Reality Check: Public Trust and the Essential Encounter

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

Like all of you, I have struggled to maintain both a basic order to my home life as well as continue to earn my paycheck at a time when the context for both has changed radically. All of the rumors you’ve heard are true: e-learning and working from home are doable but are mere shadows of the real thing. This is especially true when home, school, and work have coexisted in one space and are administered, often simultaneously, by the same one or two people. As for me, I have a 4-year-old who respects no boundaries and takes direction as well as a cat and a 9-year-old struggling mightily with missing his active life at school. What’s happening on a daily basis inside my home is, at best, a mixed bag.

As such, I am more than a little out of sorts as I became an on-demand homeschooler/life coach/housekeeper/fun Mom/snack-rationer overnight whose responsibilities to FWMoA have not gone away. Before the pandemic, I had adapted to the demands of a decade as a working mom by attempting to fully embrace home when I was home and going all-in at work when I was at work. That strategy is irrelevant now that these spheres are fully housed under one roof, usually at my dining room table.

The message in response to this phenomenon from well-meaning folks of all stripes has been a version of “Go easy on yourself” or “It’s okay to not be okay.” I’ve heeded that advice on occasion, but no caretaker, I presume, has indulged those luxuries very often because they are in fact charged with making sure other people are okay. To be sure, I have spent every day of the last 10 weeks making sure my family didn’t spend too much time in the “not okay” zone, and then there are the countless hours I spent strategizing with my FWMoA team to make sure the museum is okay, too.

Speaking in these terms—of caring for a museum—can sound, at worst, as if we are toiling for an inanimate institution, slave to a brick fortress with sterile things hidden away in the dark. In these days that is often what our work feels like, with no visitors nor staff inside the museum. On the few occasions I went into the office, galleries are eerily dark, my office mates are missing, and the school children on field trips we would normally hear this time of year are noticeably absent. As much as I have needed this solitude to get some things done, the deserted museum brought more than a few revelations to light.

The first is that caring for a museum does not stop even if it is considered a non-essential business by the State. This is not unique to us; organizations of all kinds have had to pivot on a dime to keep their business healthy enough to sustain their temporary, but not brief, closure. Our usual responsibilities of paying bills and maintaining security are unremarkable until you consider what they mean for a museum. Those mundane activities are indeed essential for upholding one critical but unsung museum virtue: the public trust.

Americans consistently claim that museums are the most trustworthy sources of information in our country, even above other academic and nonprofit researchers.[1] There are many possible explanations for museums’ high esteem among Americans, but chief among them, I believe, has to do with our independence from nearly all other systems of American civil life. As nonprofits, we are less beholden to consumer behavior, and we don’t deliver profits to stockholders. As nontraditional sources of learning, we are free to pursue and present scholarship outside curricular standards. As private organizations, we may seek government funding, but we are free to earn and raise funds for our own purposes. This is not to say that museums are better off without these institutions; in fact, museums flourish if they can freely move in and out of these spheres to better fulfill their mission. I hope that Americans can see this independent but cooperative nature of museums and recognize this behavior as worthy of their trust.

While that explication might illustrate public trust in general, this notion of integrity in museums becomes more nuanced and delicate when we consider a fundamental and unique purpose of museums, which is to hold and care for collections. Museums do many things, such as educate, entertain, and inspire, but what separates a museum from other types of cultural centers who also do these things is that it holds objects in the public trust in perpetuity. We, myself included, often take this distinction for granted, especially as we get excited over temporary exhibitions, artist demonstrations, and fun cocktail parties that are, in many ways, the bells and whistles of a museum. We would be lying to ourselves if we said we didn’t enjoy these extras, but it’s important to remember that a defining feature of a museum is a well-cared for collection.

A woman stands in the FWMoA galleries experiencing the play of lights from a glass sculpture.
Photo courtesy of Jack Cantey.

In these weeks of quarantine, I read a collection of essays entitled Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (Princeton University Press and Harvard University Press, 2004), edited by James Cuno when he was the Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. The essays were first presented as lectures at Harvard University from 2001-2002 by a group of prominent museum directors who were concerned for the future of museums as bastions of the public trust. Each director explores the issue of public trust from his experience in museums, not shying away from vigorously defending his own viewpoint of how the public trust is most fully upheld. Interestingly, “the public trust” is not something they collectively sought to define as in a dictionary—as if one blueprint for public trust could be used by every museum. Each concedes that no two museums are the same, and that upholding the public trust may look remarkably different for each museum. Further, the public trust in museums is an endlessly debated concept, ranging in topics from fundraising to conservation practices to display methods.

