A Transatlantic Dialogue on Trust in Museums: Sunhild Kleingärtner and Scott Miller in Conversation
Museums as public institutions play an important role in the presenting, conserving, and shaping of cultural narratives. In today’s politically charged times, it is not easy for museums to navigate the political discourses that are quickly and constantly changing. At the same time, due to a focus on transparent provenance, research and educational programs, museums still enjoy a great deal of public trust today according to a recent study by the American Alliance of Museums. Thomas Mann Fellow Sunhild Kleingärtner, an archaeologist with museum-based expertise, met Scott Miller, the Director for Research Management and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution — the world’s largest research museum complex — at the library of the Thomas Mann House to discuss political issues pertinent to the question of museums as trusted institutions: Is it even possible to think of museums as inherently nonpolitical? What are key factors that foster trust in museums?
Sunhild Kleingärtner: Our conversation today centers around the political dimension of museums and its connection to public trust in cultural institutions. We are sitting here in the former office of Thomas Mann, a prominent German political figure during the 20th century. Having a look around you see Thomas Mann’s bookshelves with his original books, that remind you of him as a professional writer. Having another look around you notice the way the inside of this office protects you from everything outside, such as the lovely Californian sun which could distract you from work, the smell from the lemon tree outside, and some thought-provoking conversations on the terrace. It’s a so-called ‘closed-shop,’ and I think this is a great link to start our conversation about public trust in the institution of the museum in the U.S. and Germany Since Thomas Mann was a political man, it is important to talk about the political dimensions of museums related to trust. We know the world of museums is huge and we cannot talk about all types of museums and that is why we are focusing solely on research museums [The term research museum refers to museums that conduct research to provide insight on scientific processes to the public]. I come from the Leibniz Association of the Leibniz Research Museum in Germany and you, Scott, are a representative of the largest research institution and museum organization in the world. I would like to begin by looking at the pictures that depict the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol. It was an attack on democracy and it shows mistrust in politics, or rather democracy and its instruments. According to surveys on both sides of the Atlantic, trust in governments and politicians is not very high at the moment, which is leading me to my first question. These signs of distrust in politics can also influence the public’s trust in museums. Now, most of the Smithsonian museums are very prominently situated between the White House and the Capitol since they are located on the National Mall. What is your opinion on this issue of fading public trust in relation to museums and their politics?
Scott Miller: It is interesting having a transatlantic dialogue on the Pacific but it feels good because I grew up two hours up the coast from here in Santa Barbara, so it is nice to be back in California. As you have said, there is a level of distrust in institutions of all kinds in the United States that is at a new level especially in my lifetime. That stands not just for political institutions but also the medical institutions, or science in general. We saw a huge distrust of basic medical science during the COVID pandemic, in a way that is relatively new in the United States. But I think museums and libraries still have a fairly high trust from the American public. The level of trust has probably gone down from what it once was, but I do not think it is going down as much as the distrust in political institutions and science in general. At the Smithsonian, we try very hard to not be seen as a political entity and to stay clear of politics. However, it is challenging because the Smithsonian is much more than the iconic museums on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Yet that is how people identify us and identify with us. Being in the shadow of the Capitol, it is easy to be drawn into political arguments in Congress or elsewhere. We try very hard to be honest and direct in presenting the facts as we understand them but avoid advocating a particular side in political arguments. The English word “advocacy” has multiple meanings, but it has a specific meaning of “political advocacy” and even more specific than that, “lobbying,” or trying to affect political outcomes by influencing members of Congress. One of the other things that we have learned over the years, particularly with the Enola Gay incident [The Enola Gay is the US aircraft that dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The Enola Gay incident refers to the critiques on its exhibition value since it was the first weaponized nuclear technology used on human beings], is how exhibitions can be seen in a negative light. Rick Potts, who is the head of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program at the National Museum of Natural History, explains how we try to not be objectionable or unnecessarily offensive to any potential stakeholders in the way we present the facts. For example, when dealing with human evolution, Potts’ team consulted very extensively with a variety of religious groups in their worldviews and how to present the scientific view in a way that, while they might not accept it, they would not find it offensive. In many of our exhibits and programs, there are alternative ways to look at the particular subject, so it is not easy in today’s world. However, we try to maintain that standard of pursuing impartial “truth.”
