed by systematic audience surveys on visitors to Civil War sites. We know nothing now.
This is a long process and for many reasons a slow one. Change requires, uh, trust building between institutions, existing stakeholders, and potential audiences.
Dramatic changes in institutional missions will do more harm than good. I think a slow introduction of special events, perhaps funded by special grants, would be a good start. The discussions in that Reach Advisors survey offer great guidance.
I’m not nearly as radical and disruptive as all this makes me seem. My museum in the future will have plenty of family friendly educational programs. After all, getting them young makes them “museum advocates” for life.