The Participatory Museum and a New Authority

Over the past several weeks, a series of discussions have taken place on Twitter and the blogosphere that revolve around the challenges and opportunities that museums face in an age of participatory culture.  While debates about the intersection of museum authority and public voice have gone on for some time, this recent flurry of dialogue among museum technology professionals was particularly deep —  and deliberate in asking the tough questions. You can catch up on this discussion at Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog , Rob Stein’s series on the Indianapolis Museum of Art blog (Parts I, II, and III), and the Twitter hashtags #museumchallenges and #sgsculture.

In my research, I have delved into issues of authority in museums and the ways that new voices can be engaged in the interpretation of culture. What I’ve concluded is that the web is continually moving towards transparency and openness in an inherently participatory environment; museums will need to embrace this openness and inclusivity if they wish to serve the needs and expectations of their communities. There is a sense that museums are slow to grasp this shift in expectations and instead hold fast to their mandate to be stewards of culture and, therefore, the authorities of it. This has caused me to wonder: is there a middle ground between authority and open, participatory culture?

When Nina Simon posited on her blog, “What are the most important problems in our field?” my response was, “How do we combat the authoritative voice of museums, while still remaining respected stewards of our shared cultural heritage?”  I was inspired by Nina’s point in The Participatory Museum that museum professionals should facilitate the platforms for participation, and there is power in managing that platform. This was the first time it was clearly articulated to me that sharing authority doesn’t mean losing all control.

I was further enlightened by Rob Stein’s differentiation between “authoritarian” and “authoritative” approaches to participatory culture. In Part III of his series covering the Salzburg Global Seminar, Rob defines (below) “authoritative” in a more positive light in contrast to being “authoritarian.”

“An authoritative approach demonstrates the expertise of the museum’s staff in a participatory context that recognizes the museum’s role in facilitating access to cultural objects and information.”

So then, what is the perfect mix of authority and openness?  I think that before we can solve this problem, the museum community may need to adopt a new kind of authority — perhaps a model of “open authority.” Wherever this path leads, I’m excited to watch the discussion continue and I hope you’ll join in.

Photo by Lori Byrd Phillips

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