SK: Although you are not advocating or lobbying, I think museums are not non-political places. In an ideal world, we should perhaps have two different levels or clear roles of political dimensions in museums that are separated from each other. On the one side we have the people within the institutions making the decisions, like the board of Regents at the Smithsonian or the advisory boards at the Leibniz research museums. We, as museums, do not want them to decide what kind of content we display in our exhibitions. We are the museum specialists while they carry the general direction and secure administrative processes. However, they are not the ones who decide what is shown and how to show it in detail. On the other side you have the visitors’ expectations making science museums relevant. In the National Museum of American History, I saw an exhibition that was named “Food in Transition,” and I think it was quite interesting who is eating what from where and how to show a political protest by eating a certain kind of food or not eating anything. Do you think one can understand and address these two political issues — the museum boards and their visitors’ expectations — that are pertinent for museums?
SM: We at the Smithsonian adhere to that concept of academic freedom of the curators and the people who are actually designing the exhibits and educational programs. But that is a delicate balance because if you have that trust and that responsibility, you have to use it well and respect the trust that the public and the governing body have given you. Then in turn, the governing body has to have the trust of the private funders as well as the government funding body — in this case, Congress — to prove that we are using the funds well. That is where we can get accidentally involved in political issues. With the public, that, too, is challenged because we do not only want to show them what they expect to see, but also what they do not necessarily expect, so we can give them an opportunity to learn something different. We just have to anticipate where particular issues might be controversial or political and make sure that we are presenting them in a fair and balanced way. That is getting more complex because of the political situation and because of America’s much needed and renewed national interest in addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility issues. We are now more sensitive to a lot of those topics than we would have been historically.
SK: There is a similar situation in Germany: We have a great responsibility due to the trust that is given to our institutions. The American Alliance of Museums published a study in March this year and they claimed that museums are highly trusted institutions. They say that the reason why trust is so high is because museums are seen as nonpolitical places. But when I talk to colleagues at museums in Germany, nobody wants to have ‘just a neutral place’; they want to send messages and take active part in forming society through scientific and scholarly questions, methods, and results. They want their museums to have an impact on the society to help people make good decisions for their own life. They want museums to matter in a relevant way for society by offering contextual information or backgrounds to issues which are also politically discussed. In comparison to the Enlightenment era when science provided impulses for developing society, whereas today, would you say research museums contextualize what research can mean in society? What is the role of science at the Smithsonian today compared to its beginnings?
SM: I actually wonder if maybe we are defining the term ‘political’ in a slightly different way. It has something to do with that term “advocacy” as I defined earlier. We certainly want our exhibits and outreach to be relevant and get people to think about how they have been influenced by the world, how they are influencing the world, and how to make informed decisions. For example, when you think about green lifestyles or other healthy food decisions, we do want it to inform people’s choices.
SK: This reminds me of the Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World [Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, May 2018–October 2022] exhibition that focused on diseases and pandemics through history to now. This exhibition included background information on vaccinations, intended to combat conspiracies and negative perceptions surrounding vaccines in general.
SM: We launched our website that promoted vaccination, but it was more oriented towards providing information about vaccinations. It stopped short of taking an aggressive stance on vaccination and there was a lot of debate on how far to go with that topic. We are not the National Institute of Health or the CDC, so we left those advanced promotion roles to those organizations. There is a line we do not cross in trying to influence government policy in a particular way or working with the political agenda of a particular political party. But it can be a fine line in there because we do want Congress to be aware of what we are doing. We want our research to influence the best possible policy, but there are strict limits in how far we go to do that. When I say “political”, I mean that we do not enter into the political process in a strict sense. That is where advocacy — in the way I am using it — is strongly influenced by the political process as opposed to trying to educate people — whether they are the public or even members of Congress — about how they might think about things and why they ought to consider things in a particular way. It is a very tricky line, but we definitely want to influence the country, and the world, and help people make it a better place with the best information.
