Letting Go? first post

My opinion on the book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World is that it provided me with a strong comprehension of how history is viewed in both the minds of the public, as well as understanding the evidence provided by the experts in the field of history. One such example of public opinion on history that I learned would be Web 2.0, during my study, has modified the internet from its original state, allowing users of the internet access to new websites to combine their own ideas with that of professionals in various academic fields.  For the benefit of historians, websites have become both tools for historians’ purpose and, conversely, competition for museums and historical groups.  In an available wide variety of sources, websites detail information that can be studied on various web pages, linking the information to multiple sources including historic sites and figures, but I also realize that it leaves no reason for museums to be visited if the information has already been placed on all these websites. Letting Go describes the internet more user-controlled since Web 2.0, since people can now purchase merchandise online, alter content in the form of photographs or articles, and even socialize through websites like Facebook and Twitter through the internet, something that museums can only offer an exhibition via their websites, but offer no real change from users. Besides the Internet, I have learned there are many other ways that professors, curators, and historians of all kind have found other means to introduce guests to a hands-on approach to history, such as the PhilaPlace project that has taken place in Pennsylvania, or even the Human Libraries that are setting up shop around the world. The PhilaPlace project was set up by Pennsylvania as a means to introduce oral historians to the public, and carefully explain the history of the state from the point of view of average individuals.  The Human Libraries serve as a substitute for regular libraries, the difference being you talk to people, learning history from someone who experienced the past, not just having read about it in a book or other source.

Museums, on the other hand, provide a visual display and people have the ability to walk-around exhibits which educate the public, and offer a general insight into the past of the artifacts or documents on display, which I personally prefer. Other than the artifacts, people like me can learn valuable information from the tour guides or staff who work at the museums about the different exhibits, and why the items on display are of such cultural and historic value, but despite its many offerings, museums and other forms of institution all have a major flaw – they are not controlled by the public, and instead are controlled by a select group that allows access to the exhibits through monetary fees, or other forms of payment. Museums are sometimes seen as establishments that visitors may not have an influence upon, and therefore, it does not affect them in general. Since they have not participated in the acquisition of the exhibits, and the artifacts on display, there is no connection to their lives. Even so, museums are described today as models of providing the public with information about certain subjects in the fields of art, history, and science. The use of participatory techniques, such as obtaining visitors’ opinions and ideas can help to draw visitors back in to museums.

Despite the differences, I see there are similarities in models of experts and visitors who both study the historical or scientific value of the artifacts and documents that are part of historical culture and without the other, they are both one half of a puzzle, and in my opinion, neither could coexist without the other.

Let the Right One In

As I read through Letting Go I do not think the authors of any of these articles would consider that they are advocating for the removal of professional historical analysis from public venues. Instead they are encouraging participation from the community in a way that is controlled and carefully vetted for content quality. Rather than opening the door and giving over completely to whatever user content is created they want to start a dialogue with the community instead, in order to present information that is more likely to get people to come and view their products. This is less of a case of letting go, and more a case of selective invitation to others to come in to the world presented by the historical venue. It makes a lot of sense to do this, particularly from the perspective of the museum as a business, as it ensures their media will always be consumed as well as preventing their idea pool from stagnating.

I find the idea of an “unsuggester” intriguing for multiple reasons, the least of which is its ability to promote expanded experiences among those who might use it. By showing someone a book or exhibit that is the opposite to their favorite thing, such a function would give a person access to the ability to see that different does not necessarily mean bad and that many thought processes and ideologies can coexist comfortably. Small institutions would have difficulty implementing such a tool, as they likely do not have the space or scope to provide such a disparate amount of material, but large institutions like presidential libraries or museums that cover more than local history would certainly be able to use such a tool, and would encourage patrons to explore exhibits that they may have never considered to be relevant to their lives.

I honestly had never given much thought to how the directors of public history institutions might need to change how their projects are designed in order to maintain public interest. Certainly I can see that how the current lack of emphasis on education and the dismissal of the liberal arts as worthless would harm places who seek to preserve and interpret the past. I am interested to see if and how these new approaches breathe new life into public history installations. I hope they do, as I have always loved museums and interpretive centers, and would hate to see them become obsolete.

