Thursday, January 22, 2009

Opinion Leaders

In this week’s class, my students and I had an interesting discussion about where trustworthy information comes from. I cited American surveys that have shown that museums are among the most trusted sources of information. For Ukrainians, that’s not so at all. In Soviet times, museums were used as tools to advance state policy. For instance, in an earlier conversation, one student said, “If the policy was against Poland, then museum exhibits were created to show that Poland was bad.”

Students (none of whom have any direct memory of the Soviet Union because they are too young), said for the Soviets, museums were a replacement for religion; that they were to be spiritual places—not for learning, and certainly not for fun. I learned this the other day when one of the babushkas (one of the old ladies who sit, watching, in every museum gallery) told a friend and I that we should not be talking so much, we would not have time to see the exhibits!

I’m beginning to understand that many museums here suffer from the same kind of public cynicism that pervades other elements of life here as well—as one of my students put it, “everybody lies.” They do believe that everyone lies, but also when asked who they trusted for information, said, “opinion leaders,” and when I asked further about who those opinion leaders might be, it wasn’t quite clear to me. It depends on what you want to know about. And one said, I suspect accurately, that the only people you can really trust for information are your friends. I hope, by the end of my time with my students, that I’ve encouraged the skills of critical thinking to enhance their broad-based knowledge.

What does this mean for Ukrainian museums moving forward? I think there’s an amazing opportunity for museums to begin to break through that cynicism by creating exhibitions that really encourage public dialogue about all sorts of issues—about public policy, about the role and importance of Ukrainian traditions in both village and city, about art, science and literature. But it will take a museum staff with vision and commitment to do so—and in any country, that’s a rare and wonderful thing. I think there are staff here interested in doing that, and unfortunately, a highly bureaucratic, top-down structure makes initiative more difficult.

Like US museums—and even more so—Ukrainian museums suffer from a lack of funds. So the work of changing perceptions is going to have to be not with a big splash, but with small but exciting changes. As my friend Anne Ackerson says, “Good ideas don’t cost money!”

Above: one of Ukraine's opinion leaders in the world of sports, soccer star Andriy Shevchenko.


Elyse said...

Golly, I never thought of museums as propaganda vehicles, but they are, aren't they? That awareness seems particularly important to maintain when visitors are not arriving with skepticism and can thus be more easily manipulated. Loosening that skepticism and creating/fostering openmindedness in visitors must be daunting too.

Linda Norris said...

Yes, and certainly American museums, at different times in our history, have been exactly the same. Think about the ways that groups outside the mainstream have been treated in exhibitions: African Americans, Native Americans, to name just a few, have had to endure shameful presentations of their history in a museum setting. Fortunately, the emphasis now in many American museums is on inclusion, dialogue and community involvement in such presentations. However in smaller places, still much work to do.

Elyse said...

I was thinking of art museums too--even science museums. Someone else, an expert, has preselected for visitors what is important. Sometimes, for the nonexpert, the experience can be intimidating. This points up one reason that the exhibit with the cardboard boxes was so exciting: no one was selecting for the spectator, who was observing the reactions of the crowd. Expert guidance is desirable and often good, but so are fresh eyes. (Hope it was ok to wander a bit off topic.)

Linda Norris said...

Elyse your comment is so interesting on several fronts: first, an art curator did select the work in the first place, but then the act of having to actually select a box and look in it at the videos of people made us each sort of a curator; and second, Reach Advisors work on surveying museum visitors at all sort of museums and although most visitors find museums trustworthy, when they don't, they're pretty annoyed. In science museums, issues included evolution (ie some visitors didn't believe it), ethics (like the Body Exhibit), and in general, a lack of transparency and multiple viewpoints in presenting ever-changing science. Lots more about it on Reach Advisors blog,