This past week I attended a lecture by Professor John Jost of NYU on the psychology of political orientation. His presentation led me to wonder about museums and the psychology of cultural liberalism vs. cultural conservativism. How do we share new and progressive ideas with culturally conservative visitors? How do we even get them in our doors? Are there things that we know about the psychology of these visitors that might be useful?
I am imagining the art museum visitor with little art background who sees “Untitled,” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and immediately rejects it. Or the history museum visitor who stumbles into an exhibit about the history of the LGBTQ movement and gets angry or upset. How can museums reach these visitors? Is there anything that we can do that can attract culturally conservative visitors to learn about what they might define as “liberal” topics? Are there methods of presentation that help bridge these gaps?
The Psychology of Political Orientation
John Jost’s work assumes that political ideology serves a psychological need, and that, generally speaking, there are core psychological differences between left-wing or liberal, and right-wing or conservative, voters. Most prominently, conservatives support authority and are interested in maintaining the status quo, while liberals are open to change, and prioritize social and economic equality. Therefore, if someone is psychologically motivated to reduce uncertainty, and has a preference for stability, he or she is likely to be a political conservative.
Jost shared an Ipsos/Reuters poll that asked people whether they found various entities (countries, leaders, organizations, and phenomena) threatening. Republicans found nearly all of these more threatening than did Democrats. For example, 67% of Republicans find illegal immigration threatening, while only 36% of Democrats found illegal immigration threatening. Similarly, 18% of Democrats and 33% of Republicans feel threatened by Atheism; 30% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans feel threatened by Islam.
Apparently there is evidence of a genetic component to political orientation, from studies conducted with identical and fraternal twins separated at birth. And one fascinating study found that researchers who looked at nursery school students could predict their later political orientation: children who were characterized as “developing close relationships, self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating, relatively under-controlled, and resilient” grew up to be liberals; children who were characterized as “feeling easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and relatively over-controlled and vulnerable” grew up to be conservative.
Jost also looked at the personality characteristics called “the Big Five”: Openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism or emotional stability. Liberals tend to score higher on tests of openness, and on compassion, which is a subcategory of agreeableness. Conservatives score higher on conscientiousness and on politeness, another subcategory of agreeableness. Another study conducted by Jost’s team demonstrated that conservatives have neater, more organized, and more conventional working spaces than do liberals. More recent studies find differences in language – conservatives use more nouns than liberals – and in the physical structure of certain areas of the brain.
Museum encounters with new or threatening ideas
I am making a number of assumptions in even considering the questions in this post. These assumptions include:
- Jost’s research is valid. His work includes a number of meta-studies, and to the best of my understanding Jost is very well respected in his field.
- Cultural leanings have the same or similar psychological underpinnings as do political orientation. In some areas they overlap (for example, responses to minority groups.) Regarding responses to contemporary art or other unfamiliar objects, I do not have any evidence to support this, but it makes sense to me.
- Museums skew toward the liberal end of the cultural spectrum, often displaying new and novel art, or sharing new theories of science or history. There are certainly conservative-leaning museums, but my sense is that as a field we are at least culturally, if not also politically, liberal.
- When a museum displays a Felix Gonzalez-Torres work, or a history of the LGBTQ movement, one goal is to engage visitors who might not begin as sympathetic or knowledgeable, and help engage their interest and sympathy. This relates to the current interest in empathy in museums.
Museums, like political candidates, often draw like-minded people. But how do we present information, or draw in, those who are not already convinced? And, to restate the question posed earlier, how do we share new and progressive ideas with culturally conservative visitors?
Here are a few initial thoughts drawn from my understanding of Jost’s research:
- Conservatives are drawn to authority figures. There is a movement afoot in museums to share authority with visitors. It seems likely that this repels visitors who want a clear source of authority. In fact, this likely relates to Jackie Delamatre’s recent exploration of adult learning styles in this blog. Can museums be participatory while drawing audiences that yearn for clear authority?