Letting Go? Or Simply Sharing?

“Public curation” is a wonderful and exciting tool that museums across the country should be looking forward to engaging in. To me, public engagement should be a number one priority and something that all museums strive for. While museums celebrate the history of everyday life, they can also be extremely personal to anyone walking through the doors. Encouraging everyone to participate in some way in their local or non-local museum is an important idea.

I especially enjoyed Nina Simon’s strong stance on proper feedback by museums. She explains extremely well why museums and their participatory efforts fail due to the lack of proper feedback by museums. Museums cannot simply open up voting on galleries or encourage gallery ideas and not give the participators a response or turn their suggestions into action. Keeping the full engagement of a community is especially important for museums. If the community engages and participates and the museum does little in return to show that that participation is valid and useful, the community will turn away from the museum.

Matthew Fischer’s perspective on audience curation and participation fascinated me immensely. He talks about how historians have a huge job of interpreting history and telling a story through detective work, curation, and editing. He believes that non-historians should be able to share in this work as well. I find this extremely insightful. I think that historians have such a huge task of producing engaging and challenging historical research but have such few avenues to share their work. By letting the public share in this through technology, the work of historians can be strengthened. This perspective ties in nicely with Nancy MacLean’s perspective on how museum curators and the museum experts should embrace views of the public. She talks about how museums and staff need to learn with their community and embrace change. This kind of give and take should be important to all historians in any field as well as curators.

Since history is so personal, I think that museums and historians should be encouraging public perspective and participation. If the study of history and the physical space of a museum is to continue, the public must be included, encouraged, and listened to. This isn’t some alien past, it’s everyone’s past and everyone’s history.

Is User-Generated Content Just Self-Indulgent Validation for the Creators?

I am torn by these readings.  As a kid I went to the Minnesota Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis and to various sites controlled by the Minnesota Historical Society expecting to see and learn from exhibit curators. I still have a sense of wonder whenever I visit any of the museums at the Smithsonian and every trip ends with me acquiring some new bit of knowledge. That opportunity to learn is one of the things that drive me back to museums over and over. As presented in Letting Go? I loved the idea of content more personally germane and therefore more interesting to individual museum-goers. I expect a curator to keep exhibits fresh.  I also expect to be learning from an expert in the field, from an exhibit presenting relevant, factual information. For a curator that is a challenge and I acknowledge, sometimes they fail.  Using different, innovative ways to capture and present information is laudable and I support it. The use of film by the Minnesota History Center is a great example of innovation, so are interactive exhibits. Museums need to respond to public input and user-generated content seems like a logical reaction. However, indulging the public with significant user-generated content goes too far. While these articles presented a variety of ways to engage users, each method only temporarily attracted a narrow audience. Though each article in Letting Go? highlighted how much interest user-generated exhibits generate, I saw no evidence of any lingering benefits in fund-raising, membership or sustained increases in attendance.  In conclusion, I see a correlation between user-generated content on the web and in museums. I am distrustful of user-generated content on the web and have similar concerns about such material in a museum.  On those occasions when web content is interesting enough to look at, 99 times out of a 100, after viewing I just delete it and without bothering to forward it. The web has billions of users so such a low response can still make financial sense to advertisers or content creators. I am not sure it makes a lot of sense for museums.

Please Don’t Let Go…

The idea of a museum as “a place that would be a pleasure to visit on crowded days” (31) makes my skin crawl. I tend to turn away and resolve to come back another day if I see the parking lot full at places like museums, my anxiety heightened and my discomfort visible to everyone. It’s unfortunate that we’ve entered a reality where museums must be, as Joe mentioned in his response, “cheapened” by the flashy ability to connect to a social media platform, where your enjoyment requires cooperation between patrons, to have an app on your phone, or to speak face-to-face with an exhibit. Heaven forbid I have the desire to just wander through a museum and quietly experience it for myself.

