MA report shows high levels of public trust in museums

Geraldine Kendall, 03.04.2013
But survey reveals that institutions must tread carefully in expanding civic role
The Museums Association has published the results of research it commissioned into public perceptions of and attitudes to museums.

The research comes off the back of a series of workshops held for members of the public across the UK. Both frequent museum users and those who rarely visit were invited to take part.

The results will inform the MA’s Museums 2020 initiative to map out the differences museums can make to individuals, communities, society and the environment.

The survey has revealed a high level of trust and positivity towards museums and a widespread perception that they have a broader role to play in society above appealing to individual visitors.

Respondents in many different areas had a consistent impression of the different of purposes of museums and how they ranked in priority (see box below), but demonstrated a reluctance for museums to expand out from their core roles.

The report states: “It is because these core purposes are deemed so important, and because museums are well-placed to achieve them, that museums are so admired. It is also for these reasons that there is a reluctance to endorse additional purposes: there is a concern that museums will undermine their core purposes and overreach themselves, a concern that is particularly acute given the perceived threats to their continued existence.”

It concludes: “The public have a clear perception of the essential purposes of museums and strongly believe that any additional objectives must relate to them and not undermine them.

“If the expansive Museums 2020 vision is to be realised, this message must be understood and incorporated both into thinking about the future of museums and into dialogue with the public.”

The research was undertaken by consumer survey group BritainThinks and funded by Arts Council England, Museums Galleries Scotland and CyMAL: Museums Archives Libraries Wales.

Click here to download the report (pdf)

For more on the report, see this month's news analysis and Museums 2020 column

What the public thinks

Essential purposes

  • Care and preservation of heritage
  • Holding collections and mounting displays
  • Creating knowledge for and about society

Priority purposes

  • Promoting economic growth through tourism, investment and regeneration
  • Facilitating individual development through education, stimulation and building skills
  • Promoting happiness and wellbeing

Low-priority purposes

  • Fostering a sense of community
  • Helping the vulnerable
  • Protecting the natural environment

Purposes challenged by the public

  • Providing a forum for debate
  • Promoting social justice and human rights


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
MA Member
18.04.2013, 15:36
Fair point and I apologise for not fully understanding the views represented. I still feel that the research and findings are a positive thing and give museums something good to build on. There is room for museums to embrace all these roles, surely.
Alec Coles
MA Member
Chief Executive Officer, Western Australian Museum
18.04.2013, 07:24
In response to Anonymous MA Member17.04.2013, 21:08, I do not believe that any of the commentators, below, are questioning the findings of this report; rather they are questioning the interpretation of the findings and the suggested response to these.

Similarly, no-one is suggesting that the participants did not understand the questions rather that they were provided with some fairly inadequate and sometimes misleading information about some of the work that museums do behind the scenes, particularly in the areas of research and collecting. The example I gave, for instance, was in the area of ‘Protecting the Natural Environment’: we know from our own research that relatively few people are aware of this – and why should they be - unless we make a considered effort to tell them?

Sarcastic comments about Victorian philanthropy can only be countered by re-stating the point that public spending is, de facto, supposed to generate public benefit – and however you want to express it, this means at least attempting to improve people’s lives: the connection is pretty clear – it is why we have governments.

Before disparaging the genuinely held views of others from behind the limp cloak of anonymity, you might at least do them the courtesy of not gratuitously misrepresenting those views.
MA Member
17.04.2013, 21:08
It is interesting to note the responses here from people that claim to put public engagement at the forefront of what they do and yet are so quick to slam a piece of research that has sought to engage the public and seek their opinion. It seems a little hypocritical to me. Not to mention the patronising tone of the commenters who felt that the people asked had not understood the questions properly. I think the vast majority of people are able to grasp the concept of what fostering a sense of community is, for example. To suggest otherwise smacks of the kind of top-down, imperialistic attitude that museums have worked hard to leave behind. I do not wish to return to a Downton Abbey type of museum. - far from it. I work in community engagement myself but I would never describe the work I do as 'improving' the lives of the participants - how very Victorian philanthropist! I firmly believe that museums are for everyone but part of that is listening to what the public want museums to be and not writing off the findings just because you don't like them. I think the research is positive on the whole. We know what people expect - its up to us to balance this with the wider social role that we'd like museums to have.
Viki Cooke
Founding Director, BritainThinks
17.04.2013, 14:59
How the sector responds to this research is not for us to comment. However, the research is far from 'lazy' - our brief was to engage the public in an informed discussion that encouraged them to consider the purpose of the museums sector as citizens, not visitors. The Museums Association was keen to include the views and perceptions of the public as part of the consultation on Museums 2020. We are delighted that there is debate about the work and pleased that it has been so well received and that many experts in the field are already finding it helpful in considering how to achieve their aims and ambitions more effectively.
Viki Cooke
Founding Director, BritainThinks
17.04.2013, 14:54
I just wanted to clarify that BritainThinks did not conduct a survey, rather a series of deliberative discussion events. The report is based on extensive discussions and the language used in the report carefully reflects the language of the citizen. We completely agree that nuances of language are extremely important in communications - whether that's promoting the activities of a museum or the wording of a question in a survey. It is interesting that in the stakeholder meetings and the launch yesterday we spent a lot of time discussing how citizens interpret different words and phrases and sharing insight into how to most effectively communicate your ambitions.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
16.04.2013, 11:53
We are hosting a webchat to discuss the findings at 1pm on Monday 22 April:
David Anderson
MA Member
Director General, National Museum Wales
11.04.2013, 18:25
The BritainThinks survey and its findings are only one small part of a much wider programme of research undertaken by the Museums Association to inform its thinking about future priorities for the sector.

