The role of museums in the post-truth era

Every year, dictionaries such as the Oxford Dictionary choose their word of the year: “a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months” (I think we can all make some guesses about what the shortlists for this year look like). In 2016, Oxford Dictionary chose post-truth as their word of the year, which they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Now, 4 years later, this term is still just as relevant if not more.

2016 was an influential year for society, mostly because of the EU (Brexit) referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. Post-truth was mostly used in that political context and the impact of lies and misinformation surrounding these events. Although that context is still relevant in 2020, for example during the recent US election and because of growing political polarization, it can also be seen in the adoption and spreading of misinformation or conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 crisis. Because of a decreasing faith in science, people may still hold on to such theories even after they have been proven wrong.

Misinformation researchers Lewandowsky, Ecker and Cook (2017) state that the impact of what they call the post-truth malaise goes beyond individuals and that it affects society as a whole as well. They also believe that it’s wrong to see misinformation in the post-truth era as something that can be easily fixed by simply telling the facts, for instance because misinformation may have a negative impact on believability of actual facts. They also fear that misinformation can lead to alternative epistemologies or, more simply, alternative versions of reality, which people start talking about, sharing and believing.

To tackle this situation, they propose their “technocognition” approach, in which knowledge and techniques from multiple fields of study are incorporated to “design better information architectures that can build bridges between the socially-defined epistemic islands that define the post-truth era” and thus think beyond merely simple technological solutions, such as labeling misinformation or a tool like Bot Sentinel, which can display a percentage representing the chance that a Twitter account is a troll or a bot.

The post-truth problem, requiring societal, political, cultural and technological solutions may actually have a (path to a) solution in established institutions that encompass all of these aspects: museums.

In a way, museums are the pillars of our societal, political, technological and cultural history. Their goal is to not only preserve this but also to teach and explain. Museums are respected places where people can come together and dialogue is possible in an accessible way.

Here, it is important that museums don’t act as purely fact-based institutions, but present a complex topic, like climate change for instance, from multiple different angles and perspectives in order to facilitate “deliberative democracy” (Jones, Hussain, & Spiewak, 2020). This means (political) decision making by citizens based on dialogue and debate on opposing thoughts and views (Eagan, n.d.). This role museums can have in the post-truth era is also proposed by organizations like the Museums Association in the UK.

Art can be very innovative, engaging and multimedial (Cameron, Hodge, & Salazar, 2012). In this regard, through interactive exhibitions and art, museums may be able to transform people to these other epistemic islands, evoke emotions and challenge personal beliefs, which are aspects of post-truth.

A further development comes in the form of additional artist-led institutions, such as the Center for PostNatural History and the Museum for Jurassic Technology. The main advantage is that they can be more experimental than traditional institutions and motivate people to think critically, ask questions and to talk about what they see, rather than just acknowledging facts or information (Walker, 2020).

Of course, trusting institutions remains a challenging aspect, and research on museums and their representation of climate change shows that although the majority of people trust museums to portray accurate information, these authors also stress the importance of showing information from multiple worldviews in order to keep this trust high (Jones et al., 2020).

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