- If cultural conservatives respond to authority, are there interventions such as audio tours scripted and read by respected and well-known authority figures that might make visitors feel more comfortable in an exhibition of new or politically uncomfortable material?
- Would acknowledging the sense of threat presented by new ideas help some people feel more comfortable with them? Instead of assuming that all visitors should, for example, recognize Gonzalez-Torres as an accomplished and established artist, what happens if visitors have access to a tour guide, or a brochure, that meets them in the place that they are starting from?
- Navigating exhibits can sometimes feel disorienting or confusing, because of the many choices visitors must make in what to look at first or second, and which direction to turn. While many visitors appreciate the choices offered by informal learning, this may make visitors who prefer clear structure and organization uncomfortable. Are there ways to offer some visitors are clearer path without compromising the experience for others?
What can we learn from Jost and other psychologists that helps us to reach visitors, especially those who might disagree with us, in a meaningful way?
15 thoughts on “How can museums share progressive ideas with culturally conservative visitors?”
Thanks; this is a very interesting post. I am temperamentally conservative (although politically very liberal) as well as introverted. I find that both qualities affect my experience of exhibitions. I dislike exhibits or other public events that ask for my reactions or participation; as an introvert, I cannot give a real response until I have had time to think it through privately first. I also “like” authority, in the sense that I look for knowledge content from museums. I am really put off by impressionistic or speculative exhibit labels, and by “thought questions.” I want factual context, and lots of it! (I read EVERYTHING in museums, and there’s usually too little.) As a museum person, I believe in shared authority (in theory), but I think we have a long way to go in figuring out how to accomplish it without diluting the substance of what has traditionally drawn visitors like me.
I agree with you completely! I don’t even have anything else to add to this, because those are exactly my feelings.
Thanks; this is a very interesting post. I am temperamentally conservative (although politically very liberal) as well as introverted. I find that both qualities affect my experience of exhibitions. I dislike exhibits or other public events that ask for my reactions or participation; as an introvert, I cannot give a real response until I have had time to think it through privately first. I also “like” authority, in the sense that I look for knowledge content from museums. I am really put off by impressionistic or speculative exhibit labels, and by “thought questions.” I want factual context, and lots of it! (I read EVERYTHING in museums, and there’s usually too little.) As a museum person, I believe in shared authority, but I think we have a long way to go in figuring out how to accomplish it without diluting the substance of what has traditionally drawn visitors like me to museums.
Great insight, thanks. Working in a liberal minded informal learning team in a conservative museum with lots of socially conservative older visitors, I find this very relevant. There are serious questions about whether liberal arts practitioners abuse their public position when they champion ideological causes. In the past I platforms an well-known historian popular with our audiences but not in line with my liberal values because it seemed fair to audiences. But now we’re championing lgbt history and refugee rights in the programme, we give short shrift to any objectors because we simply consider them wrong. I love the idea of starting the conversation where people are at, particularly when it’s uncomfortable to do so.
This is good. My mother used to go to contemporary art museums with me; she was a curious lifelong learner but by temperament (and family background) quite conservative. She would always challenge me: “Tell me why I should like this. Why should I appreciate this? What is special about this?” (Anything from minimalism to conceptual work would draw this response.) For her, an authoritative account of why people care about this or that work would have been effective, but it would have to have been tailored to her: didactics did nothing for her because they tend to assume too much knowledge. Also, having her perfectly understandable puzzlement (and hence irritation) with certain works that superficially could make no claim to her understanding or esteem but that were occupying some very expensive real estate would have been good. People don’t like to feel that, in the territory of the museum, their own perceptions and values are invalid. Generally, people feel that “Momma didn’t raise no fools” and when museums imply that they indeed are foolish they won’t return. Why should they?
