Letting Go: a Handbook in Modern Shared Historical Authority Technique

Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World provides an exciting and creative “how-to” book for museum professionals seeking advice from veterans in the widening institutional practice of public shared authority. Editors Adair, Filene and Koloski curate a diverse collection of essays and testimonies from practitioners of shared authority who resonate similar messages, “museums are currently undergoing a great tide of changes – do not be frightened of this change. Rather, listen and improve from it – but if you do not adapt to these changes you risk becoming obsolete.”

Letting Go also acts as a love letter to museums. The power of museums as tools of education, healing, and community enhancement, can only increase from better involvement with their audiences. Museums act not only as trusted keepers of culture, but also as mirrors of culture. They must move alongside society, even jump it at times. Museums could simply upload their collection onto the Web in captioned flickr galleries but the digital age provides museums with better tools for delivering content and engaging with audiences.

Contributors to the book seem to be on the cutting edge of experimentation with shared authority. The introduction describes the volume’s intention to “mark a particular moment in the field” (12) where patterns of institutional success seem to indicate that a similar commitment to experimenting with shared authority has opened up public history institutions to better serve their communities. It would be fascinating to revisit the text in fifty years. Were their hypotheses proven? Do the popular and effective museums of 2065 rely on museum professionals “letting go” (or relaxing control) of their expertise, safekeeping, academically informed practices and interpretive styles?

It seems clear that “letting go” is no simple task. The Presence of the Past showed us that public perception of museums (and historic sites) are filtered entirely through lived personal experience. Even shared national events such as massive tragedies are primarily perceived at the individual level, “I was doing such and such when the planes hit the World Trade Center.” Active shared authority requires museum professionals to tap into that diverse and boundless individuality. This means added responsibility for an already overloaded and underpaid workforce. The editors assert that “museum professionals, then, supplement content knowledge with expertise at interpreting, facilitating, engaging, listening, and learning with their visitors.” (13). Public curators must also spend time designing interesting boundaries for visitors to participation in since, “audiences express themselves more creatively and confidently if operating within, not beyond, boundaries.” (12) These are not only added tasks but entirely different work skills! Would a staff member at an historic site that holds a wealth of information but has little success in group conversation facilitation be useless in this model? How can a curator rotate meaningful museum exhibits at the same time as creating engaging platforms for an increased online visitor presence? If the institution relies on volunteers as supplementation to thinly stretched staff who is going to adequately train them as ample agents of sharing authority? Do you think that Letting Go is asking for staff with new talents or even new types of intelligence? Is effective public engagement (different from visitor service) something that can be trained? How did the chapter thought pieces reflect this?

My next question is more abstract. Museums, or more broadly, collections, are intertwined with a history of power relationships. As nations conquered other nations, tribes conquered other tribes, valuable relics were collected and brought back to the home of the victors. When revolution brought democracy to much of the world, objects were passed from kings to nations. Now, whether on a national, regional, local, or even private level, educated professionals keep these objects safe. They also interpret their value and importance for the public in museums and historic sites. In Letting Go we see a destabilization of this power. We see a cry for professionals to open new passageways with the public or wager with ruin. How is this new type of society different from past societies who have enjoyed the sites that now risk antiquity? Is our modern society heightened in certain ways? Is it too self-centered?

Lightly Edited from Source: Letting Go: a Handbook in Modern Shared Historical Authority Technique by Tucker Foltz

8 thoughts on “Letting Go: a Handbook in Modern Shared Historical Authority Technique”

  1. Tucker, this is a good post that identifies the core theme of the book and raises questions that will resonate across the book’s sections. Having just returned from the Oral History Association Annual Meeting, I found myself thinking again about the ways in which oral historians can instruct public historians in the art of “letting go.” In the context of the conference, I heard from one panelist –a historian in South Africa who has interviewed people who were active in the anti-apartheid movement– who talked about the need to “let go” or at least remain mindful and cautious of one’s own emotional attachments. It is very easy to want so much to make a real and powerful connection with our informant –or our audience– that we try to please them or compliment them or otherwise act in ways that change our goals. So, I wonder this: does the book “Letting Go” help us think about the difference between establishing goals and controlling outcomes? Does it help us distinguish when and what and how we might “let go” in particular situations? Does it make clear the difference between abdicating authority and sharing authority? Are both at play.

