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The Resurrection of the Amateur Expert

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Of all the conversations instigated by CFM so far, the one arousing the greatest passion is about the changing role of authority. The CFM report Museums & Society 2034 highlights a cultural shift in which people want museums to recognize and value the expertise they bring to the table, rather than just serving as providers of authoritative content. This points to a future in which museums (and in particular, curators) are moderators of conversations rather than lecturers, filters rather than point-sources.

This really, really upsets a lot of museum people. They sputter that it will lead to museums being purveyors of popular pabulum and perpetuators of misconception, brokering consensus rather than delivering truth.

But truly, I think in many ways presenting this as a new thing in museums is setting up a straw man. Isn’t it actually a long circle back to the culture that gave birth to many museums in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century? Many of these museums were founded by “amateurs” in the best sense of the word—individuals deeply learned in their fields, but who were not paid for acquiring or using that knowledge. I was vividly reminded of this last week at the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, which was founded by “gentleman naturalists.”

Note the “gentleman.” Herein lies the rub—most of these amateurs were credentialed by their wealth, rather than their training or erudition (though they had plenty of that, too.) Today’s museum professionals have little wealth (unless they inherit it) or job security (unlike their tenured brethren in academe) and so they rely heavily on their educational credentials and professional authority to derive their status in society.

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Amateurs never went away—they faded in importance as various fields (art, science, museology) became professionalized. Perhaps they dwindled in number for a time as mass-produced culture (delivered via radio, TV and the internet) supplanted self-generated content—I am not sure. My father certainly was a passionate amateur in the best 19th-century tradition. Born in 1919 to the classic penniless immigrant Jewish family that fled Russia during the Cossack pogroms of 1905, he studied hard and achieved the American dream of becoming a successful tax attorney, which he found financially rewarding but intellectually unfulfilling. So he became a self-trained scholar in archaeoastronomy and biblical studies, publishing in peer-reviewed journals in both fields. I was, early on, trained up as his designated translator in French (for his studies of Megalithic sites in Brittany) and ancient Greek (background for his exploration of the intersection of classical myths with stories in the old and new testaments.) As a teenager I found this to be an enormous and unreasonable burden, but now I treasure this side-effect of his passions.

Part of my father’s success in his amateur endeavors came from his utter confidence that anybody, no matter how famous or prominent in their field, would be willing to talk to him, based on their shared interests. This resulted in friendships or collegial relationships that encompassed Yigal Yadin (one time deputy minister of Israel but trained as an archaeologist), Immanual Velikovsky (the somewhat nutty Russian émigré who believed that Noah’s flood was caused by a proto-Nova explosion on the planet Saturn) and Charles Hapgood (regarding the authenticity or lack thereof of the Vinland Map—historic cartography was another of my father’s interests.) I remember playing under Buckminster Fuller’s desk as a little child as my father and he discussed utopian architecture.

In my experience, many people have such enthusiasm for some subject—and such pools of self-assembled expertise. But few have the chutzpah to waltz into a museum and ask for access to the collections (as my father regularly did at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, to my deep mortification as an undergraduate—he always insisted I come along.) His position was that the collections were there for the public. He was right, and in fact, the curator was always happy to accommodate him, but how many members of the public know they can do that?

One great quote I heard at the recent AAM annual meeting was “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed” (usually attributed to the science fiction writer William Gibson.) With regard to the need for museums to welcome and validate the “expert amateur”, this is certainly true. Cincinnati Museum Center, where I worked before coming to AAM, relies heavily on amateur experts in collecting, preparing and caring for its collections particularly in natural history (cleaning fossils, reassembling potsherds, stuffing dead birds with cotton to create study specimens) and history of technology (c.f. the infamous “machine tool guys” who used to be machinists at Cincinnati Milacron.) There were pockets of snobbery (notably in the archives, where staff griped about amateur genealogists taking up their time) but on the whole, if you were “in the know” you had not only had access to the collections, you were in imminent danger of being press-ganged by the overworked staff.

So the question isn’t whether museums can behave like this, it is how to get more museums to behave like this, and let people know that they behave like this. I think there are segments of the museum community that has not adopted this culture of access and community input (notably fine art). And there are masses of knowledgeable, talented amateurs who, unlike my father, don’t realize that they can breeze in, ask to see the stuff and pick the brains of the certified experts.

