Pass the Authority, Please!

Authority is a loaded word.  It implies a relationship structured on power.  For many, the museum is an authority on history for little reason other than, well, it’s a museum.  So, before even walking in, a power-based relationship exists between the museum and its visitors.  But if museums hope to appeal to their audiences, they must challenge this relationship.

In her article, “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums,” Nina Simon envisions a participatory museum in which the museum features visitors’ own stories in exhibits or puts visitor objects on display.  By doing so, the museum shares its authority on historical interpretation.

I asked Anne Madarasz, Museum Division Director of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, how her institution invites audience participation.  Through interactive stations, visitors can share memories—their own histories—to enrich future exhibits or events at the museum.  In addition, the museum hosts Pittsburgh’s Hidden Treasures, An Antiques Appraisal Show, with a local television station.  Guests are encouraged to bring their artifacts to the museum to learn about the historical significance of their objects.   Visitors then enrich this discussion by sharing the personal stories surrounding the objects.

With efforts such as those by the History Center, museums demonstrate to the public that they are not the gatekeepers of historical interpretation and value and use the input of their audience.  Ultimately, this will help museums stay relevant, present meaningful exhibits, and redefine their relationship with the public.  After all, nobody owns history—it is lived by all and should be told by all.

– Eric Feingold



Interview with Anne Madarasz, Museum Division Director at the Senator John Heinz History Center, November 5, 2012.

Simon, Nina.  “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums.”  In Letting Go?  Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair,, 18-33.  Philadelphia:  The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.


About ericcgp

Hi, I'm Eric. I'm a Master's student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in--wait for it--Cooperstown, NY and am from Pittsburgh, PA. I've had the opportunity to work in a variety of different museums and am always happy to hear about people's own experiences in museums. I'm interested in popular culture (especially music and sports), museums/museum collections, and art history. A good/corny joke never hurt, either.
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10 Responses to Pass the Authority, Please!

  1. mbalexander says:

    I really love this Nina Simon article because it really demonstrates the need for different types of participation in the museum setting. Participation is no longer lifting flaps to reveal answers to questions in an exhibit, it is much more dynamic and varied. I liked the way the John Heinz History Center is running its own Antiques Roadshow like program. That really ties into the importance people place on their own/ family’s historical narrative and their desire to share it. I like the way the museum has tapped into that idea of personal history while connecting it to a popular tv show. In doing both of these things the museum seems to be trying to gain and connect to a wider audience. I wonder if that might extend into some visitor or community based exhibits about these objects and how they relate to Pittsburg’s history. I would love to know more about how the memories/ histories that are being recorded are going to be used in the future and how those are influencing the museum and the exhibits they are designing.

  2. Getting people to make connection between museum collections and their own history is a great way to get them personally involved. Some of my fondest memories at museums were when I saw my story in the exhibits and artifacts. I wonder if the museum uses this program to enrich their own catalogue or to change the way they interpret their own objects. If they did, that would go a step further in “sharing authority.” Also what a great marketing plan for the museum!! Has being featured on public television brought in visitors?

    • ericcgp says:


      During filming, the line for entrance to the museum typically goes around the block (I can’t honestly tell you if “PHT” has had a direct impact on annual visitation at the History Center). As frustrating as it can be to wait in line for a while, the line provides a space where people can talk about their histories with others. Therefore, personal histories are shared with the museum as well as with other members of the public; when many of these people are from the same general area (Pittsburgh/Western Pennsylvania), they gain new insight into a shared local history.

  3. kwoodling says:

    That is really encouraging that this history center is reaching out in a new and interesting way. In particular, the “Hidden Treasures” program not only provides a public service, offering antique appraisals, but also gives individuals a platform to express and tell their own stories, which is almost therapeutic. History after all is the story of individuals. I think often times museums do forget that their visitors have stories of their own. However, I also think that the concept of shared authority can also relate inside the museum as well, between various departments. To develop a stronger sense of interdependence these departments need to let go of the authority that they possess over their respective areas of expertise, whether that’s curation, education, or development.

