Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority

I was pretty inspired while reading this book. The different projects and exhibits highlighted were so fascinating, especially the series of performances telling the stories of Black Bottom. Personally, I found the first essay by Nina Simon the most useful. In it, she explains what it means for an exhibit or program to be participatory, in the spirit of Web 2.0: not only can visitors interact with and contribute to the program, but their contributions have a direct role in changing how the program develops. One example she gives is of the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum’s Top 40 program, where visitors vote on their favorite paintings, and the ranked organization of how paintings are hung changes based on visitors’ votes (20). So often, programs will take that first step towards participation by inviting visitors’ contributions, but then stop short of having those contributions directly affect the program at large.

This got me thinking about how participatory NMAJH’s programs are. I feel like it’s a lot harder to approach this topic from an interpretive, rather than curatorial, approach — you don’t have the freedom to create something from scratch, but rather you’re building upon a set arrangement of artifacts in a permanently-constructed space, and so it seems like the limits are much tighter. One idea that has come up, regarding our Traveling Suitcase program, is to encourage students to create their own suitcases that would help others learn about them. Would that run into the same problems that Matthew MacArthur points out, about how user-created “galleries” are underused and abandoned (60)? Or would this be different, since students would fill their suitcases with their own possessions? But then what would be the next step – students could analyze each other’s suitcases to learn about their classmates? But then what after that?

To be honest, sometimes I worry that I’m not creative enough to create projects like these. I definitely have the desire to combat the five main dissatisfactions about cultural institutions that Nina Simon names (irrelevant, static, exclusive, stifling creativity/expression, uncomfortable), but when I’m designing a tour or other program, it’s difficult for me to make that creative jump from plain interpretation to engaging and meaningful participation (21-22). A lot of the time, I imagine this is where collaboration would play a major role: obviously I’m not creating entire educational programs by myself, and artists can help bridge that creative hurdle, as well as having that excuse to take risks we discussed in class last week. But reading through these case studies, most of which were spearheaded by artists, I can’t help but ask myself: can I be a public historian without being an artist?

The answer is obviously yes, because, again, collaboration is the key here. No successful program is created entirely by one person. And even if the idea itself is derived from a single artist, say, others must still implement it, maintain interpretive best-practices, conduct supportive research, facilitate, etc… While reading this book maybe got me a little worried about my lack of artistic talent, I need to remind myself that there are so many people involved in the creation of any given program. Just think of all the museum workers who lost their jobs over Mining the Museum!

Jokes aside, this is a book I’ll need to revisit multiple times in the future for inspiration and for questions to be asking myself about the programs I help to create. What is the visitor’s role, and how can they play a role in the program? Who has the authority, and who doesn’t but should? Am I valuing everyone’s voices and stories? Are objects and digital resources being used in modern and relevant ways?


A student designs a psychedelic poster saying “Breath In Peace,” inspired by the posters promoting concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium. This was part of a summer class NMAJH offered in conjunction with our current special exhibition, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution. The finished posters are displayed in the museum — the closest we get to a Web 2.0-like program, I think. Students can see that the Museum has created a space for them to express themselves with an encouraging and validating atmosphere.


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