Trust in government, media, academia, industry, and even nonprofit organisations are at an all-time low, according to the latest edition of TrendsWatch – an annual report on the future of museums.
Compiled by CFM’s vice president of strategic foresight and founding director, Elizabeth Merritt, “Truth, Trust and Fake News” is one of five major trends identified in the eighth edition of the report.
With declines in trust, it questions how nonprofits in general, and museums in particular, can remain among the most trusted sources of information, asking how museums, which are rated as extremely trustworthy by the general public, can build on this trust. It also asks how they can help society re-establish a framework for telling fact from fiction.
The way in which blockchain will transform multiple types of transactions is the second trend identified.
Blockchain, in its simplest form, is a set records, linked using cryptography, to create a list of physical or digital transactions between two parties in a verifiable and permanent way.
The technology has been around for more than a decade, but in the past year, there has been huge growth in its experimental applications, including refugee aid, educational credentialing, land registries and provenance tracking.
Because blockchain has such wide-reaching potential for every sector, it means that museum leaders must understand what the technology is and how it’s likely to impact their communities.
“Museums are all about keeping secure, immutable records of transactions about collections,” says the report. “In past centuries, these records were kept in paper ledgers and more recently on in-house databases. The distributed nature of blockchain ledgers could make this data less vulnerable to loss or degradation.”
It also suggests that using blockchain means museums can be transparent about the history of their collections, enabling anyone to access data by use of a public key. This will help to support claims from indigenous communities, identify the lineage of Nazi-era assets and better help repatriation of artefacts.
While many museums successfully address the dark side of history, one of the most profound challenges is to address colonisation, which for many older institutions, is the basis of their existence.
“Decolonisation is the long, slow, painful, and imperfect process of undoing damage inflicted by colonial practices that remain deeply embedded in our culture, politics, and economies,” says the report.
“Many museums reflect a Eurocentric view of the world. Many were born directly from colonial practices, serving as trophy rooms of conquest and superiority.
“All museums share a responsibility for helping their country and their society address the legacy of damage.”
To resolve this, museums can actively take part in the return of heritage removed by colonial occupiers – though some argue their collections are for all the people of the world and that they should not have to return these treasures.
This work should also extend, says the report, to examining how museum governance and operations may perpetuate colonial attitudes and power structures – how, for example, are indigenous people given authority and voice in museums that serve their communities, preserve heritage and influence how society sees their culture?
“Museums, in their cultural roles of memory keeper, conscience, and healer, have an obligation to provoke reflection, rethinking, and rebalancing,” says the report. “Museums can help us deal with the dark side of history, not just emotionally and personally, but in a way that helps us build a just and equitable society, despite our legacy of theft and violence.”
Housing insecurity, a significant social or cultural challenge that’s difficult to solve for multiple reasons, is something that museums should be thinking more about.
“Housing security is both a symptom and a cause of the deepening inequality of wealth, opportunity, and access that characterises the start of the 21st century, and solving these problems will require all actors – government, industry, non-profits, and philanthropy – to rethink their roles and responsibilities,” the report explains, asking how a cultural non-profit can play a bigger role in the area, saying that museums need to serve not just people who have reached the “tip of the pyramid” but “those who are not yet adequately housed, fed, or safe”.
The report suggests that museums find ways to serve families and individuals experiencing this insecurity, by making them feel welcome. By prioritising social inclusion, museums can combat the isolation that often results from homelessness, helping people to build social networks and foster self-worth.
The final trend identified in the report revolves around museum staff and helpers. In the face of rising stress and stretched resources, it’s more important than ever for individuals and institutions to recognise the need for setting aside time and resources for restorative practice.
CFM points to research by Tech Impact, which indicates that nonprofit workers often feel overstretched and that their productivity drops when the workweek reaches 50 hours or more. Post-recession trends in the form of low pay, long hours and high expectations mean that 30 per cent of the nonprofit workforce is experiencing burnout, with a further 20 per cent at risk.
The impact of this stress can come at a high price for museum employers.
“Turnover of staff results in a loss of knowledge, experience, and institutional memory. It necessitates recruitment, hiring, and training, as well as incurring the hidden costs of work that goes undone while a vacancy is unfilled,” says the report, which suggests talking to employees about what conditions drive stress in their jobs, reviewing policies to identify practices such as working from home and flex time, and creating an annual quality of life survey to benchmark progress in lowering stress.