Memorial Museum for an Octopus Attack? A Lesson in Trust (and humor)

Trust is fraught with risk.

Trust is important when web users assess knowledge claims online because we risk believing facts that are simply not true.  As Judith Simon explains, the web is an “enormous conglomeration of epistemic content of varying quality” so knowledge is not a validation of facts but “a success term labeling epistemic content that has survived critical scrutiny from multiple agents and satisfies communal standards”.

While I would typically be talking about trust in online communities, let’s go on a different and more thrilling adventure…

The Octopus

This past month, a new museum was advertised in New York City – the Staten Island Ferry Disaster Memorial Museum – which tells the story of 400 victims who died when a giant octopus attacked a Staten Island Ferry boat, on Nov. 22, 1963 – an event overshadowed by the assassination of JFK that same day. 

The corresponding brochure looked real and the person who showed it to me had found it at a tourist location.

“Eye witness accounts describe “large tentacles” which “pulled” the ferry beneath the surface…. The Staten Island Ferry Disaster Museum hopes to correct this oversight by preserving the memory of those lost in this tragedy and educating the public about the truth behind the only known giant octopus-ferry-attack in the tri-state area.”

I was immediately hooked on solving this mystery.  How had I never heard of this small museum or seen the Battery Park monument commemorating the tragedy?

When we trust information, we are taking responsibility for believing and granting authority to the evidence.  Remembering my research advocating epistemological vigilance, I was still suspicious that this place didn’t exist for the following reasons:unnamed

  • While the brochure said the museum was inside Snug Harbor Cultural Center, the address placed the museum right outside of the property.
  • Calls to the listed number did not lead to a person or voicemail.
  • Listed Twitter account was unavailable.
  • A statue appeared in Battery Park that I had never seen before.

I sent a tweet out, tagging #itweetmuseums and tagged some of the most informed museum people I know in New York. But, they hadn’t been there either – another telling clue that the museum couldn’t exist!  

One day later, the NYPost picked up the story, followed by Gothamist and Mashable, which included my Tweets in their story.  I was right to doubt the brochure’s integrity, predictability, and benevolence and while I didn’t denounce the museum as a lie, I was suspect to it all.

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We now know that the story is entirely fictitious – There was never an octopus in the harbor and it surely didn’t grab a ferry.

Uncertainty and vulnerability within the trustor and trustee relationship make it hard to weigh options and to calculate possibilities.  People have to determine if others have integrity (righteous behavior), predictability (adhering to promises) and benevolence (expectation of doing good) and then must make an informed decision as whether to trust the parties.

Is it the fault of the tourists who have been actually going to Staten Island wanting to see the museum?  Have they been informed enough to calculate risk and integrity?  Is it fair to expect tourists to know this is a joke? Would they have reason to speculate?

While us real museologists may have had nothing to do with this, its important to remember how much gravitas the term “museum”  has.  Tourists – for better or worse – take our museum marketing at face value.