Intro to Public History Week 13: Looking Forward

On the bookshelf: Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World

In Letting Go?, a diverse array of public historians strive to address major questions facing the discipline in our contemporary “user-generated world.” Technological and methodological innovations, the rise of the participatory web, and shifting visitor expectations have challenged the traditional relationship between museums and their visitors. The questions that arise, then, are how and to what extent this relationship needs to change to accommodate an increasingly egalitarian information economy. Most pertinent to this volume is the issue of shifting authority within the Web, community-based programming, oral history, and contemporary art.

As the editors stress, the purpose of the book is “to mark a particular moment in the field, not to advocate or proselytize” (12). That’s a good thing, because the contributors disagree on fundamental questions and therefore don’t offer an entirely cohesive picture of how public historians can move forward to answer them. Rather, the editors identify “patterns” emerging in the conversations and case studies. For example, increased focus on encouraging audience participation has resulted in more inventive and innovative approaches. Additionally, a “no-boundaries” approach to audience expression has, paradoxically, resulted in less creative responses than when dialogues between museums and constituents were facilitated in more structured ways. Finally, contrary to the perception that sharing authority and public curation might make staff obsolete, this volume reveals that in actuality more is required of museums and their employees. Traditional skills like editing, deep content knowledge, and rich interpretative expertise remain just as vital as ever.

Letting Go? is structured into sections that outline changes happening in several arenas of public history practice. In each segment, public historians debate what “letting go” of the last word in authority means in theory and in practice.

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The entry portal to City of Memory, a participatory dynamic story map of New York City described by Steve Zeitlin.

The first section, “Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web” poses the question of how new information technologies have complicated and/or enhanced the practice of shared authority. Essays by Nina Simon, Steve Zeitlin, Matthew Fisher, Bill Adair, and Matthew MacArthur examine what public historians and museum practitioners can learn from the open and adaptive nature of the Web. As Nina Simon points out, the Web is a huge information storehouse that was purposefully created for those who would be using it: it is not curated; it adapts to user preferences to determine priorities; it is ever-welcoming of more content from anyone who wants to contribute. What would happen if museum professionals overcame a fear of losing control over dialogue and trust and embraced the potential of Web-inspired collecting and organizational techniques?

“Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators” explores the promise of shared authority in the exhibit hall with pieces by Kathleen McLean, John Kuo Wei Tchen, Liz Sevcenko, Deborah Schwartz and others. Using the examples of the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Moving Pictures” film competition, the Brooklyn Public Perspectives Project, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and the New York Chinatown History Project, the authors reveal the pros and cons (but mostly pros) of opening up curatorial duties to the community. Dialogue-driven museums can provide valuable contextualization of topics and showcase marginalized histories by opening up conversations with audiences based on respect, reciprocity, and mutual interest. In the case studies provided here, relinquishing or sharing staff control over content and curation has actually resulted in a new level of intimacy between museums and their communities, who feel they can better trust the former to tell their stories.

“Hearing Voices: Sharing Authority Through Oral History” seems to be the portion of the book most readily showing ambivalence about “shared authority” phraseology, practice, and outcome. Contributors Michael Frisch, Benjamin Filene, Billy Yalowitz approach the issue in essays about StoryCorps, the Minnesota Historical Society, and performance art about the Black Bottom neighborhood of Philadelphia. While championing new technologies and avenues for engaging audiences in oral history, the authors also identify what they see as the dangers inherent in them. For example, StoryCorps has wide reach and popularity, but it does not replicate the historian’s craft. And the organizers of the Black Bottom project ran into confusion about how to address one of the major goals of former residents of the neighborhood: reparations for displacement and property seizure. Michael Frisch, author of seminal oral history text A Shared Authority, challenges the entire premise of “letting go’: oral history, he argues, involves an already shared authority that exists whether historians decide to recognize and respect it or not. It’s not up to public historians to “let go” of authority when it wasn’t theirs to begin with.

“The Question of Evaluation: Understanding the Visitor’s Response” is the shortest chapter of the book, questioning how museums can pragmatically stay true to mission statements and facilitate user-generated content in the modern era.

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An interrupted scene at the Dennis Severs House, as featured in Mary Teeling’s essay. Photograph by James Brittain

Finally, the last section, “Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority” examines what happens when the worlds of artist and historical institution come together. Melissa Rachleff, Fred Wilson, Paula Marincola, Marjorie Schwarzer, Laura Koloski, Otabenga Jones and Mary Teeling pull back the curtain on such collaborations and their inner workings. Revealingly, although the resulting projects often prove provocative, ground-breaking, and spectacular, they are also shown to be problematic in that they may not actually share authority with communities, be factually sound, or have positive consequences for museums that engage in them. To get around these issues, the contributors emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary methodology, as well as concerted efforts to reconcile what may often seem a radical divergence in language, responsibility, and priorities between the parties involved.

Although sometimes it seems like the essays produce more questions than answers, I think that this collaborative effort is especially strong in that it provides in and of itself an outstanding example of what shared authority looks like. Sometimes uneven in content or presentation, sometimes unexpected or inspiring feelings of discomfort, this book nevertheless provides equal representation of differing viewpoints and experiences in the field.

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