Who Counts? The Data We Use to Prove the Points We Make

by Carly Ciufo

Although I doubt the book will make it into my dissertation, the comps text that’s unexpectedly stayed with me is Bruce Curtis’ The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875. With my last post, I talked about the local positionality of national museums. I cited some studies of surveyed data around museums and trust. Receiving some collegial feedback from a colleague on the post brought me back to an early comps session where Curtis was on the table and has got me thinking about why this book has stuck with me ever since.

Curtis’ book is about the ways census collection changed, sought scientific standardization, and was crucial to state formation in mid-nineteenth century Canada. But Curtis also talks a lot about the personalities at play and the incompleteness of data as well as the false categorization of census facts and figures. Sitting across my professor’s desk, I recall a particularly enlivened conversation around the pros and cons of quantitative and qualitative approaches that kept us both on our toes.

“Censuses are not ‘taken,’ they are made,” is the specific bit from Curtis that’s since stayed with me. (34) In thinking through how I work as a historian, this note’s been a crucial element to the question everything approach required when it comes to truth and trust at museums.

May wasn’t all too long ago. That was when, coming off another tough term online, many of us were waiting to see who won the long-form census lottery, excited to pop on some CanCon playlists and participate.

I’d hazard a guess that most historians take the census because they like when people in the past leave behind data points that historians can pick up on in the present. Historians know how important it is to be counted in the future. But who gets to be included in these numbers without concern about outing their religion, ethnicity, or pay bracket? Not everybody.

The methodological lesson that I took away from the comps session that included Curtis’ book was that statistics can really do whatever the historian wants them to do. This sometimes results in inadvertently disingenuous work. And I see it in some of the Museum Studies scholarship that I’m responding to in my dissertation.

Many scholars take in displays as if they are an everyday visitor roaming the galleries. They publish on how they analyze what they see. And, too often, they leave it at that. Without talking to curators, reading their articles, or seeking out answers beyond the institution, how can a scholar have anything but a limited understanding of who built a given exhibit and what it means for the people who trust the institution it is housed in?

I suspect this approach is the result of an oftentimes singular and misdirected concern for the conventional museum visitor in the existing scholarship. I think that this method needs to and can be rectified.

For one, the museum as institution can be more transparent with who is working on the exhibit. The Rijksmuseum, for example, tells you exactly who curates the Slavery: Ten True Stories exhibition and they make public why they’re adding seventy-seven labels to items in their permanent collection with ties to Dutch colonial slavery. The institution is showing its work and letting the museum observer—be they visitor, scholar, or future historian—understand what went into a given exhibit. If a scholar studying a space cannot find this sort of information out though, how can an everyday visitor?

The scholar has a responsibility to dig beyond what the institution offers the visitor, too. They can read the articles that museum employees or community members write about an exhibit’s curation to understand why a display looks like it does. They can use existing material online or in print that elucidates the process beyond the display. From that, the scholar can properly analyze the way museum work is done, what can be learned, and how it can be improved.

Scholars also need to inquire into the foundations of the quantitative surveys that they use. They need to know who makes up those surveyed, especially when they’re talking about museums and trust. With study after study deeming museums the pinnacle of trust, the demographics of who is surveyed need to be a source of inquiry, too.

Those involved in the Canadians and Their Pasts study that I cited last post outline their process well. (7-8; 175-178) The authors are careful whenever they make general claims and recognize their limits when it comes to the conclusions that can be made with the data collected. But there are many other studies that talk about museums and trust without navigating the limits of their data for the prospective reader. They claim that the people surveyed are indicative of all Americans by chatting with a few thousand people in one region or they cite the same study over and over without recognizing that the data is only accessible to a paying membership.

The limits of census data can be outlined quite simply, though. And good historians use statistics in the same way they use oral history and photographs and any other source. They outline their sources’ limits before discussing the particularities of the data that serve as evidence to sustain their arguments.

Who is left out of quantitative data? A whole lot of people are not counted. And that’s always going to be the case with numbers.

So when it comes to trust and museums, we need to pay more attention to who is being asked if they believe what’s on display and how that affects the public-facing history work that we do.


Carly Ciufo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. She is an editor for ActiveHistory.ca and a member of the Center for Human Rights and Restorative Justice. Carly would like to credit Armando Perla for questioning the demographics of the data used in her earlier post and thank him for always encouraging her to think about what else is possible in museums with care and enthusiasm.

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