Public Trust and Art Museums

This week on the blog we are pleased to host the work of Dr. fari nzinga. This content was originally presented as an MCN talk in November in New Orleans. fari’s discussion of public trust surfaces critical questions of “Who is/has been understood to be ‘the public’?” & “How can trust be built between the public and museums today?” The US is facing four years of leadership from an administration not trusted by over 50% of the voting public. fari’s thoughtful discussion of public trust can act as a guide for museums looking for ways to earn the public’s trust and demonstrate that they are committed to justice, freedom and the public’s well-being. – Aletheia


Trust is the intuitive confidence and sense of comfort that comes from the belief that we can rely on an individual, organization or institution to perform competently, responsibly, ethically, and in a manner considerate of our interests. It is dynamic, it is fragile, and it is vulnerable; it is praised where it is evident and acknowledged in every profession. Trust is difficult to define and quantify; easier to understand than to measure, easier to lose than to earn, but an essential and critical component in the relationship art museums have with the communities they serve.

My presentation today is a part of a much longer white paper, which grows out of an oft ­revisited conversation among members of the Association of Art Museum Directors about the difference between trust and public trust and what it means for a museum to serve the public trust. This paper aims to highlight issues to think about in crafting museum policies that encourage trust and relationship-building that can be leveraged for both enhanced audience development and increased workplace diversity and inclusion.

When the term public trust is defined the legal context, many scholars will cite Roman Emperor Justinian who in 530 A.D. decreed that “by the law of nature” the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea, were common to all mankind. Much later this idea was adopted into English Common Law, which sought to ensure public property rights to natural resources. In this context, the notion of public trust was integral to maintaining unfettered access to the shoreline regardless of private property rights. So bear in mind that the original intent regarding public trust is all about providing access. Today, Black’s Law Dictionary defines a public trust as “a purpose trust. […] created to promote public welfare [i.e. to carry out a specific purpose] and not for the needs of any single individual.”


A Mosaic of the Roman Emperor Justinian.

The term public trust has come into popular use within American art museums largely due to the efforts of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to establish common, professional language and practices. The AAMD was founded in June of 1916 at the Art Institute of Chicago by eleven men and one woman: all white, college­ educated, and representing cities west of the Appalachians. On their first year anniversary, in late May 1917, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts they convened to discuss the “relations and duties of museums to the public,” in which it was concluded that “it is the privilege and duty of the museum director to teach the public right taste and right respect for works of art” as well as to “teach the public about the ethical use of art given the copyright laws on the books to protect artistic and intellectual property.” It was this emphasis on education that supported the special tax status of art museums across the country.

Although there was consensus around the public and educational nature of art museums, in 1925 Miss Gertrude Herdle, Director of the Memorial Art Gallery, in Rochester, New York, asked pointedly: “Shall we open the museum on special occasions to the public when we can fill it with our members? It is always a question as to what the members expect, what they should have, and whether the museum should be managed partly for our members or wholly for the public.” This dynamic tension has proven everlasting.

The conversation on the contemporary dimensions of public trust within the art museum context begins with the notion of stewardship. By no means a new concept in the 1980s, it was articulated in an address at the Denver Art Museum on January 24, 1983, by Frank Hodsoll, Chairman of the NEA, when he remarked, “it has been said that ‘American museums exist for the things that are in them, and they change as each generation chooses how to see those things and discovers the hope and encouragement they hold.’” The museum doesn’t serve the public trust simply by displaying art for its members, it does so by keeping and caring for the art on behalf of a greater community of members and non­members alike, preserving it for future generations to study and enjoy.

The trust of the public is earned when an art museum is seen as an authority on matters
of artistic excellence. This is derived from expertise on issues of conservation, quality, interpretation and provenance. Museums serve public trust by ensuring public access and public interests. Exhibitions are often seen as legitimizing events that raise an artist or an art form to a higher level. As a trusted authority museums should be careful not to reinforce harmful and inaccurate master narratives, and instead be willing to provide easy to grasp context gleaned from scholarship as well as the oral histories and/or cultural memory of oppressed groups.


Mount Rushmore, depicting Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln and symbolic of our national master narrative.

