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, et.al., 18-33. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.