Of all the conversations instigated by CFM so far, the one arousing the greatest passion is about the changing role of authority. The CFM report Museums & Society 2034 highlights a cultural shift in which people want museums to recognize and value the expertise they bring to the table, rather than just serving as providers of authoritative content. This points to a future in which museums (and in particular, curators) are moderators of conversations rather than lecturers, filters rather than point-sources.
This really, really upsets a lot of museum people. They sputter that it will lead to museums being purveyors of popular pabulum and perpetuators of misconception, brokering consensus rather than delivering truth.
But truly, I think in many ways presenting this as a new thing in museums is setting up a straw man. Isn’t it actually a long circle back to the culture that gave birth to many museums in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century? Many of these museums were founded by “amateurs” in the best sense of the word—individuals deeply learned in their fields, but who were not paid for acquiring or using that knowledge. I was vividly reminded of this last week at the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, which was founded by “gentleman naturalists.”
Note the “gentleman.” Herein lies the rub—most of these amateurs were credentialed by their wealth, rather than their training or erudition (though they had plenty of that, too.) Today’s museum professionals have little wealth (unless they inherit it) or job security (unlike their tenured brethren in academe) and so they rely heavily on their educational credentials and professional authority to derive their status in society.
Amateurs never went away—they faded in importance as various fields (art, science, museology) became professionalized. Perhaps they dwindled in number for a time as mass produced culture (delivered via radio, TV and the internet) supplanted self-generated content—I am not sure. My father certainly was a passionate amateur in the best 19th century tradition. Born in 1919 to the classic penniless immigrant Jewish family that fled Russia during the Cossack pogroms of 1905, he studied hard and achieved the American dream of becoming a successful tax attorney, which he found financially rewarding but intellectually unfulfilling. So he became a self-trained scholar in archaeoastronomy and biblical studies, publishing in peer-reviewed journals in both fields. I was, early on, trained up as his designated translator in French (for his studies of Megalithic sites in Brittany) and ancient Greek (background for his exploration of the intersection of classical myths with stories in the old and new testaments.) As a teenager I found this to be an enormous and unreasonable burden, but now I treasure this side-effect of his passions.
Part of my father’s success in his amateur endeavors came from his utter confidence that anybody, no matter how famous or prominent in their field, would be willing to talk to him, based on their shared interests. This resulted in friendships or collegial relationships that encompassed Yigal Yadin (one time deputy minister of Israel but trained as an archaeologist), Immanual Velikovsky (the somewhat nutty Russian émigré who believed that Noah’s flood was caused by a proto-Nova explosion on the planet Saturn) and Charles Hapgood (regarding the authenticity or lack thereof of the Vinland Map—historic cartography was another of my father’s interests.) I remember playing under Buckminster Fuller’s desk as a little child as my father and he discussed utopian architecture.
In my experience many people have such enthusiasm for some subject—and such pools of self-assembled expertise. But few have the chutzpah to waltz into a museum and ask for access to the collections (as my father regularly did at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, to my deep mortification as an undergraduate—he always insisted I come along.) His position was that the collections were there for the public. He was right, and in fact the curator was always happy to accommodate him, but how many members of the public know they can do that?
One great quote I heard at the recent AAM annual meeting was “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed” (usually attributed to the science fiction writer William Gibson.) With regard to the need for museums to welcome and validate the “expert amateur” this is certainly true. Cincinnati Museum Center, where I worked before coming to AAM, relies heavily on amateur experts in collecting, preparing and caring for its collections particularly in natural history (cleaning fossils, reassembling potsherds, stuffing dead birds with cotton to create study specimens) and history of technology (c.f. the infamous “machine tool guys” who used to be machinists at Cincinnati Milacron.) There were pockets of snobbery (notably in the archives, where staff griped about amateur genealogists taking up their time) but on the whole, if you were “in the know” you had not only had access to the collections, you were in imminent danger of being press-ganged by the overworked staff.
So the question isn’t whether museums can behave like this, it is how to get more museums to behave like this, and let people know that they behave like this. I think there are segments of the museum community that have not adopted this culture of access and community input (notably fine art). And there are masses of knowledgeable, talented amateurs who, unlike my father, don’t realize that they can breeze in, ask to see the stuff and pick the brains of the certified experts.
I think the most productive way to pick away at these issues—museum culture and public image—is to identify and solicit input from potential collaborators. One such community is historic costumers and re-enactors. These folks have a strong interest in creating and wearing clothing from previous centuries. And in the process of reconstructing how clothing was made and worn, they generate loads of information, from the properties of materials to the influence of the resulting design on behavior. (I am assured you don’t really know what a pavan looked like until you see it attempted in corset and historically accurate footwear…)
Many historic costumers gathered this past summer in Florence at the Costume Colloquium: A Tribute To Janet Arnold where they mingled with everyone from museum curators and academics to amateur enthusiasts who go to academic conferences for fun. In addition to networking, they explored a variety of themes including the status of current costume research and education and the use of Janet Arnold’s historic costume patterns in theater and re-enactment. Through a friend who attended the conference (a fencing buddy, by the way, not a museum colleague) I have invited some of those attendees to comment on this post to start the discussion. So, tell us guys—what is your experience with accessing museum collections and expertise? What do you want from us and what can you contribute to our work? Do you encounter any barriers to getting what you need or giving what you can? Are there any museums that set good examples of how to make their resources accessible, and harness your expertise?