ENVi: A special interest group for school and community engagement professionals working in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums in Victoria, Australia.

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Belief, voice, opinions & facts

Priscilla Gaff

Priscilla Gaff, President’s welcome.

ENVi’s first program on the 2015 theme “Belief, voice, opinions and facts”.

Good evening, and on behalf of the ENVi committee, welcome to our first event for 2015, which we are fortunate to be hosted by the Shrine of Remembrance. And a special thank you to our speakers for this evening, and to Silvia Ercole who has worked so hard to put this event together.

The ENVi committee is made up of a group of passionate museum educators, and as you can imagine, our meetings don’t always stay ‘on task’. Last year, in planning for 2015, and after many of us having watched a particularly heated Q&A episode, we got into a deep conversation about the nature of belief, voice, opinions and facts, all of course in relation to museums.

ABC 2014 Q&A This is your Brain on Climate Change

On the Q&A episode in question, Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist, writer, and broadcaster, said to James Paterson, Deputy executive director of the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs:

“James, you’re entitled to your own views. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Which later led to this conversation on the panel:

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Tony, I’m just concerned that we’ve got one scientist on the panel and the rest of the panel aren’t, and one of the things that Susan, in her book, says is that the input/output processing in fact degrades scientific thinking and I think we just had an example of it because Laura, in response to peer-reviewed research responded “In my personal experience”.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: And I’m just intrigued as to whether the panel recognises that what Susan has been talking about is a thing called science and everyone else is talking about personal experience.

SUSAN GREENFIELD: Thank you. Yeah, thank you.

TONY JONES: Well, I realise.


TONY JONES: But I’d also say this, that there are plenty of scientists who disagree with you, as you know.


TONY JONES: In Britain and others – yes, that’s true…

SUSAN GREENFIELD: Well, no, can I just say, what they…

TONY JONES: …because I’ve read several of them at least.

SUSAN GREENFIELD: No, no. Can I just address that?

TONY JONES: The other thing they say is that you don’t do your own peer-reviewed research.

SUSAN GREENFIELD: Yes, well, exactly.

TONY JONES: You review other peoples.

SUSAN GREENFIELD: No. Well, let me just deal with that.


SUSAN GREENFIELD: Because I think this is a misconception. When you say there’s “Plenty of scientists”, there is one or two journalists…

And Susan goes on. But the salient point is about peer-reviewed science versus “personal experience”. However, in the museum world, and in telling people’s stories, we often use “personal experience” as fact and as narratives for exhibitions. We also encourage our visitors to share their beliefs, and opinions to deepen their connection to our collections.

Earlier in 2014, a concerned colleague curator sent me an article titled The Death of the Expert. As an expert herself, the words of Tom Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School, resonated with her and her work as a museum expert. In it Tom says:

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”, a Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live. This is a very bad thing.”

Why did it resonate with my curator colleague? Do others in the room feel museums are facing a shifting perception of our expertise?  As museums, galleries, libraries, who wish to create more participatory experiences, how do we navigate this new landscape which the blogisphere has opened up? Does this mean we need to change the way we develop programs, and how we work with our visitors, and our experts? Belief, opinions, voice and fact are all important in the work that we do. But who’s belief, opinions, voice and fact? And when? And where? Or perhaps in this new Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden-world, we need experts more than ever?

In 2015, ENVI plans to offer an array of events exploring these questions and the theme of “Belief, voice, opinions and facts”, which I invite you to participate in.

E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, once wrote:

“Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”

It is my opinion, and I don’t think I’m prejudice in saying this, that we have a great line up of experts, both as speakers tonight and as our audience members, and thank you all for coming.

Priscilla Gaff.


Tom Nichols. (2014). The Death of Expertise, The Federalist. http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/the-death-of-expertise/

ABC (2014). This is your Brain on Climate Change. Q&A. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4098217.htm

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