    • ericcgp says:


      You make a really great point about sharing authority amongst museum staff. Especially in larger institutions, the stratification between departments can be really pronounced and can hide the fact that every department–curatorial, development, education, finance, marketing, etc.–must work towards common goals of sustainability and thoughtful content.

  4. georgied14 says:

    Hey Eric! I enjoyed reading your blog. Your blog, along with our class readings and discussions, have got me thinking about different and unique ways to involve our audiences. Nina Simon’s article offered to us examples where visitors have curated museum spaces, and thus taken ownership of the telling of their individual (and IMPORTANT) stories. One thing that concerns me right now, however, goes a little beyond the accessibility of museums to the “everyday” person. Museums, for the most part, have recognized that they need to be more inclusive in order to stay relevant. People are becoming less and less interested in the “plights” of rich, old, white men, and they want to know, ‘what’s so great about museums, anyways?? What’s in it for me? Does anyone really care if there IS something in it for me?’ Perhaps in order to truly represent The People, we need to dig a little deeper. What other ways can we get folks fully integrated into museum curation besides opening up some exhibit space in the corner of the building for people to show off their doodles? Museum professionals need to be thinking about this. Like we have read, museum professionals need to let go, and actually integrate the public into the “real exhibits” that they’re hanging up.

  5. drewu says:

    The John Heinz History Center has reached a great compromise with shared authority. They are maintaining control of their institution’s exhibits and programs, but giving them new agency that allows the visiting public to become a part of their presentations. I presume that the programs such as the Appraisal Show were developed strategically, in the spirit of shared authority, in conjunction with local advisory boards and visitor surveys? The authority like they recognize should be SHARED not completely SURRENDERED. Through becoming a part of the exhibits like the Heinz history center encourages visitors, they can garner a greater feeling of belonging and ownership to the institution. The possibilities for new avenues of participation are essentially limitless with innovative, creative museum professionals.
    The Petaluma Historical Museum in Petaluma, California, where I interned a few years ago opted for a traveling exhibit on Elvis and his impact on American popular culture. The exhibit itself was not comprehensive enough itself to bring many people to the museum. What the board did to encourage support and visitation of this initiative of theirs that I found, new, innovative, and astute, was that they invited everyone from Petaluma and Sonoma County to loan them their cherish Elvis memorabilia for the display. The response was staggering and they turned probably nothing away. They objects were accepted, catalogued, and displayed in cases around the predominate exhibition they had obtained on order. This brought people in droves who desired to see their possessions associated with “the King” which in turn had them appreciate the others, which the museum compiled. Albeit the exhibit had very little educational value besides learning every way Elvis’s image was exploited, but it resonated very well with so many.

  6. bschline says:

    I love the idea of An Antiques Appraisal Show in a museum! When I was working at an auction house, the appraiser there did a similar thing once a month. It was so popular we’d have to put out chairs in the lobby for all the people waiting. People love to hear about their stuff, it’s why we hold onto things in the first place. But whereas information provided at an auction house is often based around pricing, this way celebrates personal past. It also allows people to see how their family stories fit into a larger historical context, which is what museums should be striving to do anyway! On a more practical note, I know curators are always getting phone calls looking for appraisals. It would save a lot of time if they could politely tell appraisal seekers that objects could simply be brought in at a designated time.

    • Antiques Roadshow in a museum setting? I’m there! Pittsburgh’s Hidden Treasures, An Antiques Appraisal Show, sounds like a fun way to get visitors participating in a meaningful experience. This seems like an excellent example of community curation. Does the museum do a follow up exhibit with this event, like posting pictures and the stories associated with the object anywhere? This could be a great way to continue dialogue and encourage viewers who watched the program at home to visit the museum.

  7. It looks like Presence of the Past was right. People love to share family stories and while they say they are not interested in history. They like the “past.” That’s one reason the Antique Roadshow approach is so popular. Now museums have to figure out how to incorporate visitors’ opinions and ideas in their exhibitions and programs.

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