Politics, Philanthropy, and the Truth of Museums

As we limp towards the conclusion of what some are calling the most divisive and toxic election in American history, it is good to consider the role of museums in the aftermath. No matter who wins, there will be healing needed. Will museums play the role they do in times of public crisis, as they did after 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing, acting as sanctuaries for folks in need of spiritual salve?

Many museum people are squeamish when it comes to politics. We do not wish to insert ourselves into the public arena lest we take on the stench of the combatants. But there are many noble and practical reasons for us to open our doors on November 9 with an attitude of welcome for those seeking to reset and refocus.

Especially in this election season, I would argue that museums are more necessary than ever, and not just because we can make people feel better after the storm. Museums have the potential to serve as an existential anchor for communities disoriented and confused by what is real.

Political discourse is now so polarized, studies are showing, that many people have a hard time relating to their political opposites. They believe the other side lives in an alternate universe, another planet, a reality completely alien and incomprehensible. One side wonders how the other is so naïve about the perils facing society. It’s all so obvious. Just look around you. The other side can’t understand how anyone can have so much anger and distrust. It’s not so bad. Life is good.

The campaigns have worked hard to upend our sense of reality. Politics have always employed embellishment and truth-shading as means to ends. But this election season has had PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter on almost nonstop “Pants on Fire” alert. So many lies, falsehoods, and obfuscations have flown that the truth seems almost a quaint concept. No one knows what to think anymore. Which end is up?

In this context, museums offer a compass. Inside our spaces we find reality. When people encounter a work of art, an antiquity, a scientific breakthrough, a historical event, a wonder of nature, or any of the other objects museums offer, they experience authenticity. This, they must acknowledge, is the real deal. Many other aspects of life are confusing, perhaps, but this object in this moment is the truth. The chaotic maelstrom of politics fades into the background.

Recently we were offered a reflection of how it works. The Museum of Science, Boston  announced that Michael Bloomberg has donated $50 million. Bloomberg, a three-term mayor of New York who made billions in financial technology, is well-schooled in cage-match politics. He’s an Independent straddling the polarities of Red and Blue, a witness to the worldviews of both sides. His $50 million didn’t go towards a political cause. (At least this $50 million didn’t; Bloomberg has been an active donor to both major parties.) This $50 million went to a museum which inspired him as a youngster growing up in Medford, Massachusetts, and which continues to define for him what is real.

According to the Boston Globe article announcing the gift, Bloomberg says, “You go around the museum today, and you touch a button and things happen. You become part of the exhibit, and that’s what makes science relevant to you.” From his childhood visits he particularly recalls the museum’s crosscut of a 2,000-year-old sequoia tree, with which museum educators taught him “the value of intellectual honesty.” Clearly, to Bloomberg, this is a place with deep meaning, not because of theories or worldviews espoused, but because of the intensely authentic experiences taking place there.

Not all of our visitors are capable of expressing their appreciation with a multimillion dollar gift. But because we connect them with the authentic, I believe all of our visitors appreciate our ability to ground their sense of reality. And that makes us, to them, priceless.

 Dan Yaeger