Museums and political thought: A follow-up

My two most recent posts have suggested that museums may have techniques at their disposal that help transform thinking, in particular fostering critical thinking and tolerance. Since sharing those posts, I have come across articles and video clips that I think further the argument, and may even help museums train staff.

Demonstrations of how to facilitate and foster critical thinking.

In November I wrote a post entitled, What responsibility do museums have for shaping the public’s relationship with facts? In this post I suggested that museums can and should foster critical thinking skills through object-based conversations, by asking both “what makes you say that” and “how do you know what you know?”

On December 1st, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota interviewed Trump supporters, one of whom claimed that three million “illegals” voted in the election. Camerota asks a series of follow-up questions that challenge this supporter to explain how she knows what she knows. A transcript and partial video is available here. You can also watch the full interview below; for the specific clip referenced,watch from 4’15” to 5’38”.


On a lighter note, Trevor Noah of the Daily Show shares a playful and fictional conversation along the same vein, comparing Trump to a toddler and noting that “logic is the downfall of every toddler.” He starts his imaginary conversation with Trump by asking, “What makes you say that?” (watch from 9’15” – 10’10”):


I wonder if these clips (in particular the CNN clip) might actually be useful in training educators and docents to facilitate rigorous conversations in museums? They demonstrate a few things simultaneously: the need for asking “how do you know what you know?” and the types of follow-up questions one might ask.  If anyone tries this, please do let me know!

The power of listening to foster empathy

In my most recent post, How do museums help to create a better world, I wrote that museum staff should be promoting tolerance, including those “who are happy to promote intolerant viewpoints – even when they don’t see themselves are racist.” As a result of this post I found myself immersed in a conversation on Twitter in which I was told (in bursts of under 140 characters – really not my favorite mode of conversation), “There’s no changing a fascist’s mind. That’s not how this works.” “There’s no ‘gotta hear both sides’ when you’re talking about extinction.” “And not lost on me is you’re asking those who are being actively hated on to perform this changing of minds.”

So the question is: can talking respectfully with people with whom you disagree help change their minds? I really think it might be the only thing that does.

First, more on a study that I have already cited, as shared in Vox. Researchers from Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley examined the power of conversation to change minds. Canvasers went door to door and asked people to “put themselves in the shoes of trans people.” Many of these canvasers were transgender themselves. This study showed that these 10-minute conversations were effective ways to change attitudes, and that this result endured for at least three months.

This American Life shared a story about this same technique in an April 2016 episode. This episode includes audio of a canvasser talking to a voter about abortion; the voter’s mind is changed by the end of the encounter: she goes from reporting a tolerance level of 0 for abortion to a tolerance level of 10 (the scale is from 0-10).

Similarly, the power of conversation to change minds was demonstrated in a recent New York Times opinion piece. In this article R. Derek Blacknov describes why he left the White Nationalist movement, which he was, as he puts it, “born into”:

Several years ago, I began attending a liberal college where my presence prompted huge controversy. Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there — people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me — I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it.


The program that This American Life and Vox reported on is run by Leadership Lab in Los Angeles. I wonder if they would work with museums to think about how museums could facilitate short, effective conversations with visitors or stakeholders? And/or help us to train staff to do this work?

4 thoughts on “Museums and political thought: A follow-up

  1. Rebecca, it has been very helpful and inspiring following your questioning in the last 3-4 posts. I believe we are still far from finding the way to engage (in museums) with people with opposing views, much less changing someone’s mind. It has to do a lot, I believe, with each person’s personality and how open and prepared and willing they are to see their views challenged – not a very comfortable thing for most of us. My thoughts lately have got more to do with the need for museum to assume their political role. How can you engage in a conversation about politics if you believe that what you do is “apolitical”? The debate itself is a political act. Here’s my latest post, including some suggested readings (one of your posts too). Thanks again, let’s all keep questioning ourselves:

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