Museums need a revolution of trust.
The word trust is a common one in the museum field, embedded in mission statements and uttered by venerable directors. However, in both instances, museums use the word most commonly in terms of their holdings. Museums keep collections in trust for people. Spend a moment considering that language. Museums hold important artifacts of history, human or natural, for us. In other words, like a trust fund, the collection is kept safe and protected, for the next generation of beneficiaries. This is, of course, commendable. Collections are often the body of museums. However, collections are not the soul of museums—ideas are. These ideas are brought to collections by people: curators, educators, and visitors, amongst others. Here lies the crux of so many challenges in this sector. Trust is something that museums offer their collections, but don’t offer much of their staff or their visitors. Without that trust, the people involved in museums cannot bring their best ideas to the fore, leaving collections poorly activated.
The issue of trust is at the center of many of the internal problems of museums. Executive staff, busy with responsibility, often cosset themselves away from visitors leaving lower level staff charged with attempting to translate the real concerns of patrons to the higher echelons. Such trickle up relationships can work if lower level staff are afforded trust by their superiors. Trust could be expressed through face time, decision-making power, salary scale, and/or credit for work.
The dearth of trust in museums extends to their relationships with visitors. Museums often do not express trust in visitors in their spatial and cultural norms. Instead of trust, we project fear to visitors. We fear them with our collections. Think of the deportment of guards. These museum professionals have the greatest face time with our visitors; yet they are often trained to project a restrained, if not punitive, attitude.
The lack of trust in our visitors is also expressed in the way that collections are interpreted. Permanent collection galleries use labels with often illegibly small font and inscrutable text. Exhibitions are allowed greater latitude in general, due to their temporary nature. In other words, in general, visitor-centered interpretive and design norms can only occur in museums in the places that do not create permanent change to the culture. While some museums solicit visitor feedback, the change to our field is incremental. Said differently, we do not trust the change our visitors might advocate. Sure, we might have an exhibition that has a Post-it note talkbacks. But, this type of change is barely noticeable to a visitor who has lived through the whirlwind of technological changes that are the essence of contemporary society. Herein is a major factor of fear; visitors might want something that is totally different than what museums do.
The lack of trust offered to staff and visitors have massive ramifications for our field. Staff burnout and turnover is a problem. In fields where external jobs have better pay, like technology and marketing, staff leave and take their field-knowledge. In other fields, like education, staff stagnate and wither. The staffing challenges then are translated into visitor experiences that do not embody trust. Visitors in turn often feel uncomfortable in our spaces; they can tell we don’t trust them. Visitors move into other leisure experiences.
In the end, if our collections are held in trust. then our visitors are our constituents, a relationship not unlike a voter to an elected representative. And, just as a senator who has broken his trust with his voters can be voted out, people vote with their actions in the museum sphere. Our attendance is decreasing. In other words, increasingly people are choosing not to trust us with their time. Visitorship is already skewed demographically towards wealth and whiteness, and rather than diversifying our visitors, those wary of being profiled are less likely to visit.
So, what are we going to do to earn their trust? We need to change our whole culture, from the way we treat our staff to the way we treat our visitors. We need to face our fears of change. We need to trust that the people who want to participate in our culture (from lower level staff to general visitors) have a personal stake in our success. We need to express our trust with systemic change, rather than peripheral amendments.
Without these fundamental changes in the structure of museums, currently focusing trust and transparency on a small set of our culture (the executive team and board), the work we do is less than optimum. We can’t speak of political movements and yet remain immune to them. A trust-based model means that more people share the decision-making, but then that also means more people share the ownership. This trust revolution, and with its concomitant, and required, decrease in fear of change, would transform museums from places that hold collections in trust for people to places that trust people with collections.
So How Will We Do This?
First, you need to think about trust itself. Trust is a moment of vulnerability and two-way connection. Trust takes honesty and courage. You lose something certainly, power particularly. But, you also gain, empathy and connectedness. In the end, you find yourself amongst people who feel a connection to you. You are in other words insulated by their trust in you.