SK: Unlike the Enlightenment era when we had no museum sciences, we have a lot of museum sciences today such as researching about exhibitions, preventative conservation, monitoring studies, provenance research and so on. I think questions have very much arisen in the last couple of years. For example, provenance research is federally funded, at least in Germany —
SM: And here too.
SK: — These issues are socially demanded by the society. In Germany, museums are requested to do provenance research to make sure that they do not have objects from unjust contacts not only from colonial times but from the Nazi regime or from the German Democratic Republic (“East Germany”). Doing provenance research means fostering trust not only on a visitors’ level but on a diplomatic level as well between countries. But there are many different interests and arguments of the museums — and not only the museums but also the cities — on why they should not restitute certain objects. This leads us to the very last question: would you agree to say that the more restitution that takes place in the political space, the more closely it establishes trust in the museums?
SM: Yes, in the sense that the public needs to see that we are presenting and promoting what we believe is true and factual and just, regardless of what the political flavor of the month might be. We change political administrations at the federal level every four years, which could theoretically have a major influence on the topics that we display or promote at the Smithsonian. We try very hard for that not to be the case. It is also worth noting that yesterday, we announced a new ethical returns policy which is a big step for the Smithsonian as it is for museums in general. In modern times, we have always had the policy that if we had objects in our collections that had come to us illegally either in the country of origin or in the United States, we would return those to the appropriate owner, which is not always easy to determine. But we generally limit it to those sorts of specific legal issues. We have now said that we will consider returning materials to their “rightful owners” — assuming those can be determined — when there is a sort of appropriate ethical argument to be made. We do not have all the implementing policies in place yet but those are currently being developed. This came out of the issues surrounding the Benin bronzes [The Benin Empire existed during the 11th century and was well-known for its man-made walls that were destroyed by British soldiers in 1897].
SK: All around the world the Benin bronzes plays a major role on the restitution.
SM: It is a case of a sufficient magnitude that it tips the scale.
SK: And it is a kind of indicator on how to deal with the Benin bronzes because you can compare between the U.S. and Germany. It is a kind of attitude on how to deal with the Benin bronzes.
SM: I think those are the sort of big, high-level issues. Obviously, the other thing about trust is that, when you are a public institution like a museum, trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. But once you lose it, it is really hard to regain it. We have to keep that in mind as museums.
SK: When I was at the Smithsonian in Washington, I learned that communication and leadership are the main important issues for fostering trust although it takes a lot of time. Thank you so much, Scott Miller. It was a pleasure to talk to you and thank you so much for coming.
SM: My pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.
Edited & Transcribed by: Emily Wysocki
Scott Miller is the Director of Research Management and Innovation in the Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian Institution. He has written and published over 230 publications and is the co-editor of four books, mostly on insect diversity and ecology, but also on bioinformatics and topics as diverse as ivory. His previous positions include Interim Director of Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, Deputy Under Secretary for Science, associate director for science at the National Zoological Park, and chairman of the departments of entomology and systematic biology at the National Museum of Natural History.
Sunhild Kleingärtner is the outgoing Director of the German Maritime Museum/Leibniz Institute of Maritime History and Professor of Maritime History and Maritime Archaeology at the University of Bremen, and the incoming Director of the German Mining Museum/Leibniz-Research Museum of Georesources in Bochum. Her publications include her 2017 book, Die Wikinger und ihre Schiffe (Konrad Theiss Verlag) and a co-edited book entitled Landscapes and Societies in Medieval Europe East of the Elbe. Interactions between Environmental Settings and Cultural Transformations (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies) with Timothy P. Newfield, Sébastien Rossignol, and Donat Wehner. Sunhild Kleingärtner is a 2022 Thomas Mann Fellow.