Museums are consistently ranked among the most trusted institutions in the United States. Research commissioned by the AAM in 2001 found that nearly 9 in 10 Americans find museums trustworthy, and no other institution has rated a similar level of trust. Subsequent research, including reports published by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (2008), Reach Advisors (2015), IMPACTS Research (2017), and Wilkening Consulting (2018), tracked high and sustained levels of trust in the public in museums at the beginning of the 21st century. To test whether this trust has withstood the challenges of the past two years, the American Alliance of Museums worked with Wilkening Consulting to ask the American public if they trust American museums and why. The main results are summarized in the new report Museums and Trust 2021.
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The survey was released in May 2021, collecting more than 1,200 responses from a group that closely matches the American adult population in terms of age, education, race and ethnicity.
The core of the survey asked respondents to rank their trust in museums as well as a range of other institutions (including the US government, nonprofits / NGOs in general, the media, corporations and companies), as well as their reliance on specific types of museums, from art museums to zoos. To explore how trust may vary between different segments of the public, the survey also collected information on demographics (race and ethnicity, age, gender, education level) as well as the behaviors of respondents. in terms of museum attendance and their political values. This research also explored why people trust museums, and what they expect from museums in terms of how they do and should present information to the public.
Museums and Trust 2021 confirms that the public continues to view museums as highly trustworthy, ranking second after friends and family, and significantly more trustworthy than researchers and scientists, NGOs in general, various news organizations, government, business and business, and social media. For respondents who have visited a museum in the past two years (a quarter of respondents), museums are the number one trusted source of information. This high level of trust is consistent for museums of all types, from art museums to zoos. The top three reasons cited as contributing to this trust are that museums are fact-based, showcase real / authentic / original objects, and are research-oriented.
The demographics of trust
The report examined trust through the prism of race and ethnicity, political affiliation, and attitudes toward inclusion. Some highlights of these analyzes: People from households made up only of people who identify as white have significantly more confidence in museums than people from households made up of people of color. Respondents from all political backgrounds have great confidence in museums, although those who identify as liberal have slightly higher levels of trust than those who identify as conservative or moderate. In general, people who express inclusive attitudes trust museums much more than people who express anti-inclusive attitudes or are ambivalent about inclusion. That said, the general tendency for museums to enjoy high trust holds true across all segments of race and ethnicity, political beliefs, and attitudes toward inclusion.
This report confirms that museums enjoy strong, non-partisan support. Trust levels in museums are generally high for people who identify as conservative, moderate and liberal. Museums are tied with “friends and family” for first place among moderates. They rank second among “friends and family” for the Conservatives and second among “researchers and / or scientists” for the Liberals. And museum buffs (people who report visiting a museum in the past two years) are evenly spread across the political spectrum.
Influence public attitudes and behaviors
The Museums and Trust 2021 survey asked respondents a variety of questions about the role of museums in taking positions on important issues. In the process, he probed public attitudes toward “neutrality,” a term that was used by audience participants in other research. (AAM recognizes that the public interpretation of the term is in tension with the growing awareness in the museum profession that museums are not neutral but rather inherently present a specific point of view (Murawski, 2017; Rodriguez, 2017; Sentence, 2018; Autry & Murawski, 2019).)
More than a third (35%) of respondents indicated that one of the reasons that contributes to their trust in museums is that museums are ‘non-partisan / neutral’, and 27% think it is never appropriate for museums to suggest or recommend behaviors or actions to the public. Visitors to museums are more likely to think museums have a point of view, but just as likely as non-visitors to think museums “should” always be neutral. People who think museums are neutral express higher levels of trust (in organizations in general and in museums in particular) and are twice as likely to view museums as credible sources of information than people who think museums have a specific program. This information can inform how museums frame their dialogue with the public around the positions they take and the impact they wish to have on the world.
As noted in Audiences and Inclusion: A Guide to Cultivating More Inclusive Attitudes Among the Public, (Wilkening Consulting and AAM, 2021), museums need to cultivate a deeper understanding of the values and attitudes that the public expresses towards museums and the idea of neutrality. This understanding will allow them to pace their work at the “speed of trust” in order to be effective forums for civil discourse. The fact that museums are trustworthy means that they have the potential to influence opinions and attitudes, as long as they are also good communicators.
Download the full report on Museums and the Trust