Critically Examining Shared Authority

We’re people, so we like to be right.  This is one reason is why some museum professionals have a hard time sharing authority with the public, but it is also one reason why other museum professionals have a hard time seeing how shared authority may have potential problems.

My fellow bloggers at Museum Matters have been very enthusiastic about museums sharing their authority with the public.  I agree with them, but I want to challenge their assumptions because there is a danger in being too sure of your own rightness to consider other possibilities.

There may be times when publically curated exhibits need more direction from the museum than usual.  Controversial exhibits are one example; inflamed passions often do more harm than good for public discourse unless mediation is available.  Another example might be exhibits about older subjects which are not remembered by anyone alive, as the typical public curation model lets people describe their own experiences.  In these cases, a museum may have to take a larger share of the authority than it ideally would.

Another issue is that people may be skeptical about public curation, and therefore reluctant to embrace it.  They may include board members and active museum goers, or they might be the members of the public who don’t attend museums—the very demographic we want to reach.  What should we do if neither our target nor our core audiences are impressed by shared authority?

How would you solve these potential issues?  Post your solutions below.

By Rick Kriebel

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9 Responses to Critically Examining Shared Authority

  1. bgallagher15 says:

    Rick, while the following link is not directly related to public curation, it does touch upon the clash of authority (expertise), ownership, and public access to the knowledge content of museum collections.
    See: http://smithsonian20.typepad.com/blog/2009/03/web-t.html
    -Bernie, ’03

  2. SWalker says:

    From what we’re been reading in class, if an exhibit built around shared authority doesn’t do well it’s because it wasn’t implemented correctly. I think there were a couple of examples of poorly executed shared authority provided in the Participatory Museums book. The main one that comes to mind is where the museum visitors were allowed to make response videos to the exhibit they saw.

    • krierr15 says:

      The reason why I wrote this post was to get people to think about poor implementation, so that they can hopefully correct it before it starts. I suspect that most poorly implemented programs had some circumstance that made shared authority more difficult, but was not addressed in the program’s design. Learning to anticipate those circumstances will hopefully keep us from making bad designs.

  3. Fred H. Gold says:

    I agree, Rick, that there are potential issues with trying to share historical authority (in any format, but particularly in museums). It is highly likely that staff who advocate for such a thing will encounter some resistance. Even at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference this past month, I heard several museum professionals state emphatically that museums shouldn’t share authority because people who attend museums do so specifically to learn what the museum has to say. Essentially, they told me that museums need to be a place where authority (as is the case in most traditional museums) shouldn’t be shared, because that isn’t what the visitors want.

    I see their point. Some visitors don’t want their museums to share authority. The statement, however, that museums shouldn’t share authority because visitors don’t want us to is predicated on the idea that we don’t need any more visitors. Remember, even though museum visitation is rising in some places, in general, the visitation in the U.S. is not keeping up with population growth. That means that museums are actually serving smaller and smaller segments of their communities. We are faced with a problem: How do we reinvent our industry to serve a larger portion of the population?

    There are numerous case studies that show how sharing authority not only attracts more visitors, but generally makes a museum more participatory and engaging, which increases an institution’s value to its community. Take, for example, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Faced with decreasing visitation and financial hardship, they hired Nina Simon to reinvigorate their institution. She did so by making into a more participatory museum and sharing some historical authority with her visitors.

    Essentially, I’m saying that we might actually alienate some of our current visitors. That’s true. Yet, it’s a risk we must take in order for museums to stay relevant.

    • krierr15 says:

      Bernie provided a link in his post above that should prove very helpful with some of these matters.

      As for alienating part of the audience, I agree that it may be necessary at times. We should certainly try to minimize that, but there will be people who want a museum to be something that it cannot or should not be.

  4. hoffed04 says:

    I think museum professionals do see the problems in sharing authority with the public. As we try to make our museums more participatory, in some ways, it involves a lot of trial and error. Some attempts are great successes while others completely fail. Does this mean that the participatory museum should not be our goal? I don’t think so. The goal should be to have a participatory museum done the right way.

