Museum TrendsWatch 2019: Truth, Trust, and Fake News

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

June 26, 2019

I attended the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference held in New Orleans, May 2019. The conference hosted a TrendsWatch 2019 session where Founding Director at the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), Elizabeth Merritt reviewed the CFM’s TrendsWatch 2019 report. Read on for my synopsis and observations on the first trend to watch as part of your museum strategy; I’ll write about the others in subsequent posts.

Trends to watch in 2019 are: Truth, Trust, and Fake News; Blockchain; Decolonization; Homelessness and Home Insecurity; and Self-Care. The CFM report offers an explanation and review of societal and museum impacts for each trend.

What Happened to Trust?

Truth versus fake news is playing out daily across the globe, leading citizens to struggle with who and what they can trust. The TrendsWatch report evaluated several surveys that captured the public’s current perceptions of institutions and how truthful or trustworthy they are. It comes as no surprise that trust has dropped since the political happenings of 2016 from the US, UK, and mainland Europe. The internet and social media have dramatically increased access to news and information—which has led to a democratization of knowledge. However, what has been left behind is the ability to adjudicate the facts. Once purveyors of fact-based information, news media are now the least trusted institution across the globe according to recent surveys.

Museums Are Perceived as Trustworthy

While corporations, non-government organizations, news media, and federal agencies have all suffered a dip in trust ratings; museums still receive a high trust rating. In the surveys, most people identified museums as objective, fact-based, and balanced—all hallmarks of trustworthiness. Related, the TrendsWatch report states that the findings also show “the US population does not view museums on the whole as having a political agenda.” This can perhaps be pinned to the “museums are neutral” sentiment; a concept many museums and museum professionals are rejecting. However, the studies also note participants are hostile to the idea of museums acting politically. If museums present content on subjects that are viewed as political lightning rods, they risk angering a segment of the community that believes museums should be apolitical. Merritt cautions: “There is a fine line between being principled and being partisan, but museums will need to map that boundary if they are to put people’s trust to good use.”

Rooting the Approach in the Museum’s Mission

Merritt suggests that museums may be successful in their engagement with truth-telling by rooting the action in their mission. Specifically, the subjects a museum values and that are represented in the collections can be used to explore tough issues. Here’s an example the TrendsWatch report supplies:

In 2018, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a report stating that there was compelling evidence that the Burmese military had committed ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in their country. The museum arrived at this conclusion by consulting with an advisory group of atrocity experts, as well as conducting its own on-the-ground, original research. This investigation was part of the work of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. This is an example of a museum, impelled by its mission, gathering and weighing evidence and taking a prominent position on a globally important political issue.

Upon selecting a topic for exhibition or discussion the museum strategy can include presenting a non-neutral stance by gathering and weighing evidence in a way that is transparent and encourages the visitor to think critically about the information. Taking a stance on an issue is a political act; however, museums may still be able to meet the visitor expectation of museums being apolitical by tackling issues with a balanced approach and discussion of facts.

Museum To-Do List

TrendsWatch recommends the following potential to-do items as part of a museum strategy:

  • Communicate the museum’s standards for research
  • Be transparent about a fact’s source
  • Foster critical thinking
  • Teach evidenced-based decision making
  • Acknowledge a museum’s fallibility
  • Carefully consider when and how to take a stand on important issues

And I would add:

  • Select subjects (specific to your museum’s mission) and develop fact-sheets that can be easily shared and used when the subject becomes relevant to current events
  • Similar to the above idea, select historical events that are marked every year or are coming up an anniversary and develop fact-sheets that can be easily shared and used when the subject becomes relevant to current events
  • Increase transparency and demonstrate the curatorial process involved in each exhibit
  • Evaluate the words “truth”, “trust”, and “fake news” and explore how they played a role in historical events
Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Read more of Rachael’s posts on museum strategies for success. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization.

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