Some of the survey's findings confirm those from other research. Others conflict with these.

In part these differences may be explained by apparently insignificant differences in the wording used in questions.

For example, research by the National Institute of Adult Community Education (NIACE) found that a proportion of the adult public can react negatively to the word education - which they often associate with negative experiences in school - and learning, which they believe they do every day of their lives at work, in leisure activities and in the home, and about which they are generally very positive.

The decision to use the word "education" rather than "learning" in a survey, may then have major and perhaps unintended impact on responses.

Likewise the different assumptions and methodologies embedded in the research process can powerfully influence the outcomes.

The findings of every individual piece of research, including this by BritainThinks, need first to be evaluated and interpreted carefully, and then set against the findings of other research in the field, before they are used in making policy decisions.

The results of the BritainThinks public attitude survey are a welcome addition to a very large body of existing research in the field, and will be given careful consideration alongside other findings, not in isolation. The substantive comments and criticisms of the report here and in other forums will be reviewed by the MA in its analysis of the survey, as part of the wider consultation process for Museums 2020.

The Museums Association aims to lead thinking. In this it will be informed by public attitudes research, but like all such research this has its limitations as well as strengths, and alone cannot provide us with the vision we need as a sector if we are to achieve our greatest impact. This we must develop for ourselves.
Alec Coles
MA Member
Chief Executive Officer, Western Australian Museum
11.04.2013, 16:07
In response to Public perceptions of - and attitudes to - the purposes of museums in society Tony Butler writes that he hopes this report is not used as an excuse to retrench – unfortunately, the very next comment in the string suggests that at least one (‘Anonymous’) correspondent is using it for just that purpose.

This is a lazy piece of research that does little for the sector, or the people that use it, other than to demonstrate that Museums constantly fail to articulate their roles effectively – including to consultants: I think we probably knew that, but we should certainly heed the wake-up call. I suppose we should at least celebrate the fact that people appear to trust museums: although you might argue that a subplot of the report’s conclusions is that they appear to trust us less if we are trying to do anything meaningful...

The consultants will argue that this exercise was about public perceptions and if this is what the public says, then that is what it thinks, and of course, this is true: but from the evidence available, the nature of the survey failed to provide even basic information that would have elicited an informed response from participants.

If the ‘Purpose Boards’ provided to participants and reproduced in the appendices are to be believed, the examples given in respect to the ‘purpose’ ‘Protect the Natural Environment’ appear both deficient and misleading. There was no mention of the role of museums in collecting, researching and documenting biodiversity, for instance. Two of the three examples provided to participants under this purpose were not even from museums! Other ‘purposes’ tested such as ‘Helping the Vulnerable’ sic (is that appropriate language?), ‘Foster a Sense of Community’ and ‘Provide a Forum for Public Debate’ were equally thin in relevant examples.

Most disturbing, however, is the nature and presentation of the conclusions. The report states “The essential purposes – care, preservation and display of heritage; entertaining education for all children; and trustworthy information for all adults – ...”, but there is no analysis as to why anyone might consider that the care, preservation and display of heritage is important (e.g. issues of identity, cultural continuity, origins, relationships etc. – which, of course, would never be expressed in those terms but might be critical, nonetheless); there is no consideration of why object based learning might provide experiences different to other methods; and there is no discussion as to why ‘adults’ would want trustworthy information or how they would wish to use it.

It is in these ways that I believe the report fails to make the distinction between function and purpose, or between activity and outcomes: it merely concludes that preserving heritage is more important than any broader and deeper purposes (including why we might want to preserve heritage).

We should all be worried at planting the idea that: “The museum therefore has an important ‘hoarding’ role indeed, participants responded favourably to the museum having a role as ‘society’s attic’”. I have an attic which is where I deposit all the things that are so unimportant to me that I probably will never look at them again until I decide to dispose of them – this is a metaphor that is both unfortunate and revealing, I would suggest.

Even the MA gets in on the act on its website by tagging the headline for the report with the statement that museums ”...Must tread carefully in expanding civic role”. There is NO evidence for this conclusion from what is presented in the report's body,merely that participants were not presented with evidence to demonstrate what these so-called ‘civic roles’ might be.

At one point the report concludes: “If, as suggested in Museums 2020, museums are to do more to improve people’s lives, they must not do so at the expense of essential or priority purposes.” For those of us that enjoy public funding how can improving people’s lives NOT be a priority purpose?