I think the most productive way to pick away at these issues—museum culture and public image—is to identify and solicit input from potential collaborators. One such community is historic costumers and re-enactors. These folks have a strong interest in creating and wearing clothing from previous centuries. And in the process of reconstructing how clothing was made and worn, they generate loads of information, from the properties of materials to the influence of the resulting design on behavior. (I am assured you don’t really know what a pavan looked like until you see it attempted in corset and historically accurate footwear…)

Many historic costumers gathered this past summer in Florence at the Costume Colloquium: A Tribute To Janet Arnold where they mingled with everyone from museum curators and academics to amateur enthusiasts who go to academic conferences for fun. In addition to networking, they explored a variety of themes including the status of current costume research and education and the use of Janet Arnold’s historic costume patterns in theater and re-enactment. Through a friend who attended the conference (a fencing buddy, by the way, not a museum colleague) I have invited some of those attendees to comment on this post to start the discussion. So, tell us guys—what is your experience with accessing museum collections and expertise? What do you want from us and what can you contribute to our work? Do you encounter any barriers to getting what you need or giving what you can? Are there any museums that set good examples of how to make their resources accessible, and harness your expertise?


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  1. Hmmmm… In 1994 I took an American fossil sample to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in England for identification. They took my sample and told me they’d have an answer for me in four weeks. Sure enough, I went back four weeks later and they had a brief, written report for me about the sample, along with some xeroxed pages from a text explaining my fossils. I was bowled over that they’d go to that kind of trouble for my rinky-dink fossil. And me being an American at that! It wasn’t the same as seeing their reference collections in person, but that kind of interaction with a museum expert certainly added to my appreciation not only of the fossils themselves, but also of the *study* of fossils. Perhaps this is really what we want museum-goers to understand? Going past appreciating the “stuff” to appreciate the larger context behind the stuff? Now to figure out how to provide this kind of access to increased numbers of people…

  2. As a culture, we have become far more participation-oriented. The hitch is that, for young adults and teens, they simply expect, expect to be able to lend their voice to the dialog. After all, they have been doing it their whole life.

    Yet I do not get the sense that young adults want to take that expertise away from the experts. Just like your father (great story, btw . . . and Buckminster Fuller??), they want to engage in a dialog with the experts.

    Doctors have been dealing with this issue for years. With WebMD and other sites, people can figure out what is wrong, even self-diagnose. But guess what? They still go to the doctor for confirmation (and the prescription drugs, ok, you got me there). They want that expert to say “yes, you are right,” or “no, it is this.” But going to the doctor has become more of a conversation of two equals than the dictatorial doctor.

    Similarly, curators can expect the same. There is still respect for education and training, but the relationship people are seeking out is a conversation between equals versus the authority figure and passive consumer.

    So, from my view, I think curators that welcome the conversation and use it to build relevance will be the ones who are well poised to thrive in a new, dialog-based museum (where objects are still incredibly important … but that is another topic!).

  3. First, for Allie, I know that kind of experience – our Ask Joan of Art service at the Smithsonian American Art Museum answers some 2-300 questions on art every month like that – it still blows me away, and delights me, that people get such a service from us!

    To the point of the post, though, I just wanted to add that it seems the conversation about 'amateurs' vs 'experts' has become far too black & white. What about all the experts out there, producing content about our collections, which is perfectly well researched and credentialed? Beth Harris from asks this question in a podcast on MuseumMobile: SmartHistory content is created by 2 PhDs in art history, one head of the department at FIT, the other head of digital learning at MoMA. They have produced hours of great material on art in dozens of museums; why aren’t museums availing themselves of this great, FREE content?

    Maybe mixing up their in-house, expert content with vetted third party content would be a good way for curators and museums to find a bit of gray and ease into the whole ‘user-generated content’ thing a bit more gently.

  4. All very well and good, but how do you get these folks to respond to you in the first place? My batting average is zero on this right now, and I’ve tried everything the term paper writing books have suggested for contacting these sources.

  5. As a big-time proponent of collaboration and crowd-sourcing, I only have a few things to add to the excellent comments here. First, like Nancy, I think curators should consider their roles as “both-and” rather than “either-or.” Subject matter expertise, however shared, is validated by the sharing, and I think there is a place (and a need) for curators both to lecture and to help filter. These should be iterative activites, a vital part of the SME’s ongoing life-long exploration and research that loops back again to re-engagement with other SMEs and the public at large (as we should remember that other SMEs are part of the public at large).

    I’ve already posted extensively a year ago and a bit more recently some of my thoughts about the obligations and derivations of museum authority and credibility (mission, accuracy, and an ongoing commitment to excellence in both), so I won’t repeat my points here. Suffice it to say that I think the reputation and recognition of subject matter experts is forever in the process of validation and renewal, a process for which ongoing public engagement and dialogue is prerequisite. It benefits no one for SMEs’ voices to be silent, drowned out, or worse, to issue where no one else exists or are interested in hearing them. The very metaphor of social exchange is built on a concept of reciprocity, and I find others more receptive to information who are themselves first listened to.