    I look forward to our discussion. Our goal will be to unpack the ways in which different professionals (artists, historians, etc) have answered these thorny questions in different contexts.

  2. Tucker, I really appreciated your thoughtful post. The collection of experiences by public historians (both trained and outside academia) provided in this book show that however vague the boundaries of shared authority may be, there are several approaches to the issue. Further, if an institution can let go of the results, the end product is often much more rewarding than just great exhibits. A renewed public engagement with the institutions with whom they are sharing authority often emerges as well.

    The section titled “Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators,” provides many alternative examples to the over-powering authority of history centers. By soliciting the public to submit documentaries about the “Greatest Generation,” i.e. octogenarians of the WWII era, the Minnesota Historical Society transferred most (but not all) of its authority to the public. The society still picked which films to showcase in their film festival. Yet the project was risky. In order to succeed, they had to let go of the results. And they did. The deliberate focus on individuals from the past by ordinary individuals of the present had a powerful and emotional impact on the attendees and participants. Two people both mentioned they felt closer to the past—it was more tangible. This endeavor to engage the public produced more history, and arguably better history, than the historical society could ever have accomplished on their own. They knew their various limits on resources and thus ceded authority to those who could better handle it.

    Deborah Schwartz, director of the Brooklyn Historical Society, gave wonderful examples of letting go. The historical society opened its doors to the community and created a permanent space where locals could curate their own exhibits. Schwartz’s ethos on the project is fascinating and actually quite inspiring. Her goal was simply to let the community design their own exhibits because she wanted to know their perspective. She wanted the historical society to represent the borough. Still there was an authoritative balance. An advisory committee (comprised of professionals from the community with few staff members as advisers) decided which exhibit applications to accept. Schwartz strikingly dismisses anxieties of bad exhibits when she explained, “…there are going to be times when the process of creating these exhibitions is greater than the end product.” (122) This is a great example of sharing authority rather than abdicating it. Both parties need each other; they recognize this and work together.

    Letting go of control can be easier if the goal no longer demands the end result look a certain way. This book certainly makes a strong case for allowing the community and the institution to share authority, but leaves open just how power should be balanced as each situation carries different concerns. However, it seems clear that, as we have seen in other studies, more authority should rest in the hands of the community.

  3. Very insightful post, Tucker. I think you’re being very realistic about the process of museum professionals letting to of some of their authority and passing the baton to the community. This book provided several examples of negotiating authority between professionals and visitors/volunteers to initiate the argument that it may be hard, but it is possible with the proper balance . Visitors want to be able to provide their own input and actively engage with museum experts, but they also want to hear ideas and explanations from experts. The key is for professionals to talk to and with visitors, not at them. Visitors and communities have insight and thoughts to share that can be beneficial. Museums will not progress if there is a constant divide and assumption that museums are meant for professionals to constantly guide and teach uninformed visitors. Kathleen McLean (arguably a cool name) raised an important question, Why should created and well-educated members of the community feel completely uneducated and inexperienced in the art of visiting museums? (70).

