Radical Open Authority: When Life Happens and Museums Respond

Open Authorityis a phrase that’s everywhere in museum blogs, tweets, and conferences these days.  What exactly does it mean?  At the recent Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference in Montreal  Ed Rodley and a panel explored this question in Defining Open Authority in the Museum, proposing that “developments in the realm of accessibility have dovetailed with the concept of co-creation, whereby collaborative online communities, the open source movement, and other organic communication platforms have inspired a reexamination of authority within the museum.”

The program brochure described the session by noting that Open Authority:
1 .Aims to combine the expertise of cultural professionals with the insights and contributions of diverse audiences;
2. Blurs the boundaries between online and on-site environments, empowering museums to be more responsive to community needs and interests;
3. Sees the visitor as a collaborator and active contributor in creating and interpreting content, and the curator as an engaged, expert facilitator; 
4. Creates unique, dynamic, and compelling museum experiences through creative collaboration, active partnerships, and mutual trust. 


The other panelists provided examples of open authority. For example Lori Byrd Phillips proposed the Reggio Emilia approach to education as a model: the entire system is based on profound respect for the learner (in this case children, but also parents and teachers–all learn together). The curriculum as well as the physical environment, especially, interior spaces, are crafted to embody this respect.  Jeffery Inscho and Elizabeth Bollwerk spoke about carefully developed crowdsourced and programmatic outreach projects that forged new bonds with communities not engaged with  museums before. While we need to see more of these concerted, long-term efforts by museums everywhere, the session made me wonder about museum programs, collecting initiatives and even exhibitions not initiated by the museum but by the ever-changing world outside the museum. 


What happens when the day-to-day life of the community is overtaken by events? When the cycle of life turns?  Do museums maintain their traditional image as ivory towers, guardians of the long term but unconcerned with the everyday?  Two of the above-mentioned points imply that this stance in inconsistent with open authority. 

Point 2, linking the emergence of open authority with the advent of the digitally connected world,  affirms that open authority empowers (does this mean obligates?) museums to be more responsive to community needs and interests.

Point 3 states that open authority sees the visitor community as a collaborator and active contributor in creating and interpreting content, and the curator as an engaged, expert facilitator This, it seems to me, implies an even more radical type of open authority. While many museums are comfortable proposing exhibit and programming topics for which they request visitor input, there are times when programs, collecting initiatives and even exhibitions topics come “over the transom,”  and the museum may need to respond rather than solicit.

Mandela color


A recent small but powerful example of this kind of open authority was the decision of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art to create a condolence book for visitors in memory of Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5, 2013.  Their website also provided a statement of condolence from their Director and invited viewers to post messages by email or on the museum’s Facebook page.  The condolence book was to be sent to the Mandela family.  This highlighted the museum as one of the key places in DC, along with the South African embassy, as a center for remembrance of this international figure.  I am sure that increasing attendance was not the motivation of the museum, but I can imagine that many people who might not have visited NMAfA before came because they knew the museum would be a trusted conduit to the Mandela family from the city of Washington, DC.

A more comprehensive and incredibly courageous example of a radical sharing of authority with the community is occurring right now in Ukraine, as documented in Linda Norris’ posts on The Uncatalogued Museum. The first, “If I Ran a Museum in Kyiv,Right Now”  contains her advice to museums, surrounded by anti government demonstrators, with whom she worked on several Fulbright visits to Ukraine.  The second,” Our History Museums Will Contain the Events of these Days, ” features Linda’s arresting dialogue with a museum deputy director who feels the full weight of documenting political events in a country where historical evidence often simply disappears. Museums in various parts of the country are not only collecting material culture related to the demonstrations; they are creating impromptu exhibitions, providing shelter from the cold, hot beverages, and a place to recharge spirits as well as mobile devices. 

Photo by Brendan Hoffman.  Getty Images. Public Domaine


We in this profession are used to being considered and careful in rolling out any initiative.  But as our world moves more and more quickly, we should shape our internal systems so that when our community needs us we can be there—the forethought and consideration having already been done through advance planning and systems in place.  

In postings during the past year on this blog I’ve commented on ways in which American museums have been extremely present and connected to their communities, for example during the Boston Marathon bombings.  I’ve also observed museums’ position “above the fray,” more or less ignoring the potential provided by the Trayvon Martin case to become the forums for civil discussion that we all talk about.  After Hurricane Sandy I noticed that, in contrast to the NY Public Library, whose branches opened their doors and invited the community in for water, warmth, powering mobiles, etc. as soon as each library had power and heat, few museums, once they had taken care of their own damage and were open and running, seemed to think about reaching out to neighbors without shelter, schools, or other community resources.
It is in these unexpected yet powerful civic moments that I think museums are missing out on behaving as open and engaged institutions. In my view  the exercise of open authority should embody some of the key characteristics of social media, which include a capacity to communicate rapidly and effectively; to be nimble, flexible, and immediately responsive (within institutional mission) to societal events. Those of you working day to day in museums, incredibly busy with work that you love and value–do you see yourselves and your colleagues taking on the even heavier demands of open authority? 
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