Authority in the Digital Age

Throughout the past few weeks, I have been researching the impact of technology on the notions of openness and authority in the museum’s traditional role as  cultural gatekeeper. I have read a variety of sources discussing topics including oral history, collaborative projects, interactivity, and democracy within the museum. One of the sources that I have particularly enjoyed reading is Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene Laura Koloski. It is a collection of essays written by scholars in the field that address the effect of technology on the museum’s authority.

One of the essays that I have found helpful for my research is “Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age” by Steve Zeitlin. He discusses his involvement in the City of Memory exhibition that has been displayed at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. The exhibition brings together stories of New Yorkers about their experiences in the city. The City of Memory website allows users to use an interactive map of the city to explore the stories submitted by the carious communities within New York. Stories are both submitted by the public and curated by the staff to ensure that only the stories that have been given time and meaning by the author are permanently included.

city-of-memory
Screenshot of the interactive map on cityofmemory.org

The City of Memory exhibition is a great example of an exhibition that requires shared authority between the museum and the public. Although the public is given the opportunity to share their experiences, the staff’s curation of the submissions helps the museum maintain a large amount of authority over the project. The project is ongoing, so the curation is never finished.

The essay discusses the roots of the movement to let ordinary people tell their stories and shows how museums have had to adjust their role as the cultural gatekeeper to allow other narratives in. If this topic is of interest to you, I highly recommend reading this anthology. The other essays are also very interesting and discuss the role of objects in the digital age, the visitor’s response to shared authority, participatory design, and more.

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