Should museums be activists? - Museums, Trust and Activism

Should museums be activists?

Amid a year of political strife almost without precedent, divisive issues are forcing their way to the front as museums embrace challenging issues like immigration, inequality and sustainability. A recent survey found that Americans are also overwhelmingly supportive of brands that take stances on issues: 78% agree that companies should take action to address the important issues facing society, while 88% agree that corporations have the power to influence social change.

With our upcoming MuseumNext USA conference focusing on the theme ‘Revolution’ we wanted to dig into this subject further and commissioned a survey of 1000 Americans, to investigate the public perception of museums, protest and politics.

Who do you trust more, a museum or a politician?
Following the 2016 presidential election our current era has been described as ‘post truth’ with U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway coining the term ‘alternative facts’ and a recent Oxford University study finding that a quarter of news stories shared on Twitter during the French presidential election were fake.

With this in mind, we asked survey participants ‘how much do you trust the following to tell the truth?’ giving them a choice of politicians, brands, media, celebrities and museums. Politicians proved the least trusted while museums ranked the most trustworthy.

This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially considering the political fall out from the US presidential election, dissatisfaction with President Trump and continued suspicion of wrong doing by Hilary Clinton. Museums are seen as trusted institutions and that political capital is especially important if museums wish to influence social change.

Who takes a stand?
Next we asked about brands, celebrities and museums taking a stance on social issues. While more than 75% could identify a celebrity who has campaigned on an issue and 61% a brand, only 15% knew of a museum being socially active in this way.

This seems surprising considering the publicity there has been recently about museums standing up against the ‘muslim ban’ and the interest within the sector in activism. If museums are to influence social change then they need to communicate this and clearly they aren’t currently seen by the public as standing up for social issues. 

Should museums have something to say about social issues?
From making statements in support of immigrants to standing up for facts, museums are increasingly speaking about social issues, but do the public agree that museums should have an opinion on issues such as women’s rights, the environment and minority rights?

We asked ‘do you believe that museums should have something to say about social issues?’ Overall only 27.5% of respondents said Yes to this question, with 31% saying no and 40.5% saying maybe.

However the number of people who felt that museums should have something to say on social issues changed depending on how much a person had interacted with a museum in the past 12 months.

Those who had not visited a museum in that time were less likely to believe that a museum should have something to say about social issues, with just 21% stating that they should.

This increase to 27% when someone had visited 1 – 2 times, 35% when someone had visited 3 – 4 times, 37% when someone had visited 5 – 6 times and 39.5% when someone had been to a museum more than 6 times in the past 12 months.

Visitors under the age of 30 were more likely to think that museums should speak up about social issues. 38% said they believed museums should do this while 42% answered ‘maybe’.

Do you think that a museums that talks about social issues would be more or less relevant to you?
Building on the previous question we were interested to know how museums tackling social issues might change the perception that visitors and potential visitors have of them. Do the American public think that a museum talking about social issues would make it more or less relevant to them.

33% said that they felt a museum that talks about social issues would be more relevant with 27% stating less relevant and 40% not sure. Those who haven’t visited a museum in the past twelve months are less likely to think that social issues would persuade them that museums are relevant to them, while this rises from 21% to 37% for those who have visited a museum more than 6 times in the past 12 months.

The number of people who think that museums would be more relevant to them by talking about social issues jumps when we look at people aged under 30. 44% of this age group believe that a museum that speaks about social issues would be more relevant to them.

Do you think that you would be more likely to visit a museum that took a stand on issues that matter to you?
Building on the previous question we wondered if this perceived relevance would drive people to visit a museum. 38% said they would be more likely to visit a museum that spoke about issues that mattered for them, with this figure dropping to 31% for those who haven’t visited a museum in the past 12 months.

Again we see a spike in interest from people aged under 30 with 51% of this age group saying that they would be more likely to visit a museum that took a stand, and a further 20% saying it might make them more likely to visit.

When asked if museums should actively campaign on issues such as homelessness, inequality and the environment, 47% of the under 30 age group said yes, while a further 28% said maybe. This would further point to a real hunger in the under 30 age group for museums to be more activist.

The public have noticed both brands and celebrities speaking up about social issues, but museums doing this have not been noticed doing this to the same extent. Overall there is a mixed response to museums being more activist, but younger audiences respond very positively to the idea of museums taking a stand.

With the under 30 demographic being especially hard for most museums to attract, producing exhibitions with a social issue agenda could be great way for museums to not only have a positive impact on their community but also boost younger visitors.

About the Author

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked as a consultant to the museum sector for more than twenty years advising on technology and leadership. Jim now splits his time between running innovation consultancy for museums and leading our museum conferences around the globe.