    Though it can seem like an overwhelming concept to change the overall structure of authority, it can actually really benefit both the professionals and community. Deborah Schwartz, the director of the Brooklyn Historical Society, claimed that the BHS was struggling with trying to show the community of Brooklyn that the society was more than just the beautiful, upper-class neighborhood that surrounded it. The staff realized rather quickly however that they did not have all of the time and resources to share the entire history of Brooklyn with the public, they actually needed a lot of help from the public. They set up an advisory group of various people in the community that were not museum professionals, but people who had their own ideas for sharing Brooklyn’s history. This project got a lot of praise from the staff and board of the society, and even other museums. Deborah Schwartz suggested that she did not even consider this method to be a radical idea. She claimed; “I think there’ve been versions of community-driven galleries in museums for decades. It’s interesting to me, however, that there haven’t been more of these recently” (117). The staff still certainly had some authority to regulate the overall project; including reviewing the proposals from community groups and providing the community with the information and guides help make the proposals go from an idea to a possible exhibition.

    This chapter provided a lot of examples that showed people eager to listen to and work with museum professionals in exchange for a chance to give their own insight and creativity into exhibitions. In return, professionals were able to regulate these projects as well as have an entire new take on their museums and the history they were sharing. Though professionals may have to learn new strategies and skills to be able to share authority, they’re also getting a great deal of help from the community.

  4. Tucker, I really liked that you referenced back to The Presence of the Past and the public’s emphasis on individual experience when explaining, interpreting, and viewing history. The section “Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators” in Letting Go echoed this idea of the public’s experience and took this further by proposing the important narrative and voice that they have to offer to the “professional.” The Minnesota Historical Society’s film competition (exploring the lives of World War II veterans in Minnesota through film) for instance, was such a success because it allowed for the public to have individualized connections while creating and watching the films. Filmmakers felt that the competition allowed them to “document the life of someone dear to them” (101). One filmmaker said that while showing his film to his dad he felt it was “a powerful moment between us” (101). And while Tom Drube watched the ongoing film presentations at the competition he felt that the day “became more a conversation than a presentation” since these “stories were very personal and so very familiar in their human connection” (106). These examples show how important it is then, to find a way to bridge the individual experience of the past within public museums. The best way this seems to be able to be done is by allowing the public to take more active roles and contribute their own experiences and expertise (even if it is not professional) into history exhibits, projects, and so forth.

    You bring up an interesting point about the added responsibilities of museum professionals when encountering public engagement. It does seem that these museum workers are being forced to manage multiple aspects at once. However, what this section, “Communities as Curatorsm,” seems to indicate is that this can be avoided to a degree by giving more authority to the community and letting the individual develop and create their own stories. As John Kuo Wei Tchen and Liz Sevcenko explain it, a dialogue driven history should be created in which the “narrative is developed entirely through the diverse stories and perspectives of those who lived it, not as a master narrative written by a historian” (83). This idea can be seen clearly with the Brooklyn Historical Society. Echoing a bit of what Jenn and Molly said (they both touched on really great points), the Brooklyn Historical Society showed this dialogic collaboration between community and professionals. In this case, the society gave most all of its ownership of the exhibition to the community members. Deborah Schwartz describes it as “not shap[ing] their exhibition or their ideas as much as to shape what they know about the possibility of the exhibition as a medium” (115). The society would give advice on designers or art handlers if asked, or make collections and artifacts available to the community groups, but other than that the idea was, as Schwartz says, that “this place belongs to you,” the community (115).

    Projects and exhibits like these, and others that are mentioned in this section like the “Cool Remixed” (temporary exhibit designed by local teenagers exploring the definition of cool from Oakland teenagers’ perspectives) and the “Forces of Change” (invited community to design and create individual displays of their own personal experiences) show how effective an exhibit can be when there is a collaboration of authority and there is open communication. Therefore, maybe this notion of a museum professional fluent in talking with the public or engaging visitors is not so much necessary as is a simple willingness and openness to do just that. Instead of having museum professionals take on multiple responsibilities and force them to be controlling multiple aspects at once, instead they can relinquish some of their control to community groups willing to take the lead.

