Museums may emerge from the past few months, replete with sudden shutdowns, economic downturn, industry layoffs, and developed on-the-fly virtual programming, as an even more valuable and appreciated resource than before. That’s what new national data indicates, and Connecticut museums are among those encouraged by the news.
The national belief that museums are highly credible sources of information has dramatically increased since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, which includes a representative sample of 151,198 adult respondents in the United States.
As far back as 20 years ago, museums tended to receive high grades from the public, according to those in the field. Although not this high. It is reassuring, they add, that it remains the prominent – and increasing – view, even as trust in other institutions have diminished.
Generally speaking, values over 64 tend to indicate a level of agreement, and values below 62 tend to suggest some measure of proportional disagreement. When asked if various institutions are a “highly credible source of information” museums are now consistently hovering around 80. And in every instance – aquariums, art museums, history museums, science centers, children’s museums, and zoos – the numbers are higher from the 2nd quarter of 2020 than the previous quarter or the final quarter of 2018. By contrast, state agencies have dropped under 60, and federal agencies under 50 on the credibility spectrum.
The data is the centerpiece of the latest column by well-read industry analyst Colleen Dilenschneider, who stressed that “from a data perspective, this is a very significant change in a short period of time.” Why the growing confidence in the credibility of museums? Dilenschneider postulates three central drivers:
The federal government is failing the nation in terms of being a credible source of information.
Many museums aimed to provide connective digital content during closures.
Museums demonstrated reliable expertise.
Museums present information in very clear ways, with documents and artifacts, and with a balanced approach, local museum leaders explain. That has not gone unnoticed in these unprecedented times.
“A museum can provide so much to its community – it can be a place of beauty and respite, a place to gather with friends and family, and a place to learn, ponder, and reflect,” observed Tammi Flynn, Director of Marketing at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. “At the Florence Griswold Museum, earning our community’s trust and respect is part of every decision we make. That credibility is not something we take lightly, it’s a responsibility. In this time of upheaval in all of our lives it’s heartening to hear that the work we do is respected. We are grateful to our community and are dedicated to maintaining that trust.”
Min Jung Kim, Director & CEO, New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA), emphasizes that “Museums preserve, protect, interpret, and present moments in the human experience. In times of crisis, we crave truth and connection. We seek the portals into each other’s souls that art provides.” In a recent joint statement, Amistad Center for Art & Culture Executive Director Kimberly Kersey and Tom Loughman, Director & CEO of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, said “Our institutions thrive when we lean in to our collective humanity and stand together to honor our differences. Through the power of art, we encourage expression and generate mutual understanding. We renew our resolve to be a place for community support, growth, and healing.”
The data, in the view of Ilene Frank, Chief Curator of the Connecticut Historical Society, is an affirmation of the diligent work of museums – particularly history museums – in the current circumstances, and simultaneously presents an important challenge if the perception of credibility is to be maintained.
The current daily drumbeat of news about the pandemic and, more recently, issues of racial justice have prompted a greater interest in history, but with it a stronger-than-ever interest in a “fuller story,” that holds true to the trust that people have in museums. It is a responsibility that museums must take seriously, Frank says, and that begins introspectively.
“It is a wake-up call to tell the most inclusive story, the most accurate story. This is a truly historic moment, and as people return to public spaces, we need to be more transparent about what is and what is not in our collections,” Frank explains, noting the customary absence of diversity in museum decision-making historically.
“More than ever, people are recognizing the impact of history. We’ve all heard people say, ‘I hate history.’ But these past few months, they’ve seen the relevance – from the pandemic that we had 100 years ago, to the systemic issues and nuances in racial history that many people are just learning about. History is dynamic, it evolves, as our thinking does. We need to tell the most accurate account possible, with the good and the ugly, and all the nuances.”
The Connecticut Historical Society, for example, is in the midst of an online exhibit entitled, “Women of Color and the Right to Vote,” which notes that “Historically, research about the fight to win the right to vote has focused on the white women who were both for and against this act … women of color, and particularly African American women, were denied agency within these activist organizations. This does not mean that women of color were not involved in the fight for and against suffrage. They absolutely were.”
Data also indicates that both visitors and non-visitors alike believe museums to be highly credible sources of information. “And that credibility is even higher now,” Dilenschneider adds. “The credibility of museums as trusted sources of information matters, because it contributes to their reputation – a driver of attendance – and their roles as leaders in our local, national, and global communities,” Dilenschneider points out. “This overall uptick in the national perception of museums as highly credible sources of information is positive and significant.”
Critically, Dilenschneider points out, museums “met their audiences where they are. They posted fun facts, conducted curator talks, and took people on virtual behind-the-scenes tours. They created educational homeschooling content to aid parents during the lockdown. They told their stories online and many provided reliable social media updates.”
Museums across the state have begun to reopen their doors, putting safety precautions in place. Even with upbeat data, events of recent months continue to reverberate. The NBMAA reopens this week, with a soft open on Tuesday and a full opening to the public on Saturday (July 18); the Connecticut Historical Society is now planning to open on August 18. At the Florence Griswold Musuem, grounds have been open throughout, and a new exhibition, Fresh Fields: American Impressionist Landscapes, has just opened.
The Mystic Seaport Museum recently reopened to the public with a new exhibition, “A Way with Wood: Celebrating Craft.” At the center of the exhibition are museum shipwrights restoring and building boats in the middle of the gallery. Visitors can watch the work, which usually takes place behind the scenes in the museum shipyard, and ask questions of the shipwrights. The Museum also recently announced it will be closing its Maritime Art Gallery, which has featured contemporary maritime art since opening in 1979. President and CEO Steve White said the gallery closure was “a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis and the weakening marine art market.”
“People in the United States may have been especially seeking facts and expertise,” which was precisely in the wheelhouse of museums, zoos, and aquariums. Dilenschenider suggests that “this may result in more long-term attention being paid to the role of educators and other content experts skilled in conversing with the public within cultural institutions,” which may “stick with us long after it is over” – good news for an industry trying to recoup lost revenue and attract past and prospective visitors through their doors.