How Do Staid Museums Navigate a User-Generated World?



Bill Adair is director of the Heritage Philadelphia Program and interim director of the Philadelphia Music Project at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Benjamin Filene is director of public history and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Laura Koloski is senior program specialist at the Pew Center.

The traditional expertise of the history museum seems to be challenged at every turn.  Web 2.0 invites ordinary people to become their own archivists, curators, historians, and designers as they organize images on Snapfish, identify artifacts through Flickr, post text on wikis, and create websites with WordPress and Weebly.  Bricks-and-mortar museums, meanwhile, in pursuit of “civic engagement,” give community members more say in what stories the museum showcases and how they get told.  Exhibitions frequently shun the authoritative voice.  Two decades after Michael Frisch heralded oral history for enabling “shared authority,” museums feature first-person voices with less and less narrative mediation.  Contemporary artists, too, question the institutional authority of museums—sometimes lamenting, sometimes lampooning the illusion of objective curatorial interpretation.  In this moment of flux, we think it’s time to explore how public history practice is wrestling with questions of shifting authority in each of these realms—the Web, community-based programming, oral history, contemporary art.

Emerging from these forces is a question or, really, twin questions.  First, do the changes that our culture is experiencing fundamentally challenge museums’ traditional relationship to their constituencies?  In other words, are we experiencing a tidal wave, a sea change, or just a summer shower?  From that question closely follows the second:  how much will be washed away and what will the terrain look like afterwards?  As our constituents have more avenues (and inclinations) for shaping, not just consuming, content, are museums actually being asked to let go of their position as historical authorities?  For that matter, does the notion of “sharing” imply that historian have the prerogative to distribute historical authority?

Technology and the Web

As the notion of historical gatekeepers expands (or perhaps dissolves) with new technology, old questions have new meaning:  who gets a say and how do their voices get heard?  No forces are impacting cultural practice, including public history, faster, deeper, and wider than technological change.  Virtually overnight, it seems, the cultural power center has shifted from the wizened and experienced practitioner to a younger, more nimble collection of experts and non-experts alike, all communicating with each other constantly and sharing their individual/collective productions with lightning speed.  Attention spans may be breaking down, and expectations are growing that everyone could and should upload, arrange, direct, produce, curate, and comment on any and all means of cultural production.  This includes the interpretation of our shared and individual histories.  Web 2.0 and social media may have forced the public historian’s hand—and many of us greet these changes with mixed emotions.  But how significant and sustainable is this apparent transformation?  Can everyone be a storyteller?  A historical interpreter?  A curator or docent of their own history?  In the new virtual world do real objects still matter? Do “real” experts?  Can the real and virtual worlds learn from each other and be in dynamic dialogue?

Community as Curator

So can anyone be a curator?  Public history institutions are wrestling with this question as they feel external and internal pressures to share interpretive authority with audiences of all kinds.  Even as digital media collapse geographic distances, museums are deepening their relationships with local communities.  This new intimacy between museum staff and their constituents may help to break down perceived audience barriers that museums have struggled with for years—exclusion, intimidation, elitism, and disconnection—but it brings new questions and challenges that museums now must face:  Is the definition of expertise in the museum context being radically transformed?  Whose expertise is now valued?  How much content authority can or should be shared in community-shaped programming?  Do visitors now expect to see their own cultural productions on the walls and in the collections of their local museums?  What is the role of the museum curator in these new enterprises?  Guide?  Mentor?  Content-provider?  Technical assistant?  Does the museum educator still “educate”?  Finally, does the desire to respond to local needs change how museums measure success?  What do excellence and quality look like within this new paradigm?

Oral History

Who gets to tell history’s stories?  Even a century ago, the recording machine offered an enticing way to capture people narrating their lives in their own voices.  While folklorists started making recordings before the turn of the twentieth century, it was in the 1940s that historians began to systematically collect eyewitness testimonials.  In the 1960s and ’70s, social historians used oral histories to understand experiences not documented in paper-based archives.  By the 1980s and ’90s, public history practitioners realized that gathering stories—listening instead of lecturing—suggested a fundamentally different way of thinking about the role of historians in constructing the past.  Museums began using first-person audio to make history personal and to convey alternate perspectives.  Oral history, then, was the first wave in the recent series of challenges that have buffeted traditional historical authority.  After decades, though, questions remain:  To what extent has the promise of oral history been realized?  Do first-person testimonials really challenge expert authority, or do professionals fundamentally control how recollections are gathered and deployed?  What are the potentials and pitfalls in bringing participants’ voices center stage in museum interpretation?  Do first-person accounts need to be corrected and contextualized, or can they stand on their own?  Does hearing voices change how audiences understand their relationship to the past?  Do ordinary people’s testimonials remain distant, or do they inspire visitors to see themselves as potential history-makers?  Finally, how do all of these dynamics shift if visitors can contribute memories on their own, with only minimal intervention from professionals?  Can everyone become his or her own (oral) historian?

Contemporary Artists

What happens when artists step into the arena of historical interpretation?  Perhaps more than any other exhibition in the last quarter century, artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society (1992–93) changed the way museum professionals see their work and themselves.  Collections ceased to be neutral assemblages of objects and were revealed to be freighted with cultural and political baggage; curators and museums were shown complicit in an often insidious power structure.  In the two decades since, artists have worked with historical collections and content in projects ranging from site-specific installations to illustrated rock operas, with many lively variants in between.  Artists can be engaged to play many roles:  interpreter and storyteller, providing access to untold stories and alternative narratives; provocateur, challenging the existing narratives; or critics of the institution and of the history-making process itself.  The resulting work can offer new interpretive pathways for audiences and can challenge public history professionals to reexamine their own practice.  But can collaborating with artists change organizations or the practice of public history more broadly?  Reflecting on Mining the Museum and its legacy, artist Fred Wilson himself has said,“My artworks don’t change museums, they change individuals."  Can artists be “trusted” to tell these stories?  Should historical organizations embrace the power that art can have to create meaningful, resonant experiences for audiences, or does an artist de-constructing history, leave it in shambles?  Does the museum abdicate responsibility for interpreting certain histories when it invites an artist to address them?  What happens when this practice exposes difficult or controversial information about the founders, the organization, or the ways in which stories are being told (or not told)?  After the artist leaves, and these issues have been laid bare, what is the next step?  Is there reason to continue this work, and, if so, what will move the practice forward?  Could history organizations and artists learn more from one another by learning more about the other?

The enduring relevance of public history work suggests that in one way “letting go” is perhaps not an apt metaphor.  If we take the phrase to mean a sudden relinquishing, a dropping of contact, then clearly that is not what the field is seeing:  instead of making a sudden break, the public history world has been deliberating about the issues of authority for decades, and instead of our constituents losing contact with us, we find that audience participation demands close involvement with our constituents, not more distance.  If we let visitors, communities, and artists go in new directions, they may take us to areas of fresh discovery, give our work more reach, and, along the way, forge stronger relationships with the museums that have enabled the journey.  The power of these questions—and of the search for answers—only grows.

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