Sharing/Shared Authority: Public Curation through “a Kaleidoscopic Lens” (book review)

Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.

Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World interrogates the prospect of shared historical authority in public history practice, as a contribution to the “thought leadership” initiatives of the Pew Center For Arts & Heritage. In this anthology, twenty-four contributors examine how museum constituents join in interpretation and the creation of meaning, and what this means for professional museum staff. Shared authority seems to offer a possible solution to the question of how to make history museums more relevant to their communities and more receptive to outside partners, voices, and interpretations.

The anthology, edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, is organized thematically, with sections titled “Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web,” “Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators,” “The Question of Evaluation: Understanding the Visitors’ Response,” and “Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority.” The first two sections of Letting Go? explore the varied ways in which museums and other public history institutions facilitate shared historical authority through technological innovations and community-curation. The remainder of Letting Go? focuses on shared historical authority through oral history and contemporary art. The concluding case study in the volume, Mary Teeling’s “A London Travelogue: Visiting Dennis Severs’ House,” details the author’s experience on a self-guided tour in a historic house in London and reflections on the feeling of history and creative story-telling.

Steve Zeitlin’s article, “Where are the Best Stories? Where is My Story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age” introduces City of Memory, a participatory, web-based story map of New York City created in a collaboration between City Lore and new-media designer Jake Barton in 2001. City of Memory highlights City Lore’s documentation of New York City and invites viewers to submit content and place themselves on the map.[1] Zeitlin emphasizes that while web 2.0 began in the twenty-first century, it evolved from technological innovations in the twentieth century, and that the same kinds of advances that created radio and television enabled individuals to document their own lives and stories. For Zeitlin, City of Memory represents an effort to bridge the gap between distinct approaches to technology and storytelling: the populist “tell your own story” and the expert-driven “preserve the finest stories.”[2]

In “The ‘Dialogic Museum’ Revisited: A Collaborative Reflection,” Liz Ševčenko and John Kuo Wei Tchen discuss the importance of community-curated exhibitions as sites that provide opportunities for new kinds of dialogue between academic historians and people with lived experiences. John Kuo Wei Tchen explains that to be dialogue-driven is a work process where documentation, meaning and representation are co-developed with those whom the story is of, for, and about.[3] Similarly focusing on dialogue, Michael Frisch revisits his 1990 publication, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, and its influence on public history practice. Frisch notes the difference between “shared authority” and “sharing authority,” two phrases which are used interchangeably but have distinct meanings. “Sharing authority,” Frisch explains, implies something that we do or can do, and that authority is something we have and can share. In contrast, “shared authority” is part of the nature of oral and public history. These processes are characterized by shared authority and dialogues between experience and expertise.

The editors identify three key patterns that appear throughout the essays, conversations, and case studies that constitute this volume. First, Adair et al. suggest that allowing museum constituents to create meanings (“public curation”) takes many forms. Second, audiences express themselves more creatively and confidently if operating within established boundaries, such as question prompts, stencils, or menus of choices. Finally, Adair et al. emphasize that this practice of “public curation” requires more, not less, from museum professionals, who supplement content knowledge with their expertise at interpreting, facilitating, and learning with their constituents. Adair et al. argue that the museum does not “let go” of expertise. Rather, museums abandon the assumption that the institution and its professional staff have the last word on historical interpretation, content-creation, and curation.[4]

While Letting Go? is an impressive anthology with an extensive breadth (and depth) of contributors, it seems that the editors or designers wanted to distinguish between thought pieces, case studies, conversations, and art pieces. They distinguished between different types of writing pieces by formatting the body text differently. This is distracting and makes the text look unrefined. If this was an attempt to distinguish Letting Go? from the traditional edited volume, the designers might look to web journal Studies in Material Thinking for alternative methods of text display.[5] Despite this minor poor design choice, this volume regards public history practice and shared authority through “a kaleidoscopic lens,” as described by Pew Center executive director Paula Marincola.[6]

Most importantly, however, Adair et al. argue that the discussion of shared historical authority began long before the rise of web 2.0 and social media influenced public curation: folklorists have long pursued the idea of ordinary people sharing stories in their own words, Michael Frisch published A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History in 1990, John Kuo Wei Tchen published “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment” in 1992, and in the same year, artist Fred Wilson opened the exhibition Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society. Each of these individuals contributed thought pieces and conversations to illuminate the strands of continuity between oral history, shared authority, dialogic exhibition methods, and public curation.


 

[1] Adair et al. (2011): 35.

[2] Adair et al. (2011): 38.

[3] Adair et al. (2011): 82.

[4] Adair et al. (2011): 13.

[5] Studies in Material Thinking (accessed October 12, 2015): https://www.materialthinking.org

[6] Adair et al. (2011): 8.

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