After the contentious “Brexit” referendum and an equally divisive U.S. presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket, “Post-Truth” was selected by Oxford Dictionaries as 2016‘s international word of the year. What does the current Post-Truth era – when objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief – mean for the role of museums as public institutions? Following are some reflections on this question.
While it is perhaps reassuring that according to AAM “Museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofits researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers” (Museums R+D, Reach Advisors), does the Post-Truth decline in influence of objective facts mean that museums correspondingly play a less influential and less significant role in society?
One can argue that the opposite may be the case – that in a Post-Truth era museums are potentially more influential and have a larger role to play, precisely because they are both trusted and invite visitors to become active participants in the exploration and discovery of “facts,” “truth,” and “reality” based on each individual’s mediated interaction with museum objects in the context of the institution’s exhibits and educational programs. The emphasis on discovery learning inherent to most museums assumes that each visitor brings their own life experiences and personal knowledge to these encounters. By fostering an environment in which visitors are encouraged to question assumptions and be open to dialogue with others, museums offer a made-to-order recipe for avoiding the pitfalls of the Post-Truth era.
However, there is a caveat. Current social activism – something that theoretically museum best practices should welcome and be aligned with – has the potential to be directed critically at museums themselves. Holland Cotter’s recent article “Money, Ethics, Art: Can Museums Police Themselves” in The New York Times discusses some of the ways that such activism has focused critical scrutiny on several prominent museums, including The Whitney, The Met, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as any institution that has objects in its collections that were appropriated through Western colonization of the Third World. The ethical issues under scrutiny are wide ranging: from an initial failure to consult relevant indigenous communities while planning for an exhibit of Native American pottery by the Mimbres people, to the ethics of accepting “tainted” financial support from selected donors and/or museum trustees. As Cotter notes, “in the space of barely a year, the very foundations of museums – the money that sustains them, the art that fills them, the decision makers that run them – have been called into question. And there’s no end to the questioning in sight.”
While there are lessons to be learned from each of the ethical issues raised in the examples cited by Cotter, the overarching principle collectively revealed is even more critical. If museums hope to retain the current widespread trust of the American public in the Post-Truth Era, then as a profession it is essential that first we must each look long and hard at the ethics underpinning our own institutions.
John E. Coraor, Ph.D.
Cultural Management Partners LLC