Do non-visitors trust museums as much as visitors do?
As we near another election season in the United States, the issue of trust is on many of our minds. Political candidates are taking the stage to tout their nation-changing ideas and battle for respect, admiration, and attention. But we now live in a politically divided land with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and have even experienced misinformation campaigns that have threatened our democracy.
It’s no surprise that we may be wondering how much to trust our leaders, potential leaders, and sources of information. But there’s a type of entity whose trustworthiness is not in question: Museums.
People trust museums.
We’ve shared the data cut through the end of 2018 on trust in museums. This data is cut for folks residing within the United States – whether they have ever visited these types of institutions or not. But what happens when we parse out those who have recently visited each of these organization types and those who have not? Do people who are NOT recent visitors trust museums?
We have the answer.
1) Museums are more trusted than newspapers
Before we introduce new data, let’s revisit how much people trust museums compared to state agencies, federal agencies, the daily newspaper, and other non-governmental organizations. Comparing trust in museums to trust in other types of entities allows us to lend some meaningful context to the findings.
This finding was also highlighted recently in the American Alliance of Museums’ 2019 TrendsWatch Report, created by the Center for the Future of Museums.
People in the US trust museums. They consider museums to be credible sources of information, expect them to recommend action related to their missions, and do not generally perceive them to have political agendas.
2) Both visitors and non-visitors trust museums
But does trust in museums depend upon direct engagement with the organization? It stands to reason that the kind of people who actively visit museums (active visitors) may be more inclined to trust museums than those who are not recent visitors… or who have never visited a certain museum at all!
In the charts below, we’ve parsed out “recent visitors” to specific museum types. These folks have visited one or more such organization within the last two years.
“Not recent visitors” are people who have not visited that organization type in the last two years. This category includes folks who visited longer than two years ago, perhaps only once or twice in their lives, or who have never visited at all.
(We see you, botanic gardens and children’s museums. We’ve added you to this data query. You hold this superpower as well!)
These scalar variables are high. For context (as I reference frequently), “Ice cream tastes good” has a mean value of 75, and one of our highest metrics is “kittens are cute” – coming in at a mean value of 83. With that in mind, check out the values above!
The perceived trustworthiness of museums is high, and the differences in perceptions between visitors and non-visitors are not statistically significant. The implication of this data is that one need not be an active attendee to these museums types to view them as trustworthy.
One need not visit these entities to trust that they know their stuff.
Surprising? Maybe not. I did not attend Stanford University, but I believe it is generally a trustworthy source of information. A similar thing may be happening here. The superpower of public trust may be embedded into the reputation of these organizations thanks to their history, missions, academic integrity, and their care in being knowledgable sources.
We see a bigger delta between recent visitors and non-recent visitors in the perception that these organizations are highly credible sources of information. But don’t be fooled by the visual comparison!
Values above 64 start to indicate agreement with the sentiment, and values under 62 begin the indicate disagreement. With values in the 70s, there is strong agreement with the statement for both audiences that museums are highly credible sources of information.
Though non-visitors’ agreement is not quite as high as recent visitors, both groups agree that museums should recommend certain behaviors or ways for the general public to support its causes and mission.
As organizations that are trustworthy and highly credible sources of information, people expect museums to recommend actions and behaviors that underscore their missions and causes. From inspiring a reduction in plastic waste, to encouraging volunteering for programs to make art accessible to underserved communities, to becoming a member, to providing the facts – people look to museums to make the world better. They also look to museums to help them do the same.
There is not a statistically significant difference between recent visitors and non-recent visitors in the perception that museums have political agendas. Put another way: Museums are not generally seen as having political agendas.
With values under 62 beginning the indicate disagreement, all of these entities have lower values and are solidly in the “disagreement camp.” Despite having the highest scalar values of the group, zoos and aquariums are still not generally perceived as having a political agenda.
(Zoos and aquariums: I’ll share more about what is going on here and data on how entities may strengthen perceptions related to this finding during my general session at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums conference in September.)
Colloquially: Scores in the 20s for children’s museums essentially put peoples’ responses in the “This question is ridiculous” category. (Their disagreement is strong and without much variance.)
3) “With great power comes great responsibility”
The charts above show audience research (recent visitors) vs. broader market research (not recent visitors) in regard to how people perceive different museum types, on average. It’s not a clear recommendation to do more of one thing or less of another in terms of advocacy or programmatic offerings. These are “just the facts” regarding one of museums’ greatest superpowers: Public trust.
It’s up to leaders of cultural organizations to decide how to maintain – and how to leverage when necessary – this incredible superpower for their organizations. Museums are trusted, and they are trusted at high levels.
But I also don’t believe that public trust is forever promised to museums.
These high values aren’t necessarily a “green light” to do whatever an institution pleases without consideration to how those actions may impact trust perceptions. They certainly don’t suggest that being “political for the sake of being political” is necessarily a good idea. We’ve seen actions that may be perceived as political pay off, but we’ve also seen them backfire.
The best we are able to discern between initiatives that strengthen an organization’s reputation and those that do not goes back to the basics: Mission. People view museums as champions for their missions, and worthy of recommending behaviors related to those missions. Generally speaking, we observe good things for organizations that stand for…. well, what they say they stand for!
No doubt about it: The level of trust bestowed upon museums is hard-earned and valuable. However, just because people trust museums doesn’t mean everyone feels welcomed at these institutions or that they would take the first opportunity to visit that their schedule allows – even if museums all offered free admission.
But perhaps museums can leverage public trust to inform solutions to these opportunities.
We have a superpower.
Let’s use it… wisely.
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