  5. Great post, Tucker. Beautiful post.

    My section of the book described a few examples of how oral history has been put to use by public historians as a way of sharing authority. The section starts off with an essay by someone whose name has cropped up here and there in this class — Michael Frisch, the OG of sharing authority. His essay really concerns the challenges and opportunities afforded to oral history archiving through digital technology (it’s really refreshing to read an older professional-authority figure speak enthusiastically and optimistically about technology). Frisch’s main point is that the ability of public historians AND their public to create a more accessible user experience through digital technology actually furthers, rather than threatens, the premises of oral history work.

    The second piece covers a project in St. Paul, MN to create a museum inside of a house that would track the histories of the families who lived there and the broader narratives their lives suggest. The third is about an intersection of theater and public history — something we haven’t talked about very much but that we might (Do Tucker and Dr Meringolo have interests in this?). The final piece is about StoryCorps, the story-collecting oral history project that may or may not reach the aspirations of public history work.

    From my reading, one answer to Tucker’s question, “Is effective public engagement (different from visitor service) something that can be trained?” is that public engagement can take a lot of forms, as we know. It seems to me like you can’t necessarily “train” public history professionals to engage with the public as much as you can train them to think in a way that privileges engagement and constantly contends with what Dr. Meringolo mentioned as the difference “between establishing goals and controlling outcomes.”

  6. Thank you for such a thought provoking post, Tucker. I think it would be easier just to sort of one by one answer some of your questions. I apoligize but I think I made this post far too long, but oh well.

    “Would a staff member at an historic site that holds a wealth of information but has little success in group conversation facilitation be useless in this model?” When you ask this question, I can’t help but think of the roll of the artists, like Fred Wilson in section four, whose background was from a rather different one that someone who would normally attend a museum. The author most certainly would say, at least when non-historians are brought into the public history setting, that we have to get rid of the idea of focusing on a traditional version of success and focus on “deeper questions regarding historical content.”[209] With this in mind, I think we would say that everyone should be involved as long as we play to their strengths.

    How can a curator rotate meaningful museum exhibits at the same time as creating engaging platforms for an increased online visitor presence? I think that looking at the Rosenbach Company: A tragic comedy, the two and a half illustrated concert, created a new way for the public to engage history in an atypical fashion by challenging a historical message in a new way. [249] Part of how they did this though was by “sharing interpretive authorship” and even being willing to allow the threat of offending some people by a misperception of being disrespectful.[260] This enables the majority of audiences to resonate with the message and take multiple messages from it.

    “Do you think that Letting Go is asking for staff with new talents or even new types of intelligence? ” I think it is asking people to think differently and engage the public in new ways. That’s what made “Mining the Museum” so powerful was that Wilson encouraged and fostered discourse between different people with different backgrounds in the museum, which then allowed the content to truly shine.

    “Is effective public engagement (different from visitor service) something that can be trained? How did the chapter thought pieces reflect this?” What was interesting about my segment was how Fred Wilson (the artist in charge of curating the new Exhibit that the Maryland Historical Society), was that after he was given access to a plethora of controversial artifacts that have never been on display before (like a slave wiping post), he immediately sought input from local residents and even museum staff that typically did not have a say in anything that the museum displayed.[218] Wilson reached out to even the museum’s security team, to get more information on what or how he thought the public might react to certain things, which actually makes sense since the security teams interact with the public every day. In his own words, he said, “I meet everybody, look at everything, and then make it work.” [232]

    “I wonder this: does the book “Letting Go” help us think about the difference between establishing goals and controlling outcomes” I think that Fred Wilson sought to avoid linear narratives, and as a result, sought to not control the outcomes really at all. In his own words, “I’m not trying to tell a story,” which means that he isn’t trying to direct a narrative towards a single goal. [235] He also accepted the fact that, “there are some people who will not get it, scratch their head, and keep going.”[238]

  7. Excellent post, Tucker. You neatly hit on the larger conversations taking place across sections in the book. I think it is important to wonder whether public historians need new types of skills or intelligence to be innovative in the field as we prepare ourselves for entering the work force. We have to keep up with works like Letting Go? in order to remain “cutting edge” in the conversations and practices of shared authority.

