On Objectivity & What Museums Can Learn from News Organizations

Recently, Koven Smith retweeted an article from the American Alliance of Museums that unpacked the contention that museums are one of the most trusted sources of knowledge. An overwhelming number of respondents (87%) felt that museums were “one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information.”  As the AAM article lays out, visitors did not see museums as a place to deal with relevant or controversial issues, i.e. issues that might be considered subjective. Instead, museums were seen as spaces for leisure enjoyment, not for controversy.

On Objectivity: 

This article and the tweet struck a chord, because I have been thinking about the perception of objectivity since Museum and the Web.  The opening plenary, given by Tim Phillips of Beyond Conflict, served as a call to arms to engage people in our collections through multiple relevant intercessions. As is my habit, I took notes by Twitter.  One of my tweets seemed fairly innocuous to me:

In response, I received a number of troll-style responses (now blocked). The trolls spoke of the destruction of America itself by trying to subvert museums from a single narrative to a variety of ancillary, and unnecessary, narratives.  While I love a tweet storm as much as many, and enjoy bringing any point down to 139 choice characters, I was at a loss. The anger about inclusion didn’t surprise me. Equity often makes people uncomfortable; there is always the fear that a bigger table means less companionship for some. What surprised me were number of comments about the objectivity of museums.

Museum work is social situated. Curating is about deciding on a narrative. If you are doing cutting-edge work, you might be completely changing the historical record. Even in the simplest rehang of a gallery, choices are made. Some narratives didn’t make it in.

People seem acutely aware that news makes tough choices. Readers seem to understand that news is subjective, even before Fake News became a regular harping point. Letters to the editor often include points where readers disagree with writers. On the Media, on NPR, regularly shares issues about media responses to issues, in terms of scale and approach.  People get that the news is not a monolith.

While the backlash against fake news can be searing, there is also a wonderful public discourse and engagement with the products of the Media.  With that in mind, museums would only grow patrons by shedding their veneer of objectivity.  Implementing this would require molting of long projected tenets, and this will be challenging.  However, the transformation of the media in the last decade offers useful starting points.

Here are some useful starting points:

  1. Ideas are the product!  Newspapers, with their wonderful smell of printers ink, are slowing becoming like the platypus, relics of another era that exists in small quantity reminding us of the past. The news itself has long since been freed of paper, moved to the electronic realm, an evolutionary leap.   Media companies stayed with what they knew, sharing current ideas, rather than reinventing their format out of whole cloth.  Museums are good at interpreting ideas, putting them in frameworks, describing patterns, and drawing conclusions from grouping objects. These are all idea activities.  Museums do sometimes remember this, like when a particularly good app comes out (go to SFMOMA now). But, often, museums can’t free themselves from their current form to focus on ideas. They can’t imagine the next step in the evolutionary path, and if they aren’t careful, they could go the way of the dodo.
  2. The News is New The earliest newspapers sprung up around the same time museums, both born of Enlightenment ideals of knowledge seeking. In that time, newspapers have changed, particularly in the 21st century, turning from newspapers to media companies (as discussed above).  As a result, media companies project newness, and also practice it. They create new features, like the New York Times interactives or VR initiatives. They fail. They try again.  Museums, on the other hand,  appear to be the same old places with calm quiet galleries.  They project the air of having been the same for time immemorial. Now, as a museum change-maker, I myself might argue that museums have changed.  But, these changes, like apps and learning spaces, likely seem incremental to outsiders.
  3. The Media Makers are in the Story Media groups are transparent about processes. News reporters shoot 2-shots with themselves looking on as victims cry.  Writers includes phrases, hackneyed as they are, like “this reporter for one.”  Museums, on the other hand, practice subjectivity while projecting objectivity.  Without seeing the process, visitors assume a seamless, faultless interpretive plan. Museum could show the choice points and highlight the subject nature of their work better. And, I don’t mean trotting out curators. I mean showing the multiplicity of narratives and challenges to making interpretive decisions.
  4. The News Never Sleeps Years ago, I had a friend in graduate school who had been a journalist.  He could write papers without any procrastination and in a blink. I asked him how he could possibly accomplish such feats. Simple, he told me. He is just being a journalist. Now, while museums don’t need to do a 16-page spread everyday, the timeline of newspapers allows for little preciosity. There isn’t time.  But, the fast timeline also allows for people to hone their skills and for readers to shape the product–everyday.  Think of how good labels would be if there were op eds about their drawbacks!
  5. Errata, errata, errata When you work fast, and with ideas that are subjective, you will get things wrong.  Frankly, when you spend 5 years on a book and an exhibition, you will also get things wrong.  Humans make mistakes.  In the case of media companies, as the publish/ broadcast their ideas, it is quite natural for them to similarly push out their corrections and apologies.  Museums, on the other hand, are more reticent to share such mistakes in interpretation.  When you don’t showcase your mistakes, people don’t know you make them.  When museums hide their mistakes, people see them as static and immutable.

Want to learn more?  Try this podcast that I found very interesting from @museopunks. 

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