Now, this isn’t to say that we should still be practicing the antiquated trend of separating expert from visitor (70-71). If anything is going to keep people from patronizing museums, it’s going to be that elitist environment in which you feel like you’re a part of the unwashed masses, wholly stupid and simply grateful to be allowed to tread on sacred ground. It is important, as well, to keep from petrifying a museum in one unchanging state, as people will only visit once, having already seen everything. (Two-headed calf, anyone?) So how can this be done without risking the alienation of those who don’t feel inclined to vocally or physically participate?

I think the balance comes from the integration of things like “dialogic museums” (83-95). Holy cow, do I love this idea. The style gives curators and historians the ability to shed old ways of presenting nothing but the facts, and, at the same time, also reject those old, exclusionary, historical narratives, by introducing new stories from those whose representation is often erased from the narrative altogether. They challenge visitors’ thinking, bring new ideas and faces into the museum, and, can still rely on technological advancements. By all means, encourage the public to submit their own voices, and suggest the stories that should be told. Solicit those untold stories via social media platforms, and engage in a dialogue about why exclusionary narratives are harmful. Make history accessible and worthy of a conversation. But most importantly, when it comes time to create a physical space to tell these stories, they can be curated in ways that allow visitors to enjoy exhibits and installations on their own terms. Now, obviously this isn’t the only solution, and not every museum can put something like this together or align this style with the primary goal of their establishment. But it’s a nice starting point to think about…

In Over My Head?

Where do I even begin?  As I can see from those who posted before me, I am not alone in feeling conflicted about the reading.  It left me with many questions, first of all, how I can move forward?  Most of the ideas presented were about participatory techniques, increasing the use of social media and technology, and embracing co-creation within institutions- all foreign concepts to me.  When reading about these efforts, issues arose for me because I had difficulty visualizing such exhibits and had never encountered them before.

Of course I understand the need to reach more diverse audiences and dilute the idea that museums are the “end-all” historical authority, but I found my logical goals as a historian clashing with my experiences as a museum patron.  As a historian, I agree that content should be presented in a way that allows visitors to feel personally connected to history, and foster active engagement with unique dialogues.  You hope that museums become bustling places that people are not intimidated to visit, while they experience wonderment with challenges to perspectives that normally would not occur.  On the other hand, I was constantly thinking about my own museum experiences.  Contrastingly, as I patron I relish the “empty” days at museums, which allow me to slowly and silently reflect without interruption.  I enjoy the time to turn my phone off and “disconnect” from the world incessantly needing “likes”.  In this way, I found the sections about engaged participation through social media and technology daunting.

Perhaps the chapter that I found most interesting was Minnesota’s “Greatest Generation” Film Festival.  I enjoyed reading about how filmmakers were able to conduct their own familial investigations and become historians.  The combination of pictures, oral accounts, and research created poignant entries that would be fascinating to watch.

Through the different projects discussed, it struck me how empowered people can become by “owning” their stories within the larger historical picture.  I think it is important that museums are embracing the notion that everyday subjects are worthy of being displayed and explored.  As we all know, perspectives and ideas of significance shift.  As interesting as all these different projects are, I am left with a sense of “What did I get myself into?” and “how can I ever hope to contribute to these types of projects?”.  I guess we’ll  find out.


On a side note, I have included a picture I took from my visit to the Louvre from 2008.  It shows the wall of people encircling the Mona Lisa in the distance behind the glass. It was an amazing visit, but the amount of people was a stress factor.  I am curious how museums such as the Louvre could instigate changes discussed in the book.  As one of the biggest and most popular museums in the world, is it necessary to embrace these new techniques?  They already have the diverse global pull of famous art so is it worth it to switch things up?


Discussing “Letting Go?”

Reading through the different ideas and experiences in Letting Go? reminds me of countless conversations had with my cohort class about history and views of public history. The conversations about how History Channel was better when it first came out and now has been dramatized to keep the viewership numbers high. The web and virtual exhibits can be useful in getting people who would otherwise not want to go to museums to go and better enjoy themselves. The other side is that there has to be a middle ground between interactive and non-interactive to appease most people when it comes to exhibits. The article by Kathleen McLean see museums as a place to hold historical conversations and is community place of learning for all involved. “We need to think of visitor’s as partners in a generative learning process within a dynamic community of learners” (72). Instead of believing one is expert its better to learn as a community and have positive dialogue.

