Letting Go?

The Human Library project (27-8), documented by Nina Simon, is intriguing.  Instead of checking out a book you review a list of stereotypes/prejudices and pick out one you hold, or are interested in understanding.  Then you are paired up with a person who represents the stereotype to talk about the stereotype/prejudice.  I wonder if anything like that has ever been organized here on campus?  I wonder how difficult it would be to organize.  Or maybe just a small/trial effort to see how much interest people would have in it.  Hmmmm.

I enjoyed Kathleen McLean’s recounting in “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?” of Oakland teenagers creating an exhibit in a counterpoint to an Orange County Museum of Art’s display.  Some “museum stakeholders” (73) denigrated the Oakland efforts as a ‘community exhibition’ (73) unworthy of serious attention or promotion.   However, as McLean tells us the exhibit was a big hit with visitors and parts of it were copied in a later exhibition.

Without being disrespectful (especially after reading Katrinaj’s sad news) to those who sacrificed, in all forms, I did wonder about the title the “Greatest Generation” for an exhibit.  I assume it was taken from Tom Brokaw’s book that was immensely popular in the late 1990s.  Of course, anyone could make a case for other generations and eras to be the greatest in our history, but it made me think more about the naming process, and how naming is a form of power, and can be a way to include and exclude, and a way to legitimize a cause or position.

Matthew MacArthur informs us of the advantages technology brings through digitizing, making a museum’s entire collection available online and searchable.  For him this helps remove the dictatorial power curators or trustees had in deciding what artifacts would, and would not be seen by the public.  It enables the visitor to choose what is noteworthy and of importance rather than blindly accepting someone else’s choice.  And perhaps one of the biggest benefits of technology is that digitizing facilitates encounters with museums and galleries that we could never visit in person.

If, since the 1960s we, or large sections of the country at least, have struggled to make history a more inclusive land, reflective of all people’s experience it follows that a similar struggle would play out in museums or spaces that display history.  Several of the authors in Letting Go? tout technology as the tool to fix “subaltern” (82) history where the “hegemonic” (61) version of history, expounded as “The One and Only Official and Correct History” is countered by demotic access and action through technology.  Steve Zeitlin believes technology is a “major democratizing force in American culture” (37) presumably bringing people closer together.  So how is it that history has seemingly become more inclusive, as the subject examples in the text show (African American, Chinese, immigrants, ordinary people, teenagers, women) though as always there is a lot of room for improvement, how is it as a country we are still stubbornly divided by color and class?  Isn’t part of the point of history to illuminate a shared past, a common bond and a mutual interest in flourishing together?  Or is that just giving some positivist or teleological character to history, wanting it to be a force of good in a very Enlightenment linear progression.  Maybe our national history and national narrative is not really inclusive.  Despite the efforts illuminated by the authors, perhaps overall we just pay lip service to the ideas of inclusive history, history from the bottom up, but in reality that is just a veneer to appease certain interest groups, or communities, or make us feel better about ourselves, and the version of history that still predominates is white, male, wealthy and Christian, and if you aren’t in those categories to a large degree, your story doesn’t count.  And if your story doesn’t count, you don’t count, so you are further marginalized and pushed away.

Death, Human Rights, & Our Role As Allies

Letting Go?: Reading Part 1

I was surprised to find that there are still museology experts in the 21st Century having to defend the idea that museums should be participatory. In my eyes, the attainment of knowledge, freedom of self-expression, and the ability to play an active participant in society are all basic human rights. Not only has my personal voyage into adulthood embedded this belief into me, but also several tragic deaths have done much to cement in me the importance of these rights.

Growing up in the age of the Internet and American Idol, there has never been a time when I could not voice my contempt, delight, or disappointment about my life and the world around me. And while my online ramblings are typically not intellectual or even very popular, I have always felt like I had a voice.

Some have been less privileged in their access to these freedoms. Aaron Swartz was one activist who recognized the relationship between power and knowledge. Swartz fought for his belief that academia was obligated to provide open, public access to their findings. As it stands now, many independent researchers cannot access journals, books, or other materials they require to further their studies without first paying large sums of money to access it. Admittedly, the issue is more complex than I can present in such a limited space. Yet, it’s not such a stretch to say that museums were founded on principles similar to Swartz’s. That to create a greater society, learning must be affordable and accessible to even the layman. After an incident involving the mass download of JSTOR articles, Swartz faced multiple criminal charges and legal fees totaling $1 million.[1] The criminal charges, coupled with a past of mental illness led Swartz to take his own life in January 2013.[2]

More recently, the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl, has caused me to ponder the duties and responsibilities of curators and preservationists on the web. Before her death, Alcorn was an active user on the microblogging site Tumblr. The blog she left behind tells the story of a girl who struggled in trying to find both her identity and comfort in a world where she felt unloved.[3] Leelah’s blog was not carefully curated like Steve Zeitlin’s City Of Memory project.  Her baby pink, kitten covered blog would fail to pass some curator’s tests for quality, relevance, and importance. As Leelah’s suicide gained national attention in late of December 2014, Tumblr executives deleted the blog at the behest of Leelah’s parents.[4] The deletion has been controversial, as many in the Tumblr community believe the deletion is a form of erasure and transphobia. A number of these individuals have begun making amateur efforts at preserving Leelah’s blog.

