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Letting Go to Keep the Public Engaged

February 27, 2012

Without a doubt, my favorite book of 2011 is Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski.  The book liner notes read that ” Letting Go? investigates path-breaking public history practices at a time when the traditional expertise of museums seems challenged at every turn – by the Web and digital media, by community based programming, by new trends in oral history, and by contemporary artists.”   The book is divided into sections or themes, each containing a diverse set of thought pieces (method and theory), case studies, and conversations (application dialogues).  The authors are leading authorities actively engaged in their subject area.  Letting Go? is a very applied presentation.

The first theme Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web opens with an essay by Nina Simon that states the essence of her Participatory Museum model in a concise and convincing way, using several new examples to illustrate her points.  I found the brief essay fine-tuned some arguments in her published volume.  I suspect that for those new to Simon’s Participatory Museum, the essay will spur them on to read her book.  Simon’s thought piece is followed by Steve Zeitlin’s case study, City of Memory, based in New York City.  Next is a conversation with Bill Adair and Matthew Fisher that considers the problems and potentials with public engagement in online art museum projects and an oral history/video project in Philadelphia.  The final essay in the section by Matthew MacArthur takes up the role of objects in the digital contexts.  A strength of this section, and all the sections in the book is the reflective nature of the pieces.  In a most refreshing way, all the authors consider the shortcomings, problems, challenges, and opportunities of their own digital or participatory contexts in a user-generated world.

The second theme Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators features a provocative essay by Kathleen McLean on the multiple expert and visitor voices.  She concludes her essay with “We need to find way to bring the museum’s expert knowledge into conversation with the people who attend our museums – people who bring with them their own expert knowledge” (p. 79).  The section is rounded out with a conversation on the diologic museum, a multi-generational family film project in Minnesota, and a conversation based on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s efforts to have community curated exhibits.

The third theme of the volume addresses popular oral history projects such as Story Corps.  A thoughtful essay by Tom Satwicz and Kim Morrisey assesses the challenges, limitations, and potentials of the reality of public curation from trend to practice.  Perhaps one-third of the volume considers essays dealing with  fine and performance arts not related to the focus of this blog.  However, the essays and conversations provide much that is simply good to think about regardless of the specific field of application.

I found the volume particularly refreshing in that all the contributors accept that there are lots of unanswered questions, false starts, and simply wrong turns in the “sharing authority” process of this “user-generated world” in which we now all operate.  The authors do not take on Messianic tones in their presentations, rather, provide thoughtful discussions of their experience in engaging the public’s user-generated voice. If you are grappling with how to incorporate the authority of the many voices that your institution serves, Letting Go? will give you plenty of directions to consider.

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