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.