On the face of it, this is a slack piece of work which, through its lack of insightful analysis, provides an ideal excuse for complacency and lack of ambition. It will be used 'in evidence' by all those who wish to constrain activity and aspiration. It might even be considered a license to collect without purpose: " of many contributions to the multi- layered debate..." it might be, but I would respectfully suggest, it is not a very helpful one.
Mark Taylor
MA Member
Director, Museums Association
11.04.2013, 15:38
To be clear, this independent report was commissioned by the Museums Association with funding from ACE, MGS and CYMAL. Overseeing the work was a steering group drawn from across the sector.
It is one of many contributions to the multi layered debate around Museums2020. It neither represents the MA's view nor will necessarily cause the MA to re-consider its approach to this most important debate.
The MA has long been a champion of museums working well beyond their tradtional roles and I am sure this will not change.
10.04.2013, 15:10
I think it's important to clarify that neither the report by BritainThinks nor my article above advocate any reconsideration of the idea that museums should be forums for debate etc.

The report only states that moving forward with that agenda may require 'careful positioning' with the public in order to retain the high level of trust they currently hold in museums (as unbiased institutions) - nowhere does it recommend a retreat.

Public perception is always likely to be behind current thinking, because people are slow to accept change until they see its results.
Richard Sandell
MA Member
Head of School Museum Studies, School of Museum Studies
10.04.2013, 13:02
I will admit I am puzzled by the idea that – based on a public opinion survey – museums (and the Museums Association) might wish to (re)consider championing the idea of the museum as a forum for debate on contemporary issues.

Surveys such as this one have their place and can be useful as one source of information to help the sector inform their priorities – but to simply follow what ‘the public’ have apparently said museums should focus on is very worrying indeed. The best organisations are founded on a strong set of values that guides their work – listening to audiences is important but just because one survey suggests support for a particular way forward does not mean we should follow.

As museum professionals we should be utterly committed to the idea of museums as places for everyone, as trusted sources of information that are committed to ideals of fairness and justice – these should be our underpinning value set, not a whim that is determined by public opinion. These should be non-negotiable features of the best museums.

It’s also worth noting that there is a considerable body of research out there which has shown that audiences may sometimes be surprised to encounter material and debate relating to contemporary social issues in museums – but most often relish this and spend longer engaging with such exhibitions and respond more animatedly and at length than they do with other displays.

Richard Sandell, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
10.04.2013, 10:40
There's nothing surprising in these findings, and nothing to dismay those of us who have been working towards creating museums that have a relevance to society beyond the preservation role that is most easily understood by the public.

The finding that really encourages me is that the public wants museums to create "knowledge for and about society" - that's the basis of our work in Liverpool that has seen a five-fold increase in visitor numbers over the past few years. The key for the museum profession is to be intelligent about museum potential, to stop wasting energy getting petulant when anyone talks about our wider roles as though these roles threaten our more traditional activities, and instead to rise to the challenge of providing museums that are scholarly, and popular with and useful to the people who pay for them.

The BritainThinks report is certainly not the final word in the modernisation and democratisation of our museums, and the MA needs to show courage and leadership at this time, not retreat into some Downton Abbey-type interpretation of our role. If Museums 2020 turns out to be no more than a schedule of traditional museum functions then it will be a betrayal of our sector and the public at large.
04.04.2013, 16:10
I agree with Tony Butler below that the general public are receptive to the work museums do to engage museums but they are not very aware of it. Would anonymous at 13.49 have museums return to pre 1997 when they were just about collecting, conserving and display? This would be a backward step and we all know it!! The tremendous efforts of museums to engage with Black and Asian heritage communities, for example, has undoubtedly helped them become more relevant and to keep up with changes in society. Before New Labour, the down turn of visitors due to entry charges and image problems showed the public were unwilling to support museums through their own pockets. If we are to continue to support museums through public funding and the HLF, then we need to value community engagement more not less.
MA Member
03.04.2013, 13:49
Thank god - it is about time that the public were asked what they think instead of all the introspection and second-guessing that seems to have dominated museum discussions up to this point. I hope some of the more moralistic debates can be put to bed now.
Tony Butler
MA Member
Director, Museum of East Anglian Life
03.04.2013, 12:18
I hope the findings are not used as an excuse to retrench

I sat in for some of the event held in Stowmarket and was invited by the Britain Thinks facilitators to talk about the museum of five minutes. I described our collections, exhibitions and events and also talked about our social programmes - our work with Travellers, offenders, mental health and well-being, vulnerable adults and young people. The group was interested, positive and surprised that a museum should carry out this work. Some of the conversations in the afternoon included how a museum can foster a sense of community.

The research shows that the public are very clear about what museums should do - collect, preserve, educate. However the public are far more receptive to the broader impacts that museum can have in civic life than the report suggests, providing we clearly articulate what we do.

Museum people have become skilled at talking to each other and funders about the transformative effects of our work. We must be a lot better at talking to the public about our possibilities and positive impact on people's live