Cuno introduces the essays by lamenting a series of ills that threatened public trust in museums in the late 20th century: scandals involving collections that were actually stolen by the Nazis, misguided collectors trafficking in antiquities, and the abuses of wealthy collectors or corporate entities paying museums for exhibitions that suit their interests. As such, the news media took advantage of these incidents to create sensation and outrage over yet another corrupt American institution. Though these museum incidents reported by the media are certainly unacceptable, they are not indicative of the whole of American museum ethics, and the Whose Muse? authors set out to defend this premise. Though less a scandal and more an unfortunate societal shift, the directors also reflect on the effects of modernity on museums and the public’s ever-increasing appetite for a theme-park like museum “experience.”

With each director offering examples of nurturing the public trust across the centuries and around the globe, and each turning to different disciplines such as philosophy or sociology to make their case, I began to see the common belief shared among the authors. They seem to agree that the public trust, no matter where and by which museum it is inspired, begins with the honesty of the object, so that the visiting public might have a trustworthy relationship with that object. Before anything else happens, be it learning, understanding, or even enjoyment, museums and their curators must be committed to collecting and presenting objects with integrity. For example, the basic act of a museum telling you that you are looking at a painting by Titian and that it was painted around 1514 is not to be taken for granted. The weight of this information being true might be compared to the name and date of birth on a birth certificate. Other facts pertaining to the object must also be vigorously pursued by curators, such as how the object was acquired. A museum label will often tell us whether the object was purchased or donated, and we are likely to be told who gave the work or with what funds it was purchased. This is important information as it can be used as a clue in verifying that an object was not illegally or improperly acquired. Finally, the public is trusting that what we are showing them is, in fact, a fine example of this kind of art. Lazy or willfully incomplete research, or an untrained eye, should never be acceptable when you consider that a museum visitor is trusting that what we say on a label and what we put on the walls is worthy of your attention. Whether by ignorance or willful neglect, incorrect object information or undiscerning curatorship is tantamount to a lie, and no healthy relationship can be built on a lie. This may sound extreme, but when you consider that thousands of students and scholars will use the research and authority of museums to nurture their intellectual development, we can’t be too careful with getting it right.

But why do we care about and for these objects, with their names, dates, and origins, in the first place? In his essay, John Walsh, Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, answers this question by describing how a work of art can affect us, and that the most important thing an art museum does is facilitate that most profound encounter. He writes:

That experience…can generate sensations that bypass the rational brain and go right to the scalp, the tear ducts, the lungs, the heart. It can penetrate our intellectual defenses. It can shake us, disorient us, and give us a stark sense of loss of what might have been for us…That kind of deep experience gives people the keenest motive for learning more about works of art, but that’s not its justification—if any justification were needed.[2]

If that is indeed what happens when we are deeply moved by a work of art, then the public is trusting that we will protect and promote that experience first, by collecting and researching with integrity and second, by creating the optimal environment for that experience. Critics of the museum environment will say an artwork is fundamentally changed when it is placed in the context of other objects and the architecture of our building. For now, I will leave that argument aside to focus on the fact that without some mode of public exhibition for art, most people would sadly never know the wonders of what Walsh is describing.

In practice, Walsh advocates for less crowded galleries, sensitively lit pictures, minimal art history labels, and abundant comfortable seating. These simple moves, often interpreted as cold austerity, are meant to remove as many barriers as possible between the visitor and that wonderful experience. Anything else, such as extensive written information, floods of tourists, or music in the galleries, interfere with the pure and holy act of beholding what is in front of us.

However, curatorship that is insensitive to this encounter can very often create a chasm so wide between the object and the beholder as to render a rivalry instead of a rewarding relationship. Here, we come to the kernel of truth that is at the heart of this struggle: the power of a work of art is only possible upon encounter, and that encounter only occurs in relation to human beings. Unfortunately, when one museum ideology advocates for the primacy of the object, it is often conflated with a snooty disdain for the public and set over and against their diverse needs and interests. When another ideology says that people and their interests come first, we underestimate the soul-wrenching power of encounter and overestimate the power of information and entertainment. To be sure, museums are under a great deal of pressure to attract audiences to earn revenue, and our relevance is under constant attack, so I understand well and sympathize with both sides of the argument. However a museum chooses to traverse the spectrum, it must never forget that it does one thing better than any institution in our society, and that is to facilitate for people a life-changing encounter with something so beautiful and so wonderful that it transcends explanation.

[1] “Museum Facts & Data.” American Alliance of Museums, May 3, 2020.

[2] John Walsh and James Cuno (ed.), “Pictures, Tears, Seats, and Lights,” Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey and Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004, 79.

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