Tuesday 22 February 2022

Museums, media and public trust: National Digital Forum opening, February 2022

I was delighted to be asked (along with Honiana Love from Ngā Taonga, Rachel Esson from National Library, and Stephen Clarke from Archives New Zealand) to give a short presentation at the 2022 NDF conference this week. 

I've been engaged with NDF for such a long time now - as attendee, Board member, conference organiser and speaker. It always feels like going home.

This year I felt extra lucky to be asked to introduce Anna Fifield, editor of the DominionPost, for her keynote lecture, and then conduct a Q&A afterwards. This gave me an opportunity to examine some ideas I've been mulling for awhile now, about the connection between museums (and the wider GLAM sector, but museums is my knowledge area), the media and public trust. It was fuelled by that old adage, "the news is the first draft of history" and my addiction to that peculiarly specific genre, the media commenting on itself (like the legendary Mediawatch). Over the last few years we've seen the media critically engaging with its own histories and practices - one of the reasons Anna was asked to present was Stuff's Our Truth: Tā Mātou Pono work - in much the same way museums and cultural institutions have looked at their own histories, ignorance and damaging actions and sought to do better. I was keen to draw out these connections.

Stuff have also made an explicit commitment to public trust as their key performance metric, as described by owner Sinead Boucher in this interview with Duncan Greive. Trust is a topic the media canvasses regularly (see this Mediawatch segment from last year). It's also a topic museums are regularly gathering data on. My particular area of interest is where trust and expectations of neutrality collide. 

In my framing talk, I returned to a section of a presentation I gave in 2014 at NDF, looking at a piece of research conducted by the British Museums Association into what the public expected from museums. Asked to rank a group of purposes supplied by the museum sector, workshop participants rated collecting and caring for national heritage as the core and most important purpose of museums, and social change / care for vulnerable people as lowest priority. Seeking to tackle controversial topics or shape opinions in any way was seen as counter to museums' purpose and undermining of the trusted position they held. 

Looking at recent research from Britain, Australia and America, in my talk I touched on this ongoing tension between trust and neutrality. In the era of Covid, mis and disinformation, the current anti-mandate protests in Wellington and the rising antagonism towards the media in Aotearoa, this felt like a fruitful place to start a conversation about what our sector and the media could learn from each other.

Resources that informed this presentation and the Q&A with Anna Fifield:

Museums Association, In museums they trust 2013

Britain Thinks for Museums Association, Public perceptions of - and attitudes to - the purposes of museums in society, 2013 [referenced in talk]

Nina Simon, Seeking clarity about the complementary nature of social work and the arts, 2013

Courtney Johnston, Museums and social work: a year of changing thinking, 2014

Dr fari nzinga, Public trust and art museums, The Incluseum, 2016

American Alliance of Museums, Museums and trust, 2021 [referenced in talk]

Western Australian Museum, Value of museums demonstrated during Covid-19, 2021 

Democracy 2025, Political trust and democracy in times of Coronavirus, 2021 [referenced in talk]

Museum Next, Museum curators amongst most trusted professionals, 2021 [referenced in talk]


Edelman Trust Barometer 2022

Anna Fifield, Letter from the editor: On choosing what not to cover, Stuff, 2021 [referenced in talk]

MediaWatch for 19 December 2021, RNZ, 2021 (featuring Hal Crawford, see below)

Hal Crawford, RIP centrism: Why Stuff is gradually moving left while the Herald inches right, The Spinoff, 2021

Anna Fifield, When did our public servants get so arrogant, Stuff, 2022

Andrew Ecclestone and Simon Wright, How the media can improve the toxic dynamic with government, Stuff, 2022