In terms of museums, there are three keys: trust collections, visitors, and staff. We are going to focus on the people because we are really good at trusting the collection.
Let’s start with Visitor
When of the biggest challenges of trust come when the visitor meets the collection. Many objects cannot be handled. Explain why or better show why touching objects can often lead damaging those pieces. They know that we don’t trust them. They can tell. Visitors don’t feel comfortable in our spaces, and our spaces are generally almost purposefully uncomfortable. Don’t think so? Just look for a comfortable seat in a museum gallery.
So what are some ways we can turn this culture of distrust around?
- Share don’t tell. (Be open in your interpretation. Allow people to come to their own conclusions.)
- Make the visitor a co-steward in the welfare of the collection. (Think of the difference between snapping, “don’t touch” and mentioning “we need to keep this safe.”)
- Believe they can handle difficult topics. (Ignorance of a certain topic is not stupidity in general. They were smart enough to enter the museum :>)
- Be open to multiple ways that visitors may approach the collection.
- Be more thoughtful in the ways your guards connect to visitors. (Empower guards to be kind.)
- Make your spaces less inscrutable. (Don’t make them feel lost.)
And now Staff
Museums are, however, inherently hierarchical. So, trust can be parsed out by where the other person stands in relation to you.
To your superiors
- Find ways to share what you really think. (Test the waters will small moments to see if you can trust them.)
- Be sociable. (Take this one slowly. Feel them out.)
- Work hard and show your work. (Let them know you don’t magic your deliverables.)
- Question kindly. (Don’t just disagree so you can. And, ask in ways that don’t sound personal.)
- Don’t say anything about them that you wouldn’t say to them. (That said, find a way to let out your negative feelings, say journaling, telling spouse, voodoo doll (?))
To your peers
- Share your ideas. (They might steal them. But, you have more ideas).
- Don’t personalize. (It’s not all about you.)
- Help them. (Open doors. Share Pens. Pick up the slack.)
- Be on their team, even if you are in different divisions. (Listen, hear, and care.)
To your staff or those junior to you:
Trust in one’s staff begins with valuing the staff. Trust goes both ways. Here are concrete steps in developing trust in your workspace. Because there is a power differential between you and your staff they need to know that they can trust you.
Before you can trust your staff, you must set the conditions for a work culture that allows for or encourages trust.
- Train the staff to be good at their job. (Training takes time, money and effort, so make sure you plan for that).
- Set expectations then allow them to operate within those expectations. (Tell them what success looks like. If you don’t know, you are not leading.)
- Don’t micro-manage (If you really know how to do their job better; take that job instead).
- Voice concerns early before they fester. (Don’t tell them 6 months after they pissed you off. Also, why are you still angry after 6 months? You are the one who did nothing.)
- Give staff clear/ concise goals. (What do you want? They are not mind-readers.)
- Believe they know the best way to accomplish their job. (Don’t worry. They got this).
- Be transparent about decisions made that affect your staff. (I assure you they will guess on your motivations. Why waste their time?)
- Be honest about why you are asking for staff’s opinions. (is it for a show? Or do you really want to hear their opinion? Be honest if you don’t.)
- Know names. Use them. (They are human. Treat them that way.)
- Be social. Be kind. (Don’t treat them as your inferiors, unless you want inferior work from them.)
Finally, and most importantly, show yourself trust. The more you can trust others with your true self, the more you will grow in the field. Know that you are doing your best. If you feel like you are not, then move yourself to the place, mentally, where you can.
If each person in the field picked four ways to add more trust in our field, four simple concrete items, we would start a revolution. It’s a simple numbers game. 4 times everyone in this field, of 1.6 million more moments of trust. Over time, there would be an exponential shift in the culture of the field, in the way that visitors feel, and in the way that museums are perceived. The collections, a core defining feature, would remain as trusted as ever. But, instead of being part just housed in buildings, they would be surrounded by people who feel as trusted as the collections.
This is post is my summary of my MuseumNext USA talk in Portland. Thanks to them (Jim and Kala) for letting me share my ideas on that large stage. To hear the talk, catch the video.