    The last thing I would add is something that has been said previously by others in many other contexts, but I think bears repeating here, namely that no one institution can possibly maintain a monopoly on knowledge. To exclude amateur (or even other professional) SMEs and mere know-it-somes from participating in this quest would be ironically anti-intellectual. Whether in the guise of Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary, the open source software movement, or our taxpayer-funded and corporate-created infrastructure is that properly motivated and organized people can accomplish far more collectively than they can individually. The bigger the collective, the greater the potential becomes for likely achievement.

    I think museums have a tremendous role to play in providing not only independent iotae of new knowledge, but also precisely that motivation and organization that facilitates its (gotta say it) increase and diffusion.

    (And Kathe, may I be the first here to suggest your question is worthy of a whole separate blog post, as I suspect many of us have specific ways in mind beginning with parlaying inclusion Web 2.0’s social tools into standard museum publishing practice!)

  6. This subject gives me goose bumps! (The good kind.) I have been very fortunate in my dealings with both the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met). I was so surprised at how graciously my requests to see a set of military bases were accepted by the Met. I got to take pictures and even got permission to post them on my personal website.

    I was so flattered when the PAM asked me to do several presentations, one on Elizabethan costuming and one on costuming from the Dutch Golden Age. It was sooooo much fun! Because of my participation I was invited to a private lunch when the Tudor Tailors did one of their presentations. It was funny to listen to Ninya and Jane because, you could tell they were still a little shocked at their own success and felt like they were getting extra special treatment.

    The PAM realized that with these sorts of presentations they are expanding interest in the museum to the huge re-enactment community. My local re-enactment group was invited to show up in Medieval garb for a gala opening. It was very successful.

    I think this attitude is affecting the way people view education in general. It is almost as if we have come full circle. People are beginning to see that a college education is not the only way to learn a trade, and not the only way one can get into a profession which earns a healthy salary. Electricians, plumbers, and mechanics are good examples. If your body can take it – horseshoeing –those guys are earning between $90 and $300 a horse, a process which must be done every six to eight weeks!

    I remember the days before all companies had IT groups. Some of us just learned about computers as we went along and were the seeds of those groups. For awhile it looked as if the IT field would go the route of most professions; you had to have a four year degree. Now we see a degree from a technical school becoming acceptable.

    I worked in nuclear power most of my life. That industry has finally realized that it is much easier to license and train a Reactor Operator (RO) who has been through the Navy nuclear power program, than someone who just has a college degree.

    I held a position created after Three Mile Island called the Shift Technical Advisor. I got this job not because I had been through the Navy nuclear power program, but because I had an engineering degree. Now, the industry realizes that just having an engineering degree does not make one an effective member of the control room team. They now insist that the STA earn the federal license required of the RO.

    Home schooling is again acceptable and sometimes preferred. We also see kids starting college at much earlier ages – sounds like the renaissance where some folks started university at eleven and fourteen.

    I believe these trends will continue especially if the government is successful in an alternative to the military for folks who can’t afford a college degree, like Teach for America, etc.

    Hurray for the Renaissance Man!

  7. Thanks for this posting!
    I was particularly taken by this comment, “Part of my father’s success in his amateur endeavors came from his utter confidence that anybody, no matter how famous or prominent in their field, would be willing to talk to him, based on their shared interests”. There is something so heartwarmingly encouraging about this comment and so suited to the very nature of the museum sector – the notion of curiosity!

    There are a number of great points made in the post and in the comments. I’d like to reflect on some of them here.

    In regards to the idea of losing authority, Susan’s comment ‘Doctors have been dealing with this issue for years’ goes to the heart of the matter. Just because we can access information online doesn’t mean that we don’t want to speak to those who have spent a great deal of time sifting, sorting and interpreting it.

    In regards to the respect that we have for educators and curators. I really believe that this respect will continue to strengthen as audiences recognise that their voices, interpretations and meanings are considered as important in the production of knowledge.

    Bruce’s comments that the ‘reputation and recognition of subject matter experts is forever in the process of validation and renewal, a process for which ongoing public engagement and dialogue is prerequisite’ is a particularly important one. In academia we are employed, tenured and promoted on the basis of our peer-review. There are few ways of avoiding this. Thoughts, ideas and experiments matter little unless they are documented, reviewed, published and cited. This process ensures that we continue to explore subject areas and don’t claim expertise where it is no longer the case. I wonder whether we can say that the museum sector is as universally rigorous in the case of curatorial knowledge.

