Here's something to be proud of. Museums (and libraries) are trusted sources of information. In February 2001, AAM commissioned a study about the trustworthiness of museums and found that "Almost 9 out of 10 Americans (87%) find museums to be one of the most trustworthy or a trustworthy source of information among a wide range of choices. Books are a distant second at 61%, and a majority of Americans find print and broadcast media and the Internet to be not trustworthy." Last month, the IMLS published a report on a survey of 1,700 people, with similar findings about trustworthiness of museums and libraries, and some great added information about how use of the internet benefits both museums (with higher in-person visitation) and visitors (with more ways to find information of interest).
But here's the problem. I don't entirely trust these reports. They were both commissioned by organizations whose purpose is to support museums and libraries. Would you trust a survey report about consumer confidence in meat safety commissioned by the beef industry?
And here's the bigger problem. It's great that museums are a trusted source of information. But is that really our mission? And more practically, is being a trusted source of information a key value proposition? People are not choosing museums over google when they need to find something out, regardless of how trustworthy we are. Trustworthiness is just one factor, alongside availability, quality, and others, that we take into account when we seek out information. And most contemporary museums are not only places for information-seeking. Do we want to be trusted for our ability to provide factual information or our ability to inspire and engage visitors?
Both? No. You can't be equally committed to both. There are trade-offs to each of these. Your friend who tells fascinating, colorful stories may not be the person you turn to for the straight dope. The Presidential candidate with the ironclad principles may not be the one with whom you want to have a beer. We trust different people and institutions in different ways--to be respectful, to keep our secrets, to give us love, to give us information.
And this is where museums' championed trustworthiness starts to hold us back. Being a trusted source of information can be a barrier that keeps us from sharing content with visitors that might be more contemporary, more ambiguous, more contentious--information that may not be trusted. It makes us uncomfortable with opening museum content up to comment, tagging, and alterations by visitors. In short, it limits museums from being places that are trusted as institutions of public engagement and interaction--the places many museums claim they want to be.
How can we transition from people trusting our information to trusting their ability to participate in museums and be respected, safe, and rewarded for doing so?
Museums aren't the only venues facing this question: news outlets, corporate brands, and educators are also grappling with the question of trust in the participatory age. There are some simple things we can do to be more trustworthy on an engagement level, namely:
Be reachable. One of the reasons that thousands of people trust Frank Warren (of Postsecret) with their secrets is the fact that he invites them to send postcards to him at home. Frank doesn't give people some office address behind a generic business name--you are writing to a real person at a real house. I'm not suggesting we publish our home addresses on museum websites. I AM suggesting that we publish complete staff directories with phone numbers and email addresses on websites. How many times have you visited a museum site in search of a phone number or email address and woken up two hours later dizzy from the painful and ultimately unsuccessful phone system nightmare? Yes, this means you will get more random solicitations from 5th graders writing book reports on your content. But it also means that when people feel a need to get in touch with you, they have a way to do so. It's just plain courteous, and if we trust our visitors the way we trust clients or friends, we should make this available.
Make content authorship transparent. When I read the New York Times online, each article's author's name is hotlinked and there is an easy and direct way to contact him/her. Why don't we stand behind our words the way reporters do? When we allow visitors to add their own bits to exhibit labels or react on the web, we often ask them to add their name. Whether on blogs or talk-back walls, people are more conscious about their comments when they know their name will be associated with their work. But this goes both ways. We ask visitors to do us the courtesy of taking responsibility for their words, but we rarely identify ourselves. To paraphrase Elaine Gurian, exhibit messaging can be overt or covert--either way it's still there. I'd like to see exhibits and web content with authorship clearly assigned to a human being who I can contact, so I understand who is the source of the message.
Be honest about mistakes. You may remember the NPR stories in 2007 about changes in the way that doctors acknowledge mistakes and offer apologies. Formerly avoided as a fount for litigation, apologies have now been shown to lead to less litigation and more positive doctor-patient trust relationships. Fortunately, we're not in a life-or-death business, so we should feel even more assured that honesty, not marketing spin, might be the best policy for gaining trust. In the Web 2.0 world, this goes even further with sites launched in beta (before they are finished) and frequent blog updates from the designers about bugs they are fixing and customer complaints they are addressing. Community sites often maintain this back-channel discussion with users after launch, letting them know about scheduled outages and ways they are addressing community concerns (for example, the Second Life blog and community meetings). Of course, this can go too far--if you are always apologizing for mistakes, people might think you have a basic stability problem, which erodes another kind of trust--the kind museums already have locked up.
Find a way to vet non-traditional primary sources. There are two reasons to pursue this: for better accuracy (trusted source of info) and for more diverse inclusion of voices (trusted source of varied social experience). On the accuracy front, sites like Wikipedia have developed methods of community authoring and editing that make them more voluminous AND more accurate than traditional encyclopedic sources. It gets trickier when you move from the encyclopedia to citizen journalism (check out this interesting article from the New Yorker about the rise of Huffington Post, an online hodge podge news source), but there are plenty of techniques, from staff editorial boards (OhMyNews) to popular voting (Digg) used to maintain a certain trusted level of content.
And then there's the value of primary voices for interestingness. Every fifth grader knows that a good report includes at least three primary sources, and yet museum text often reads in a generic wash of academic-speak with few quotations from the folks actually creating, using, or interacting with the objects on display. Citizen journalism, blogs, and talkback walls aren't just interesting because they offer more volume of content. They reflect individual voices and stories, and the more diverse voices are engaged, the more trustworthy a source is as a true "voice of the people."
Be personal. I'm reading a book of essays about how to teach written by teens. It's amazing how much emphasis the students put on reciprocity: you respect me, I'll respect you. It's very relational. They don't talk much about trusting their teacher's information; instead, they focus on teachers' willingness to engage and support them as learners. Many of the teens write, "learn with us. Then we will trust that you care about us learning too." These teens are asking a lot of their teachers emotionally. But gaining visitors' trust doesn't have to require spilling your guts. When the Monterey Bay Aquarium mounted an exhibition about population growth and its implications, they included staff comments on the talk-back wall--not as authorities, but as fellow humans struggling with the issues of overpopulation. These personal voices made the Aquarium staff more trustworthy as engaged participants themselves.
What can you do to gain visitors' trust?