Death always has a way of revealing the fragility and importance of any given situation. Ultimately, our job as public historians is to act as allies. We must prioritize our conversations with the public, whom we serve and represent.

[1] Schwartz, John. “Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide.” The New York Times. January 12, 2013. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Suicide Note of Transgender Ohio Teen Inspires Call to Help Others.” The New York Times. December 31, 2014. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2014/12/31/us/31reuters-usa-ohio-transgender.html.

[4] Vultaggio, Maria. “Leelah Alcorn’s Parents Had Tumblr Suicide Note Deleted; Transgender Teen Mourned At High School.” International Business Times. January 4, 2015. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/leelah-alcorns-parents-had-tumblr-suicide-note-deleted-transgender-teen-mourned-high-1773000.

Digital Components and The Museum

The Role of Digital Components in The Museum.


One of the aspects that Letting Go? focuses on is how museums are relying more and more on digital content from blogs, podcasts, visitor contributions from feedback booths, and tweets.   This is a response to a larger societal trend and museums are trying to stay relevant in a user created world.  On the part of the museum, it seems like that is the only option to modernize, but I have reservations about the headlong dive into creating so many digital platforms.


What I really appreciated from Letting Go? is the acknowledgment of the downfalls that museums face with the pressure of creating digital content. While many visitors do have sentimental feelings towards the old museum paradigm, the new blended museum is here to stay.  While reading, I realized that even though the book details many great digital museum sites, such as 21st Century Abe, I had never heard of them before reading the book.  So, problem number 1: How do museums get the word out about their digital resources?   If no one knows about it, does it even matter that it is good?   Also, once visitors leave the museum, is there a role for the digital component of the exhibit?


The book is honest with its discussion of what has worked with digitally and what has not.  While other museum books have extolled the virtues of the feedback booth, this book acknowledges that most contributions are unusable and silly.  And, unfortunately, the good contributions have nowhere to go but to an archive where they probably won’t be seen again. This goes back to the earlier question – what is the point of digital components if they are bad?  Is there such a pressure to bring digital aspects to a museum that quality is compromised?  I realize that digital aspects within museums are a fairly new phenomenon, and of course, still in the process of trial and error.  While the profession is growing and improving, it is refreshing to have a book where students of museum studies can see and learn from other museums’ efforts.

OK, now I like it!

Meggan LM


Reflections: Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World

OK, I admit it…after being raised in a political, Catholic, and Basque family, I run from the word “authority.” And…after working for the federal government for a quarter-century, those who thought they had “authority” prompted a similar reaction for me: run away, fast! Why? Because for me, authority is synonymous with control, which can inhibit creative thought, shut down open-mindedness, discourage communication, and limit choices.  So, one can probably imagine my visceral reaction to this book title! What? A book that uses “Letting Go” and “Sharing Historical Authority” together right on the book cover? Then, the Foreword greets the reader with “Sharing the Authority of Knowledge.” The very thought that knowledge is somehow a construct of authority rubbed me ever further raw. Furthermore, these words in conjunction with history, a field that I have great respect for, troubled me.

For me, history is not an authoritative action, a final declaration, or a definitive means of knowledge control. Nor is it limited to chosen individuals who have been vested with authority to tell one story, or the only story.  It is not to be relegated to archives or collection storage for the minority who know how to access it. It’s not about the curator, the archivist, the collections manager, the professor, or the powerful institution. History is about the continual process of learning and acquiring knowledge. Public history welcomes sharing stories, changing times, and evolving relationships. It is the opposite of authority and control, because it encourages creative thought, shares perspectives (to open minds), welcomes communication and conversation, and offers many choices. It is participatory. It is communal. It is diverse.

