Perceptions of the curatorial profession are likely shaped by popular culture, such as this famous scene from the 2018 film Black Panther. (screenshot via Youtube)

Nurses, librarians, doctors, and teachers are the professions most trusted by the British public. Trailing not far behind, in fifth place? Museum curators, believe it or not.

The eyebrow-raising findings — at least for those of us jaded by industry scandals and the rise of the celebrity curator — were published by the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, Britain’s longest-running poll on trust in professions. The survey asks people aged over 18 whether they would trust individuals in 30 different professions to tell them the truth.

Curators enjoyed a four percentage point increase in trustworthiness across gender and political affiliation in 2021. (The survey also asks respondents whether they support the Conservative or Labour party, the two dominant parties in Britain.) Notably, however, advanced degree holders were much more likely to trust museum curators to tell the truth, exposing educational gaps in the way the profession is perceived: 93% of degree holders said they trusted curators, compared to 76% of those without a degree.

The five least trusted professions in 2021 were business leaders, journalists (yikes), government ministers, other politicians, and advertising executives in last place; results more or less in line with previous years. Trust in journalists has actually risen to the highest level ever recorded by the index, but the profession still ranks depressingly low, with just 28% of respondents saying they trust them to tell the truth.

Perhaps in response to the ongoing global reckoning with police brutality and growing calls to defund law enforcement, police have seen the sharpest decline in trust, falling from 71% in 2020 to 63% in 2021.

The poll results come as the curatorial profession faces increasing scrutiny. In the UK and abroad, curators are being confronted about the ways in which they acquire, exhibit, and contextualize works of art — from artifacts looted by colonial regimes to works with complicated backstories, like gender violence.

Perceptions of the profession in the public imagination are likely also shaped by its characterization in film and popular culture. The hilariously dark satire The Square (2017), for instance, follows a top curator at a Swedish contemporary art museum, exposing the intersections of art, money, class, and power.

Another example is the famous art heist scene from Black Panther (2018), in which the character Erik “Killmonger” Stevens gazes at a display of West African objects on view at the “Museum of Great Britain,” a thinly disguised cover for the British Museum. When the curator, a thin white woman in a suit taking intermittent sips from a coffee cup, approaches him to share her “expertise,” he refutes her knowledge of one of the works’ origins.

“It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda,” Killmonger says, citing the fictional African setting of the Marvel Comics books. “Don’t trip — I’m gonna take it off your hands for you.”

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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