    Finally, when audiences add content they open themselves up to critism from experts. Yet, the desire to share knowledge remains greater than the fear of retribution. Having worked in the public sector for a few years, I can honestly say that this is an attribute that is often missing in some of our experts!!!

    Thanks again! I look forward to the evolution of governance and authority in our organisations!

  8. As I read the beginning of this post yesterday, it reminded me of my experiences working with re-enactors. I was glad when it actually referenced them later in the post.
    In particular, I was a reminded of a conversation I had one morning with a re-enactor at a historic fort where I worked. This was someone who had met with our curator and conservator and had spend hours in our archives. He had more direct access to site “experts” than most other people. He was very enthusiastic about our archaeology program because it highlighted much about his time period. But he insisted that we were not doing enough and should effectively shut down non-related activities to be able to focus all resources on discovering and reconstructing a different section of the site.
    He was one of my favorite re-enactors and was extremely knowledgeable about the sliver in time that his group reenacted at the site. But he did not seem to be aware of, or care about, the bigger picture of what the institution represented and was trying to do. He also did not seem to have an appreciation or an understanding of the demands of the site staff, or their overall expertise.
    As a hobbyist, this was a person who spent countless hours and even more dollars on this very focused part of history. As a result he knew details about the time period that blew me away. On the other hand, he wasn’t particularity able to put that period of time in context with what happened before or after, and he was not at all able to understand the way professionals approached the information he knew so much about.
    This, to me, is the crux of the matter. There is a difference between people who focus on a subject as a hobby or a special interest, and people who focus on it as a career. Both have substantial value, but the approach is significantly different.
    I can see why some curators are less than enthusiastic about collaborating with amateurs. And to be honest, even though I was not one of the “experts” in question during this conversation, it was hard to listen to someone who spent more on a costume than I made in a month telling me that the people that work at my institution didn’t really care enough about history. I would argue that if we didn’t care, we might have another job.
    I fully embrace the concept of shared-authority and participatory inclusion in museums and society but the ideal needs to be tempered with reality. It is nice to say that everyone is potentially an expert and should have equal access, but there are different kinds of expertise. The key is to find a way to utilize and incorporate each expertise in a way that is appropriate and realistic.

  9. I’m not sure which museums inspired Ms. Merritt’s article–certainly not the li’l ol’ institution I work at on the windswept Canadian prairies, nor any other institution (large or small) across western Canada that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. We (the Canadian museum community) have always held that our collections are held for the public, and the public has every right to access them, if not through exhibits than through “back room” access. Perhaps we’re on the cutting edge of the “unevenly distributed future”–but I doubt it.

    “Curators” (the content specialists) have been a dying breed around here for more than a decade (what museum can afford specialists anymore?), replaced by “collections managers” who ensure that collections are properly cared for, but rarely have the opportunity to generate new knowledge. I personally treasure every member of the public that requests access to the collections, because by virtue of the interest they show in the material we have, they likely know more about it than I do, and it’s my opportunity to have access to their expertise. When I do have the opportunity to conduct reseach, the best resource I have is internet collectors fora, because again–these are the content specialists that have been cut off museum payrolls for years.

    And let’s not forget the magic of “provenance”–the history of a specific item. If that were left up to what the expertise of a curator could research and prove, there’d be very few stories for museums to tell. Instead, provenance exists largely based on what knowledge the “amateur” donating the item imparts to museum staff.

    “Resurrection” of the amateur expert? From my experience, they’ve always been a necessary and valued part of the community.

  10. Hi, “fencing buddy” here –

    My interactions with curators and other experts outside of conference settings is limited, but most I’ve talked to are quite happy to arrange for members of the public to visit ‘behind the scenes’. What I think is lacking on the part of museums is providing information re: that they do offer this access, and who to contact/how to apply for this access.

    For what it’s worth, the Costume Society of America came out with a book a few years back, “Clothing And Textile Collections in the United States” that lists collections and curator contact information.

  11. I was always under the impression you had to be part of the museum community to go “behind the scenes” and I am glad to see that is not so. I look forward to being able to do so when I need to be able to do so. But as Kathe said how to you get a response?

  12. The Historical Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, has put several items in their collections online, where you can search on objects, time period, material etc ( They are now testing an upgrade, where people can add tags, references, comments, and suggest corrections to the present information. I think this will be very useful, particularly for the re-enactment community, but of course also for archaeologists and historians. Source here: (only in Swedish, I’m afraid).

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