Because of the generational changes in how audiences prefer to consume media and information, exhibitions are becoming more responsive to the public; consequently, some museums are now experimenting with collaboratively designing exhibitions and public programs in a bid to satisfy the popular demand that they become more participatory.

As art museums strive to better serve the public trust, the question of access must be foregrounded. At the AAMD 1967 Spring conference in Buffalo, the Ad Hoc Committee
affirmed that “it is obvious that art museums have ever increasing obligation to assure their public maximum availability of the collections they house. But simple exposure is not enough, a parallel obligation is that the collections be made pleasurable and meaningful to the public.” Of course the first order of business must be to making as much of the collections as possible accessible through display. Additionally, the information about the collections must be accessible, as well as the institution itself ­­ in terms of its operations, history and physical plant.

To ensure the accessibility of art museums, their physical locations as well as the
objects housed therein, directors must think about how they define who the public is that they wish to serve. In a recent article on the challenges confronting blind tech users, Jim Allen, the accessibility coordinator at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, observed:  “Programmers program for the person they know best” […] “There’s a mirror sitting in front of them, and if they could scratch off that silver and see their grandmother or maybe their parent, how much trouble do they have using your site? Have you ever sat and watched them use it?” This thinking should not be limited to programmers but everyone in the museum should be thinking this way about museum audiences and users.

Historically, “the public” has been a category which has not been defined in terms
of race, class, language or gender, much less ability. For example, in 1958 the Pew Research center reported that 73% of Americans answered that they trust the U.S. government just about always or most of the time; at this time in American history, with Jim Crow laws being widely enforced, it is likely that this number was skewed: white men and women were overrepresented on the voting rolls due to de facto and de jure segregation in concert with the suppression of voting rights. Since its inception, the AAMD has had many discussions about how best to reach “the public;” and time and again suggestions were made to place ads in the local newspaper. On the face of it, this suggestion is a benign one with the possibility of reaching a broad swath of any city’s public; however, when viewed more critically, an ad in the newspaper for an art museum’s latest exhibition assumes that the public it is trying to reach is literate and has the leisure time and income ­­ to attend an art show during hours when most adults are working.

By January of 1971, Director Charles Cunningham of the Art Institute of Chicago
articulated a sentiment that AAMD members were beginning to grapple with, mainly the idea that “artists and minority groups want a role in the making of decisions in regard to the administration of the museum and want to know why they are not represented on the board.” Given these realizations, in the context of art museums, it is important to ask which public an institution is aiming to serve. It seems that the narrower the field that defines the public, the more likely abuses or betrayals of the public trust will be. Museums certainly do not garner the trust of the public when they refuse to hire local people for anything other than the most menial staff positions. One must wonder if the lack of diversity in art museum staffs, volunteers and visitorship today indicates a lack of trust with which non­white, differently abled, non­native English speakers and/or younger publics perceive the institution. Yet, in the last twenty five years, with ever growing museum attendance rates “the public” has been evincing more and more trust in art museums and is being served by the same.

To ensure the accessibility of knowledge and information in serving the public trust, it is
important to think about the kinds of visitors attending the museum as well as the kinds of experiences visitors want to have while there. Co­founder of the the research firm Institute for Learning Innovation and leading figure in research on free­-choice learning, museum visitor studies and science education in the United States, John H. Falk has attempted to create a predictive model of the museum visitor experience, one that can help museum professionals better meet visitors’ needs by breaking visitors down into types based on the motivations behind their visits (Falk 2009). Art museums may want to increase the resources available for qualitative research, focus groups and other activities that will garner feedback as well as foster good will and build relationships amongst potential community and museum stakeholders.


Falk’s Visitor Models Description from New Orleans Museum of Art.

Ensuring the accessibility of its collections means that art museums must emphasize their more “basic” educational functions: publication of catalogued collections, interpretation of the permanent collection, scholarship and research. Lastly, given the demography of many of the cities and towns in which art museums are located, it is important to have information available in multiple languages. Signage, wall labels and text, as well as pamphlets and apps should be able to provide multilingual content with which multilingual visitors can engage. This same consideration must be given for hearing impaired, visually impaired, and other differently abled visitors. There are multiple ways to ensure institutional access to the public. On the one hand, there is the question of making sure that the building and its exhibitions are physically accessible to staff as well as visitors as outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This line of thinking about access also begs the question of considering barriers to entry and participation, which in many instances results in art museums rethinking their admissions fees, hours of operation, and so forth.