I think the solution is obvious: have guided tours for conservatives led by actors played easily recognized, culturally-appropriate authority figures: like Ronald Reagan or Napoleon or Mussolini or Francisco Franco or, for diversity’s sake, Margaret Thatcher. It may offend the sensibilities of some leftists, but there has to be a compromise somewhere.
It all makes sense to me. There are many types of public, with different interests and a museum should offer differ ten services accordingly. But while I was reading some questions popped. How do we identify a conservative so we can offer more suitable experiences? And isn’t the purpose of a contemporary art work to criticise or make a claim? I feel sometimes the purpose of some pieces is to cause rejection or even repulsion.
Regarding contemporary art, I think considering and rejecting is different than dismissing because of a limited definition of art.
And I don’t think we can identify conservatives – only make options available for people. I’m really interested in the varied critiques of labels in these comments. What do labels look like that really help novice knowledge seekers expand their ideas?
Аnd I would like to ask why the author apriory considers a museum which shows a Gonsalez-Torres’ work to be progressive, and visitors who reject such a work – conservative. It can be just opposite: museum tries to go along with a modern trend and modern politics and ideology, and a visitor displays his disagreement with this and clear understanding of cultural, aestetic and artistic values…
Olga, you raise a good point. Since I wrote this post I have been wondering – are museums, generally speaking, liberal or conservative institutions? Certainly major art museums have fairly conservative forces behind them, even if the preponderance of museum staff are fairly liberal.
I want to clarify, though, that I don’t think a “culturally liberal” response to a work of art is limited to one type of response. But I do think a culturally conservative response rejects it because it doesn’t look like what they imagine as “art,” and they are not open to expanding their very traditional definition. This was supported in a recent conversation I had with Professor Jost, who noted that “There is research, for instance, showing that political conservatives like concrete (vs. abstract) art and literal (vs. symbolic) poetry.”
In the context of the topic, the definition ‘conservative’ sounds very negative, opposite to modern and energetic ‘liberal’. This is a trend which has been going on for the last about ten years in the West: manipulation with public and following the prices and movements of the art market.
It seems to me that a reference to political conservatives are rather incorrect in the context of the topic. I am not convinced with the opinion of professor Jost, and do think that opinions of other museum professionals are no less valuable.
It seems that the definition of what is art should be given in this topic as well. Because not everything what is modern or contemporary is art (like not everything what is traditional is art). I personally am museum professional, in favour of art, both traditional and modern, appreciate abstract and symbolic art and poetry, and I do not consider the presented work by Gonzales-Torres to be art, but rather commercial manipulation with public.
I find this an interesting discussion. Coming from a small town history museum I do tend to assume that many of our visitors are expecting and prefer a traditional (great white men) history of the community, but I am often surprised by what people are interested in. Perhaps this just exposes my own bias. Nonetheless, your lead off with Professor Jost’s research brought to mind Jonathan Haidt’s work on morals and politics collected through some crowd-sourced research on yourmorals.org. Last I looked at his data, far more self-described liberals than conservatives were participating–which would skew his results and brings me to my second point.
several articles I’ve encountered lately make me wonder about the validity of this type of research. I’ve heard nothing about Jost’s work in particular, but have lately read several pieces focused on the unreliability of research results in both the hard sciences and social sciences. While I don’t have the original citations available a few similar articles can be found here:
Of course this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still strive to reach audiences that are reluctant to engage in material that is difficult for them, just that we might want to consider that there are many different people who might find much of our content difficult and that might not correlate with such broad categories as liberal and conservative.
Thank you, Anne, for making the excellent point about validity. I look forward to reading the articles you linked to, and looking at Jonathan Haidt’s work. I agree that nothing (or very little) is as straightforward as a single body of work makes it seem.
Having read this article immediately following the one on social justice, I find it interesting that the assumption is that as a profession we are liberal leaning, yet we struggle with social segregation. Is part of the challenge facing us in regards to segregation that the missing audience is at least partially conseravtive in outlook and therefore don’t see us as welcoming?
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