    One thing that is important to remember is that sharing authority is supposed to create a dialogue between visitors and the museum. It does not completely cut out the expertise of professionals at the museum. We are there to educate the public and that role does not stop if we let them in. Visitors should be able to analyze information provided from the museum with their own experiences to form their own interpretation. I think participatory elements in a lot of ways are teaching visitors how to think critically, not in a very literal way but it is in essence, what I think they are trying to inspire. By doing this, people are forced to re-evaluate their preconceived notions in light of new evidence. It provides people a way to interpret an object, a time period, or a theme in a way that is relevant to their own lives. I keep thinking of cases where museums allow community members to come in and develop their own exhibits. It doesn’t mean you just set them loose in your collection and have them throw whatever objects they like in a room and write whatever they want on the walls. These experiences are guided by museum professionals who act as mentors.

    As far as alienating people, most of the participatory experiences have been voluntary. If the core audience that like the traditional experience, they can choose to continue to have that. I don’t think it’s necessarily about targeting one type of audience, one type of learner, or one type of museum goer. It’s about creating a space that has something for everybody to connect with.

  5. hartmc89 says:

    I like that you are playing devil’s adcovate here, Rick. It occurs to me the perhaps “Letting Go” and Nina Simon’s book might be biased towards the view of their authors that museums can and should share authority and/or be partcipatory and that sharing authority does not work in all cases. If nothing else, I believe that there is still room in world for more traditional museums and exhibits. I do not believe every museum needs to completely re-vamp its thinking and way of operating to make way for this “new wave”. However, I think it is important to think about the deeper reasoning behind the idea of shared authority and not just judge the concept on the surface of things, like whether or not exhibits and programs of this nature take off or fail.

    In her article, “Shared Authority: The Key to Museum Education as Social Change,” Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello writes, “Operating from a position of shared authority requires that we consider ourselves first and foremost as both educators and learners. We must recognize that we always and already share authority, for we do not have all the answers — or even all the questions. And we need, perhaps more than anything, to be open to engaging in acts of translation in which we seek to understand fully another’s voice and perspective…” (p. 122) As the titile of the article suggests, she is looking at the subject of shared authority through the lens of museums being places that facilitate social change. Not every museum is striving to be such an instituion, however, I think her sentiment gets at the heart of why museums and museum professionals should make an effort to share authority: ie. museum professionals do not know everything and other people outside the museum world can have useful and important thoughts, memories, and perspectives to contribute if museums just listen. For instance, in the exhibit Catherine Charlebois’s oral history exhibit at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal, having the story being told by the residents themselves with little official museum interpretation may have the best way to have that story told. Unlike perhaps many of the museum staff that worked on the exhibit, the residents were the ones with the real-life experience to tell their story. And the task of the museum creators was to facilitate the telling of that story through collecting oral histories and framing them within the exhibit.

    In other cases, museum visitors may not have direct first-hand experience with the exact objects or content of an exhibit, but they still could have something to contribute which is unique to them. Basically, museums should recognize that, although their instiution may hold large repository of knowledge and expertise in their area of specialty, they are not the only voice that matters. Certainly, there are some subjects about which it is more difficult to balance sharing authority while maintaining intergrity of an educational mission, for instance at Colonial Williamsburg. The general public has lots of misconceptions about this period of history which should not be reinforced and crowdsourcing may not be the best approach for telling the story behind colonial Virgnia. However, if one is creative, I think it is possible to effectively share authority within the correct framework so that the public feels invisted in the museum and their experience there.

  6. kcsten08 says:

    I am not sure that sharing authority necessarily challenges the goals of a museum as much as it seems to. It is true that some visitors have little experience (or little interest) in participating in conversations about current or prospective topics that are discussed by a museum. If these visitors just want to visit the museum in a “traditional” manner, providing avenues for participation should not alienate them as long as they do not feel like they are expected to participate.

    Museums can share authority in different ways and varying degrees. Whether a museum simply provides a means for visitors to rate the exhibits/art works (like the Worcester Art Museum letting visitors vote for their favorite works) or whether that museum initiates a program where members of the community can help organize exhibits (like the Glasgow Open Museum) depends on the capabilities and desire of the museum. Museums that are losing membership might want to try new methods of attracting visitors, since the alternative could be closing. Other museums might find that they get enough visitors who like the “traditional” way in which museums approach authority, and these museums might continue to make all the exhibit choices. However, such museums might find that “traditional” visitors are open to shared authority if given the chance, and that visitation could be increased by allowing them to contribute.

    Assessing your audience is therefore the first step to increasing shared authority and changing the way your museum approaches providing knowledge to the public. We have been speculating whether shared authority can work without including visitor opinions in discussions of this concept.

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