Museum Opportunities in Open Authority

Open Authority Spectrum
Open Authority Spectrum by Lori Byrd Phillips
(click image for digital resource file)

This week’s post is by my colleague Elizabeth Bollwerk.  In 2012, along with Natalye Tate, we edited a series of papers Open(ing) Authority Through Community Engagementpublished in the journal Museums and Social Issues.  Elizabeth and I are very excited to have organized a set of papers for the upcoming Society for American Archaeology meetings that further explores the Open Authority discussion in that discipline.  Below, Elizabeth considers her experiences in employing an Open Authority model at a small university-based museum. 

by Elizabeth Bollwerk

Two groups of 30 university students were scheduled to tour our museum, the Museum of Culture and Environment (MCE) at Central Washington University (CWU) in Ellensburg, WA.  A student tour is typical given that we are a university museum but this event was a bit different. The students visiting our gallery are part of the College Assistance Migrant Program, or CAMP. This special program offered at CWU provides financial and academic support services to freshman students from migrant and seasonal farm working backgrounds.  Prior to their visit to MCE only about six of the 60 CAMP students knew MCE existed and none had visited.  This is fairly typical for our small, university-based museum.  We have one 1400 sq. ft. gallery space that rotates exhibits about twice a year.  We do our best to advertise but with only one full-time and three part-time staff, we have many balls to juggle.  Nevertheless, one of our major goals this year is to raise our visibility on campus.  The CAMP students were visiting because a staff member had attended one of their monthly meetings, talked about the museum and encouraged the students to visit us as part of a class they were taking.  But it’s still your typical tour.  So — why blog about it?

Shared Authority, Open Authority, Letting Go of Authority – The idea is embodied in different phrases but all describe a similar process: shifting from the idea that subject experts and professionals are the sole voices of museum authority to having communities or individuals not on the museum staff or board share the decision making power.  It’s a scary prospect but one that museums have been slowly adopting for the last decade.

In this blog post I use the term Open Authority to describe this process. There are many forms of Open Authority.  As Lori Phillips recently noted in her explanation of this paradigm shift at the 2013 Museum Computer Network conference, Open Authority is a spectrum.  At one end are projects that provide contributory or participatory experiences.  Visitors to museums can engage with the material on exhibit by tagging, voting, identifying etc.  On the other end are co-creative initiatives, where community members are involved from the very beginning and hold equal authority with museum staff in decisions about exhibits and programming.  In the middle are collaborative initiatives that rely on community sourcing and dialogue, but not quite to the same degree as co-creative projects.  How Open Authority becomes embodied in an institution is different for every museum and every community.  At MCE, we are at the contributory end of the spectrum but are working towards co-creation.  As part of this process I have identified concepts that are taking shape as “best practices” based on the growing number of case studies and discussions taking place in the museum community.  Here is my preliminary list:

  1. Opening Authority includes inviting people to your museum but often means physically going outside of the museum to make meaningful connections.  In some cases, this means going to communities and talking with them before bringing them into the museum space.  This is especially true for communities that traditionally neither visit or find museums to be welcoming.   Museum staff members can go on the community’s turf before asking them to come to the museum.
  2. Open Authority also means paying careful attention to the language you use when connecting with communities.  As my colleague Porchia Moore has noted, museums need to work on the language of cultural competency to ensure that we are actually cultivating openness.
  3. During and after interactions with community members, museums must be open to suggestions and actually follow-up on them.  Outreach must be viewed as dialogue, not just conversation (see Sharon Wilken Conrad’s blog on the important difference between these two).
  4. Long-term goals are important.  Creating lasting, collaborative relationships takes time.  Additionally, some communities will not have the time, interest, or energy to engage with the museum in the ways you would like them to.  But initiating the conversation and demonstrating an interest in the community perspective as equal partners provides an opening for future collaboration.
  5. When community members choose to be involved in a museum, especially as equal partners, be prepared for some projects to take on a mind of their own.
  6. At the same time, remember that you can’t make everyone happy.  Communities are full of diverse individuals with different interests.  You have to determine whom you are trying to reach and keep that goal in mind.
  7. Remember that Open Authority doesn’t just apply to communities outside of the museum.  There are also ways to Open Authority within a Museum staff’s structure as well.  Regardless of what communities you are focusing on, be sure to keep communication open with your staff members so they are sharing their ideas and concerns as part of the process.
  8. Open Authority also includes volunteers who bring another perspective and set of experiences.  Don’t forget to ask them about ideas and suggestions for how to contact and work with groups.

The CAMP tour is part of our efforts to Open Authority at MCE.  We are now in the initial stages of working with CAMP.  Students visited the museum, we showed them around our current exhibit, and asked them what they would like to see future exhibits focus on.  They shared a number of ideas, including an exhibit on the history of migration and migrant families in our county, an exhibit on leaders of Latino communities, the impact of the internet on college students, and contemporary music.  Although we aren’t in the position to put these ideas into action immediately (our exhibit schedule runs a year in advance) the CAMP ideas are now on our radar for future plans.  In addition, we are hopeful that CAMP will participate in other MCE projects in development, including a mobile tour of the museum and campus.  We are at the starting point with this project but we hope it’s the beginning of a great relationship that one day will lead to co-creative projects between CAMP and MCE.  Follow us to stay informed on our process.
What Open Authority practices are you using at your institution?

Elizabeth is the Central Washington University Museum of Culture and Environment Grants and Publicity Specialist.  She can be contacted at ebollwerk(at)

Resources for Open Authority (in chronological order)

Moore, Porchia

2014.  Shifting Paradigms: The Case for Co-Creation and New Discourses of Participation (blog). The Incluseum.  February 26 2014. 

Phillips, Lori Byrd

2013. The Temple & the Bazaar: Wikipedia as a Platform for Open Authority in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal. 56:2.

2013.  Defining Open Authority in the Museum. Panel.  Museum Computer Network 2013 (Montreal, Canada)

Duclos-Orsello, Elizabeth A.  2013.

Shared Authority: The Key to Museum Education as Social ChangeJournal of Museum Education 38:2.

Inscho, Jeffrey  2013.  Oh Snap!  Experimenting with Open Authority in the Gallery (blog)Museum 2.0.  March 13 2013.

Connolly, Robert  2013.

Co-Production and Co-Creation with Volunteers (blog)Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.   February 18, 2013.

Bollwerk, Elizabeth, Natalye Tate, and Robert Connolly (eds)  2012.

Open(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement.   Museums and Social Issues. 7:2.

Adair, Bill, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (ed).  2011.

Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.