Despite my trepidation at the titles and sub-titles in Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, the first 155 pages have proven my misgivings about the book somewhat wrong. Thankfully, it challenges traditional concepts of the authority of history and the control of historical gatekeepers. Some of the book’s  chapters align with my four principles of public history: creativity, shared perspectives, conversation, and choice. They prompted serious thought about the public history in today’s fast-changing world, and the role the public historian can play in changing traditional authoritative approaches for the benefit of visitors, institutions, and most importantly – the communities history serves. If public history evolves the way many of the examples in this book have, history’s relevance in the future will be ensured. So far, this book has me excited about contributing energy to public history in ways beyond authority. It got my wheels turning!

A few thoughts about some of the pieces – not comprehensive in any way and I look forward to hearing everyone else’s thoughts!

Nina Simon’s piece is about the benefits of participatory design for both institutions and participants (p. 18-33). It encouraged me to think about the value of peer review amongst the public, collaboration between the institution and the public, and the feedback loop. The use of conversation, whether through voting on content or adding content, ensures an ever-changing, non-stagnant approach to history, using multiple perspectives. I agreed with her argument that this allows for inclusion because traditionally, museums have appeared to be exclusionary. Encouraging dialogue not only personalizes the experience, but it adds dimension and depth to exhibitions. Most importantly, museum staff responsiveness tells the visitor that he or she is no longer an outsider, but rather, a participant in the conversation. An exchange is occurring, which means no longer is it the authoritative historian presenting a definitive, controlled message, but rather, a “give-and-take” that allows for a multi-dimensional experience created communally.

Matthew Fisher and Bill Adair’s piece, “Online Dialogue and Cultural Practice,” contention that online, digital means must move beyond just “getting the collections online” (p. 44-55). I liked Fisher’s comment that as with the teacher who “provides guidance, informs the classroom environment with expertise and knowledge, and encourages the students to look beyond their own viewpoint,” the public historian, too, encourages exploration and conversation (p. 48). The two authors support of technology as a tool to accomplish conversation was great. History is about the conversation.

Steve Zeitlin’s story of the City of Memory project in “Where are the Best Stories” supported my principle of shared perspectives in public history (34-43). Through the “Add a Story” function, and placing stories on a virtual “map,” people were connected – by story, memory, and place. These are all individual experiences, but they begin to form a community of shared perspectives. Zeitlin’s words say this the best, “…It links stories and memories in ways that across chronology, sparking connections and enabling visitors to rediscover the city through the memories of others (p. 43)” New Yorkers were given the chance to connect with others and still retain their place in the shared experience. This allows for self-identity, as well as cultural connections to others’ experiences in place, time, and memory.

Matthew MacArthur’s  “Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age” got my wheels turning about giving artifacts “a second chance” through digital technology (p. 56-65). I agreed with the emotional connection that “real-life” objects may have over digital images, but creative uses of these images can engage greater intellectual exploration, in-depth research, and the ability to see objects at one’s leisure rather than wait for the museum to display them.

Kathleen MacLean’s “Whose Questions? Whose Conversations?” was another thought-provoking piece (p. 70-79). I appreciated the approach that communities and museums are reciprocal experts, and that creative and open dialogues can empower conversation amongst communities.

I fell in love with Benjamin Filene’s “Make Yourself at Home” (p. 138-155). Possibly because this project in Minnesota could parallel the Basque community’s work on the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga boarding house and the immigrant story, it opened a flood of ideas for improving living history museums and working to tell the everyday, common story. The Open House project embodied creativity that I hope to be able to put forward into public history!

Michael Frisch’s metaphorical digital kitchen, “From a Shared Authority to a Digital Kitchen, “ however, was the clencher for me (p. 126-137). His nuanced approach to “sharing authority” and “shared authority” was brilliant. Sharing authority presumes inequity, power, and control. Shared authority levels the laying field and encourages participation because everyone has the potential to share what their know: individual, common knowledge has value. I appreciated his caution about the “trackless waste of cyberia,” and that the new information, digital world has its limits as well. This serves to remind the public historian to keep current, use technology, but always learn how to integrate many modalities.

Shared Authority and Dialogic Museums

These readings in Letting Go were all very thought-provoking, and I loved the chance to learn about real examples of all the ways that different people and institutions are working to break the museum mold of artifact-driven authoritative interpretation. Sometimes you hear about the benefits of interpreting under-represented communities, of using oral history, of allowing users/visitors to contribute to a project, but it isn’t until you read the way that sites can be almost wholly interpreted through oral history  like in Open House or how engaged the community can become with projects like City of Memory that you see all the possibilities we have access to while working in this field.

I liked the critical nature of the readings, and I often felt pushed to reflect on the work I am in the midst of doing or plan to do in the future and ask myself how I can encourage shared authority and community curation, use digital resources in ways that go beyond the transition of an authoritative narrative from a traditional medium to a digital one, and provoke inquiry and dialogue in users/visitors.

