Lori Byrd Phillips is the U.S. Cultural Partnerships Coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedian in Residence at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. As a museum studies graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis she has been researching the role of Wikipedia in the future of museums, a topic she has previously written about on this blog. At this year’s AAM Annual Meeting you’ll have the chance to learn more about Wikipedia in the session, “Wikipedia and the Museum: Lessons from Wikipedians in Residence.”
I was struck recently by a statement made in the introduction to Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (2011): “Long before Wikipedia, museums were wrestling with the benefits and consequences of de-centering expertise.” Just look to Duncan F. Cameron’s 1971 landmark article, “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” and it’s clear that the museum field has been considering the role of visitors within the scope of museum authority for some time—thirty years, in fact, before Wikipedia was established in 2001.
Today Wikipedia is often cited as a quintessential example of de-centralized knowledge sharing, an open source, global, collaborative platform that has caused many to question the role of credentialed authority in the digital sphere. Museums are now wrestling with this pervasive culture of transparent, user-generated content, while struggling to maintain their established authority.
In my graduate studies, I’m currently researching Wikipedia as a platform for museums to openly and collaboratively share cultural resources. This links naturally with issues of the future of museum authority and the ethics of crowd-sourcing content. But why do these two concepts need to be at odds? I see the successful future museum as one that embraces the culture of the open, collaborative Web, while still maintaining authority. I call this concept, “open authority,” a model that achieves a balance by bringing together the museum’s established expertise with the contributions of broad audiences via the open Web. In my definition, “open” draws its influences from the free and open source software movement, which is strongly linked with ethical issues in museums such as transparency, accessibility to content and the role of digital audiences.
Museum authority has been discussed repeatedly on the CFM blog, including in a post about the Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics survey, which points to the ethical dilemmas that may arise when incorporating amateur experts into the interpretation of museum content. Similarly, as American Historical Association president William Cronon has exemplified, the history field has debated the role that the open Web might play in scholarly authority, specifically discussing what part they, as experts, should play in contributing to Wikipedia.
Just as “authority” has become a trending dialogue, so has the concept of openness. At the recent Horizon Report Retreat hosted by the New Media Consortium, leaders in the education and museum fields included “Openness” among their list of meta trends, stating that, “Openness—Concepts like open content, open data, and open resources, along with notions of transparency and easy access to data and information—is moving from a trend to a value for much of the world.” As openness is becoming more of an expectation within our society, museums should be looking to ways to become more open while maintaining their authority.
Museum authority can especially step in to achieve balance as our fast-paced, digital world is flooded with content that is impossible to fully digest. Rob Stein, deputy director of research, technology, and engagement at The Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently pointed out the nuance between a museum that is “authoritative” and “authoritarian.” Just as Cameron (1971) stated that museums should be both a temple and a forum, Stein points out that museums should remain authoritative in their representation of culture, but avoid being authoritarian. Being authoritative is not the antithesis of being participatory. The two should work hand in hand.
One way “open authority” might occur is when museums more purposefully take on the role of facilitators of content. The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report meta trends note the need for authoritative curation in the digital realm: “As authoritative sources lose their importance, there is need for more curation and other forms of validation to generate meaning in information and media.”
Nina Simon encourages museums to put this into practice by being facilitators of platforms, Wikipedia being one of many that we need to better utilize.
Museums have been slow to embrace the potential of facilitating and engaging in open, collaborative platforms, and even slower in seriously incorporating user-generated content into the core of interpretation. However, as the Web continues to move towards even more open, collaborative and prolific content creation, museums will more clearly see the need to rise to the occasion. Already, transparency is beginning to be seen as the rule, not the exception. One day, it may be just as much of a standard, ethical obligation to adopt the ideals of “open authority” as it is now to remain stewards of our collections. Now wouldn’t that be something?