A museum can have fantastic exhibits, programs, and events, but if visitors do not trust the museum, what does that mean? How trusted are museums?
In our recent study of science museum visitors, we asked. Respondents were asked “do you trust the information presented by your local science museum/science center.”
Overwhelmingly, they said yes. A whopping 84% found the information to be “very trustworthy.” Only eight percent said it was “somewhat trustworthy,” and less than one percent said it was “not trustworthy” (the balance said they did not know/had not thought about it).
Only eight percent said it was “somewhat trustworthy,” and less than one percent said it was “not trustworthy” (the balance said they did not know/had not thought about it).
When we examined the level of engagement of visitors based on these responses, we found that the 84% of respondents who said “very trustworthy” visited more often, were more likely to be members, and were the most engaged with the museum. The eight percent that said “somewhat trustworthy” visited somewhat less often, were somewhat less likely to join, and were less engaged. And that less than one percent who said “not trustworthy” visited the least often, were the least likely to join, and were the least engaged. Additionally, not one of the respondents who said it was “not trustworthy” said that the museum presented science well.
Those who said the museum was “very trustworthy” received an open-ended follow-up question, “What gives you confidence in the science museum/science center.” Their responses could largely be sorted into the following five buckets:
Reputation.They said things like “I can’t imagine they would release false information into the community,” and “The reputation of the museum is not something I feel they would jeopardize with erroneous information.”
- Staff. Respondents put a fair amount of emphasis on the educational background and attitude of staff members, and the majority of comments that cited staff said things like “knowledge of the staff and the commitment.” But there were a couple of comments that also indicated that staff attitude also impacted trustworthiness, e.g., “the friendly, caring attitudes from all people in the museum.” While there were only a very few of these types of comments, they once again underscore the importance of caring staff to our visitors.
- Transparent research. Respondents liked knowing where information came from, and seeing it backed up, saying “Exhibits state facts clearly, logically, with support” and “I see their science collaborated by outside organizations, yet they are not afraid to be controversial if the message is clear, and “the staff are able to answer our questions and when they cannot they often go and look it up later and get back to me”
- Good interpretation. The quality of the exhibits were very important to respondents, who often mentioned the thought and planning that go into exhibits to make them engaging for visitors, saying: “Well thought out displays and exhibits” and “Scientific exhibits are explained succinctly in plain English. George Orwell would be proud.”
- Unafraid of controversy. Respondents appreciated it when the museum took on more controversial topics and held to the principles of the scientific method. The museum becomes more trustworthy because of “not avoiding controversial topics-- presenting accepted theories of evolution and climate change without compromise.” They also clearly knew that some topics may be controversial to some audiences, and valued their presence in the museum, saying “I have noticed that they don't hesitate to present subjects that are well established in the scientific community but might be controversial elsewhere” Or, as one person put it, quite simply, “They present evolution.” That was enough to give the museum credibility.
While the vast majority of respondents had a high degree of trust in museum, not everyone felt the same way. In the next post on science museum visitors, we will delve into those minority opinions to examine why trust is not always there.
We would love to hear your thoughts and questions about these topics. To share or ask questions, simply click on “comments” below. (If you are reading this from your e-mail subscription to the blog, please go to our blog's website to add a comment.)