Perhaps the reading that will stay with me the longest is Tchen and Sevcenko’s piece on dialogic museums. I have come across Sevcenko’s work a bit in the past, and the chief of interpretation at Minidoka is actually hoping to get the site included in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. For me it was really validating to read about the public history work that not only tries to invoke critical dialogue, but does so to work towards social justice, encourage representations of subaltern history,  and challenge existing power structures. I was struck by Sevcenko’s mandate to not only recognize forgotten or suppressed pasts, but to then DO something with that recognition, as well as her reminder that creating a space for untold stories can reinforce power relationships rather than challenging them. This is especially relevant in sharing authority with visitors in issues that involve stereotypes surrounding race, religion, sexuality, etc. When do you allow the visitors to share their realities, which can be offensive and harmful? Do they help give a realistic lay of the land or do they only reinforce negative power relationships?  This piece struck a particular chord with me as a trusted mentor in my undergraduate career strongly dissuaded me from pursuing public history, afraid that I would submit my self to a career of writing watered-down 300-word exhibit texts on subjects like slavery and Japanese incarceration, forgoing an academically-focused engagement of post-colonial theory and power studies. Public history is powerful, though. It is about creating spaces for challenging assumptions, expanding viewpoints, engaging in critical reflection, and working to understand the human condition in its infinite expressions.

Moving Pictures: Minnesota’s Most Rewarding Film Competition

This is a slightly unorthodox post. I enjoyed reading a lot of Letting Go? and have comments and questions on many of the short pieces. I love the amount of education theory that continuously creeps up and the possibilities for using technology to find balance in who has authority and power in the telling of our shared past. Throughout the first ninety or so pages of Letting Go? I highlighted and took notes about learning theories, technological influences, and community involvement in museums. Then I hit “Moving Pictures: Minnesota’s Most Rewarding Film Competition” and I lost my composure at the bottom of the first page. I will preface the rest of my response with this: My grandmother passed away last week and my grandfather, her husband, passed away this past August.

As I read this piece, the history of the film competition and the stories of Grandma Lucy and Grandpa Bill, the raw emotion it evoked caught me off guard. I am sad and I miss them both dearly, but I am also angry with myself for never taking the time to do what these filmmakers “had always meant to do” and finally did. I spent plenty of time with both Nona and Papa, but I never asked the questions I wanted to ask. What was the Navy like during the War? Where did you serve? Will you teach me to play backgammon? What was life like growing up with a mother who only spoke Italian? What did you do as a teenager, before you married Papa? How do you make that salad dressing that makes every vegetable taste like heaven? While I am personally more upset about those stupid little questions, as a historian, I am angry that I failed to preserve their story in a meaningful manner. I failed in my “obligation to future generations” by not capturing their story using all of the technology available today, to make it as vivid and as genuine as possible.

Like that of Grandma Lucy, my grandparents’ stories are not remarkable or fantastic, but ordinary. I know bits and pieces from my father and my aunt; and I believe as Drube does that “the defining characteristic of the greatest generation was not the circumstances that they endured, but rather the hope they had for a better tomorrow” (p 105). I believe this because I saw and felt it when I was with my Nona while she cooked for her family and when I was with my Papa when he taught me to play cribbage. I know it is not too late to capture their stories the way Grandma Lucy’s was captured by Drube and his daughter and to make them part of the conversation of our past.

Deleting the “less than impressive” stories

In Steve Zeitlin’s piece “What are the best stories? Where can I find my story?”, he mentions in one brief paragraph that City of Memory plans “to re-curate the site periodically, leaving only the more interesting and substantive entries up permanently” (p. 40). I’m not sure what to think of this practice. On one hand, I can agree that some stories are more interesting than others. Curators of history are tasked with consolidating the whole story into a digestible and accessible format. When I research and write, I certainly choose to leave out certain antidotes, images, and data in favor of more interesting flavors.

However, I am also troubled by this weeding out of memories. Isn’t the point of these public projects to quantify stories, give ordinary folks historic power, and democratize history? Zeitlin rationalized this practice by stating that visitors won’t mind the elimination because, “stories we eliminate are precisely those to which the contributors did not give significant time or thought” (p. 40). I have a hard time buying this. As a curator, you might find a story less provocative or interesting than others, but that can’t mean that all “boring” stories were written haphazardly and without meaning for the author.

I understand the need to present a clean and organized site that features the most engaging stories up front. I would do the same. But I don’t agree with completely banishing the less than impressive stories. There should be an archive feature built into the site, where older, less desirable stories can find a home. This way you can build an exciting website, while still honoring all the stories that have been shared.