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.