Over the last fifty years, almost all American institutions have lost the respect of the public because they have not always acted in the best interest of public trust (Gallup 2015). Public libraries, on the other hand, have earned a considerable credibility especially after 9/11 and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act shortly thereafter. Librarians’ strong opposition to the surveillance measures came from the philosophical belief that “libraries provide a place to exercise intellectual freedom: a free and open exchange of knowledge and information where individuals may exercise freedom of inquiry as well as a right to privacy in regards to the information they seek” (ALA 2006). By championing the rights and civil liberties of the public they serve, libraries have made significant advances in serving the public trust over the last decade. Institutions that hope to identify and maintain public trust might consider emulating the public libraries and take an activist stance in terms of clearly articulating their values and advocating for the rights of their audiences and supporters both in the political arena and in the realm of public opinion.


You serve the public trust by earning the public’s trust. And here, I’ve greatly benefitted from nikhil trivedi’s thinking about acknowledging trauma in the visitors we hope to serve. In the context of art museums, surviving the erosion of public trust entails a commitment to transparency and accessibility. On one level this might look like giving visitors and members more of an understanding of who the people are that work in art museums and what they do on a daily basis. In addition to making information about the collections available ­­ especially information on provenance ­­ encyclopedic art museums must admit that many of the objects preserved and exhibited there were acquired under circumstances regarded as morally compromised as is the case with the so­-called “ethnographic” art objects of the Americas, Africa and Asia. Transparency initiatives are one way to respond to increasing demands from the public that art museums be more participatory; but transparency also has a place in how museum directors think about ethical practices and policies.


In the future when art museums are grappling with ethical issues, they must think more broadly not only in terms of provenance but also compensation, equity and the diversity of their staffs. After all, audiences comprised of millennials and people of color will not necessarily feel empowered to be in spaces where they do not see themselves reflected amongst more than just the security or custodial staff. Ni’Ja Whitson eloquently speaks to this dynamic in the Visitors of Color Project when they say:

When the brown face of a museum is predominantly limited to that of service workers, expectations of the obedient and available laboring body of color is reified. I would argue that the People of Color who do ascend to curatorial and upper-administrative positions, those with the power and privilege to dream the art on and within the walls of the galleries, while talented, intelligent and deserving, are so few that the weight of their dreaming exists as a critical whisper beside the bellow of the art machine.

In the end, transparency is becoming a greater part of what constitutes public trust as well as how it can be maintained. Transparency and public trust can be defined by honest and ethical relationships with board members and staff as well as (potential) visitors and members. For this reason when public trust is lost or damaged, it is imperative that institutions act quickly to demonstrate tangible and visible changes in their organizational culture.


Honest and ethical relationships between staff and museums are brought into question when museums rely on unpaid labor and/or fail to offer living wage and family wage jobs.

A closer look at the question of transparency as it figures not only into notions of ethical standards but also future trends in accessibility of collections brings us to the topic of open access. The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities of 22 October, 2003 was written in English and is one of the milestones of the Open Access movement, which seeks to provide free and open access to scholarly knowledge, raw data and metadata, and cultural heritage through the use of the internet.


As a response to the growing demands for transparency, the philosophy of open access, ­­ like the philosophy espoused by public libraries who are fully committed to being places of free and open exchange of knowledge and ideas, ­­is one that museums would do well to adopt.


fari nzinga was born and raised in Boston, MA and graduated with a B.A. from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her M.A. and Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored Black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice missions, as well as the political-economic landscape in which they operate. For two years she worked as the Public Policy Officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), where she attempted to facilitate institutional transformation around issues of transparency, access, inclusion and equity. Currently, fari is an Adjunct Professor of Museum Studies at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) — one of only 2 HBCUs to house an M.A.- level Museum Studies program in the U.S. fari tweets @fari_nzinga. 


  1. […] Falk: Visitor Models Description from New Orleans Museum of Art (Quelle: […]

  2. […] go way back in time to define the term public trust. Here is an example from an article from incluseum: “When the term public trust is defined the legal context, many scholars will cite Roman Emperor […]

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