Sharing is Caring, it IS fun!

Why are most museum professionals so controlling? Perhaps it is because we fear that if we give some of this control to the public then they will no longer have a need for museums, or perhaps we fear that shared authority may provide for a less professional exhibit. In any case, we’ve been doing it wrong. The articles in Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World certainly agree, and so does Erin Richardson; Collections Manager for the Farmers’ Museum, and mastermind of the Plowline project.

In my interview with Erin she discussed that museums have less faith in people. They don’t believe that their visitors are intelligent enough to grasp certain concepts, and they don’t have enough faith in them to share authority with them. In her attempt to share authority, Erin has been working on collecting oral histories to provide historical background for the images presented in the online Plowline project. In my opinion, sharing authority by presenting the oral histories does quite the opposite of loosing professionalism, it enhances it. It provides a sensory experience that will stay with the visitor much longer than just the object and a text label could ever do. Who better to give something authority than someone who experienced it? I’m not saying to entirely let go of our control issues (that would take FAR more than a 250 word blog post), but I think we must consider opening our minds to balancing our “professionalism” with shared authority in order to keep in step with this fast-paced, user-generated world that needs our museums.

Sources:

Adair, Bill, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. 1st ed. Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.
Interview with Erin Richardson, Collections Manager for the Farmers’ Museum, November 5, 2011.
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6 Responses to Sharing is Caring, it IS fun!

  1. mbalexander says:

    Sam,
    I am really interested in how these oral histories and photographs will go together. This seems like a really interesting way to involve people in the museum by sharing their own personal histories and connections with the images. This really adds another level to the meaning of the images and I imagine it will help the images come to life in a more dynamic way.
    As to shared authority I really see our place as museum professionals as having the expertise and knowledge to facilitate community involvement and participation. We have the education to make the ideas, concepts, and collaborations come to life. As professionals we can be guides to getting the ideas of the community out into the public in an accessible and fair format.

  2. Oral histories are a great way to get people involved in a museum or cultural institution. How many of us were told by our narrators before our Research and Fieldwork interviews, “I don’t have anything to say. My life story is not very interesting.” I think statements like these shed light on the problems with the way history is presenting broadly. As a discipline, we need to open up and show people that (almost) everyone’s life story is worth telling AND fits in with a grander historical narrative. I wonder if NYSHA is going to use these oral histories when they exhibit the Plowline photos and let the people who have first hand experience tell the story of up-state industries?

  3. kwoodling says:

    I could not agree more with your statement about giving authority to those who experienced it!! I think as museum professionals, we quickly forget that just because we have a degree does not give us the final say in what makes history. The human experience, whether as an individual or a community, is what makes up this human story. Having input from those who lived these events is all the more important. While I think we do need to strike a balance for issues surrounding shared authority, giving the public a say is the most important thing a museum can do. I mean without them, what stories do we have to tell?

  4. lizcongdon says:

    I think it is so interesting that Erin noted how museums often don’t have faith in their audiences. Nina Simon brings up this same point in her TED talk about “Opening Up The Museum” (http://tinyurl.com/cthou58) and points out that many museum professionals “would recoil in horror at the idea of being inundated by Sunday painters” (Youtube, 1:51). How do we know that these Sunday painters are not as talented as the painters whose work we hang on the walls?! We don’t!
    This morning I actually looked up my old orthodontist (lost my retainer!) and found out that since he retired he has taken his ‘Sunday painting’ hobby into a full-time career with beautiful work and solo gallery shows. I admit, as a metal-mouthed teenager in his office, I never took his still lives seriously. I thought “this guy only does this stuff on the weekends!”, but truth be told he is one of the best painters in that area.

    We need to strive as museum professionals to take people seriously, even if they don’t have a degree in painting or museum studies or whatever our museum’s subject is. Sometimes experiencing these things as a hobby can give a better perspective than studying them at a university.

  5. georgied14 says:

    Hey Sam- I thought your write up, and particularly the part about your interview with Erin, to be very insightful. As we have discussed in class, it is seemingly difficult for museum professionals to relinquish their tight authoritative grip on the education flow throughout their institutions. However, as an academic and future museum professional, I strongly urge such nay-sayers to shared authority to get over it. Museum professionals must do a better job of trusting the intelligence of their audience. If this seems difficult for some, I respond to them with the age old adage- just fake it ’til you make it. Seriously. Just give it a try, even if you don’t think it will work. Try, for a moment, to trust the intent of people. Trust that they WANT to learn. Trust that they WANT to be presented with a new point of view, regardless of whether or not they will ultimately agree with it. Trust that they WANT to listen to you. But also understand, that they want to be heard too. You’re not the only one that’s allowed to be obsessed with showing off your knowledge. Yeah, yeah, you have a degree. You payed for the a lot of the ideas that are now percolating around in your head. I get it. But, I also get that the opinions of people who may not have a fancy piece of paper are just as important as your own. Try it. You may learn something.
    So with that, Big Up to Erin for doing what she’s doing.

  6. pdickerson says:

    I always have trouble thinking about what professional history really is. Do we have a “professional” opinion just because we can repeat a story that has been told and confirmed time and time again? Is history not professional when it does not match into the narrative of the United States? More importantly, does any of it matter when people are not paying attention in the first place?

    I’m not suggesting we overthrow professional perspective, and we certainly should not eliminate the expertise needed to put together a thought-provoking exhibition. Georgie was saying to trust the visitor that he or she would be able to take on a new point of view. Perhaps our constant push for new, professional points of view could be slowing down how we connect with our visitors in the first place. Perhaps we should consider our community’s perspective of history.

    I love the Plowline oral histories for that reason. The community around Otsego county can tell its own story without too much of a “professional” interpretation, which I believe everyone agrees is a great way to reconnect with history.

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