    In the section titled “Hearing Voices: Sharing Authority through Oral History” the authors of four pieces concentrate on different examples of “Letting Go.” The article by Benjamin Filene tells the story of an exhibition put on by the Minnesota History Center that focuses on the experiences of the people who lived in a single house from 1888 to the present (2006) (138). This exhibit was innovative because it was highly interactive. Curators used minimal labels outside of those that were primary sources, like sections oral history interviews, to create a “detective-work approach.” Not only did the exhibition demonstrate that ordinary people made and were made by history, it helped visitors to engage and imagine themselves as historical actors. It created the personal experience you mentioned in your original post. Reducing the authoritative voice of the historian enhanced the overall educational and entertainment value of the exhibit.

    The third piece by Billy Yalowitz ties in nicely with ideas about shared authority as a tool for healing and community enhancement. Yalowitz used performance art to bring together the misplaced African-American community of the “Black Bottom” neighborhood in West Philadelphia with the institution that misplaced them, the University of Pennsylvania (156). The project brought together people from multiple layers of the community in order to create a relationship in which “the relations of power are transformed and a culture of cooperation, exchange, mutual respect, and urban vitality is developed” (172). Yalowitz’s largely successful project demonstrates the power of sharing authority. Members of the Black Bottom community were always invited to participate on each new stage of the project in order to tell their story and begin the healing process.

    It was interesting that in the first article of this section, author Michael Frisch immediately argued that “Letting Go” is perhaps not the answer when it comes to the digital frontier (126). Throughout the article he uses a kitchen metaphor to compare “raw vs. cooked” oral history to assert that users do not necessarily want or need completely raw material. Instead, oral historians should work with materials even more in order to increase their usefulness. So, circling back to Tucker’s question about new talents or intelligence, I would say that if one agrees with Frisch, historians need more experience with coding and design programs to create digital content that can create a more active dialogue between experience and expertise.

  8. The section on the Internet and museums in Letting Go? shows that museum professionals are trying to adapt to new concepts without ceding complete control over their final product. The Worcester City Art Gallery in 2009 chose forty paintings from its gallery and had the viewing public vote for which one was it favorite with an explanation for why it was their favorite. The art gallery then posted each painting’s position in the rankings. In earlier times a professionally trained curator would have determined which of these paintings would be worthwhile enough to show to the public. However, this gallery received its inspiration from ranking sites like Netflix to allow anyone in the public to judge what they considered to be the most beautiful piece of art in this display. The exhibit proved to a great hit with the public, since the gallery allowed them to collectively become curators of the exhibition. The previously elitist world of museum curation became democratized due to the influence of social media and ranking sites.

    A similar event occurred with the City of Memory project. This was no physical exhibition within the walls of a museum. Instead, the action occurred entirely online. Residents of New York’s five boroughs wrote and then submitted their own stories to the directors of the City of Memory project. Once again the general public had a hand in the creation of content for the website. The directors of the project functioned more similarly to website comment editors than to traditional curators.

    However, both of theses stories and others also indicate that the public has not completely usurped the function of curators or exhibit designers in the digital age. The public was able to choose their favorite painting for the Worcester Art Gallery exhibition, but they had to choose it from a sample of forty paintings pre-selected by the professionals at the gallery. The directors of the City of Memory project reserved the right to edit the stories that were given to them by their contributors. They also reserved the right to discard any stories that they felt were uninteresting or did not contribute in any significant way to the history of the people of New York City. These two examples seem to indicate that there is a future for museum professionals, even if some of their traditional roles are given to the general public. Nina Simon points out in her article on participatory museums that museum professionals should not try to ape the algorithms of sites like Amazons, which only display to its buyers what they think the buyers will like. Museum professionals need to use their training to provoke an unexpected response from their visitors that challenges their preconceived beliefs. Great exhibits like great art are more than just pleasing. They also create conversations and learning.

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