The use of the web and interactive technologies is good but should not be the overdone either. To much stimulus can ruin an experience. Digital collections enhance learning by allowing the historical community to see artifacts or photos not normally seen in public. This also allows for more information to be accessed to the community when needed for research.  As Mathew MacArthur saw that objects can be used as learning tool and resource. The art of using the object is what can make it successful as a learning tool. “Thus displayed, museum collections “cultivate the powers of observation, and the casual visitor even makes discoveries for himself, and, under the guidance of the labels, forms his own impressions”; further, objects are a ” powerful stimulant to intellectual activity” (58). With the use of both learning and thinking is achieved.

The public historian in the world of the world wide web

While reading Letting Go? I find myself intrigued by an idea that most historians understand, but one that the general public does not always seem to grasp; the internet has everything but in having everything, the internet is not always correct and certainly does not always provide a complete story. Even some seemingly reputable sources (ie. Newspapers) often have an agenda of their own that taints the information that they put out. The public, in general, expect the nearly impossible from museums; to give completely unbiased views yet maintain a multitude of different viewpoints. The web 2.0 has added to both the ability to accomplish this as well as the difficulty of such an undertaking. Although the web 2.0 has facilitated the ability for many people to add to the narrative of history, it has also opened a new role for the public historian as an expert that can differentiate between sources with solidly researched information and those sources that are closer to opinion presented as fact. In this there are pitfalls that must be avoided. The public is, in general, often drawn to the stories that we have been told, good or bad, of what and how things happened. Deviating too far from this traditional narrative can put public historians in a position of being more augmentative than as an authoritative voice on the subject. Letting Go?  introduces the thought through Matt Fisher, who explains the  dominant viewpoints when he says, “Introducing different prospectives is vital, but simply criticizing or undermining dominant or authoritative viewpoints is ultimately limited.”[1]I find this interesting in that many of us look at situations in history, and due to its controversial nature, are asked to argue one thing or another but rarely stop long enough to think of whether or not arguing against past indiscretions is actually useful to anyone. Many of these arguments were not only carried out at the time but also tend to either bore or infuriate a large number of people that are less read on the situation and only know the traditional narrative.

[1] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, Letting go?: sharing historical authority in a user-generated world, (Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 49.

Initial thoughts about public history as discussed in “Letting Go?”

It would seem that the relationship between curator and consumer, expert and audience, museum staff and museum goer is a contentious one. This is especially true if you were to believe Matthew Fisher. While being interviewed by Bill Adair, Fisher paraphrases Duchamp, saying that artists and spectators collaborate, meaning that the viewer is as important as the artifact that is on display. Perhaps it is my age and disposition, but I enjoy a quiet, dry, dull, non-interactive exhibit. But I can see the desire to make museums more “friendly” for the internet generations. I do not, however, feel that the museum experience needs to be similar to my online shopping experiences. Fisher states “if museums don’t embrace these new paradigms (Web 2.0 ie. tagging, commenting, blogging) they are in danger of becoming irrelevant” (50). I do not think that irrelevance is the most important problem facing museums. It is a lack of funding that the Humanities, in all shapes and sizes, have everywhere. Fisher seems to claim the only way to solve that is to develop a “creative relationship between objects and visitors” (47), but I think treating the museum experience like a YouTube channel cheapens the experience for everyone else.

I see the need, as was voiced in the article written by Kathleen McLean, to be more inclusive of under-represented viewpoints. She describes the way the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) sought the advice of their Native Advisory Council. When it came time to create a new exhibit, instead of using the traditional anthropological perspectives, they built the exhibit around what “our Native partners thought most important” (74).  Additionally, there is the example of the Minnesota Historical Society, who asked for film submissions. One of these submissions, in the words of the film maker said “In the end, my attitude toward the History Center changed. … I was not a consumer demanding to be entertained, but a part of it” (106). And that is an outcome I think that all of us would want every one to have…