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