Here at CFM, we’re wrapping up Round Three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics. The survey closes Dec. 9 (there’s a link below if you still haven’t participated) and I can hardly wait to compile the input from our Oracles and the public.
Most of the issues that have surfaced during the forecasting exercise are echoes of ongoing arguments from a hundred year or more of the museum literature. I’d lay money that John Cotton Dana (d. 1929) was blogging, I mean writing, about the obligation of museums to be economically accessible to the public; the ethics of making collections accessible; and the perils of conflict of interest when it comes to donors, sponsors and members of the governing authority. Maybe these will play out in new ways in coming decades, but we probably know the arguments and the players already.
But the forecast looks at one issue that may actually be new—or at least so different in degree as to be different in kind as well: the challenge of curatorial authority vs. crowdsourced input/community curation/participatory design.
Really? Community curation might be viewed as unethical?
Actually, this wasn’t a total surprise to me. As I work with various museums on futures forecasting, I’ve noticed that the biggest internal tension is usually on just this point. The curatorial staff often feel not just threatened, but morally outraged at the thought of letting amateur experts or your average woman-on-the street, contribute to (much less control) museum content. But elsewhere in the room, members of the education department, development staff and often the museum leadership are saying “we need to invite the community in. We need to be more than just a place they are welcome to visit. They need to feel this is their museum, that we value their talent, opinions and participation.”
The issue is not entirely new—some museums have long welcomed the input of select amateur experts. But tension is arising from a number of trends that expand and extend the nature of this participation. The growth of social media and the ubiquity of smart, hand-held, internet connected devices have fundamentally shifted the public’s expectations regarding authority and participation. As CFM documented in Museums & Society 2034, the MyCulture trend reflects an increasing desire on the part of audiences to do, not just view. People have grown accustomed to sharing and shaping opinion by Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare and a host of other social media. The first reference they turn to is Wikipedia, not an encyclopedia or the academic literature. And they know that they themselves could become Wiki-editors, or set themselves up as authorities with their own blog, Twitter stream or self-published work (even if relatively few of them do).
At the same time, many museum professionals see themselves and their organizations as the last bastions of accuracy and excellence. They believe that the greatest value they bring to the museum and its audiences is the deep knowledge and nuanced insight that come from years of study and experience. They believe the highest and best role of the curator is to be an expert, not a moderator, editor, compiler or convener. Even a little experiment (e.g., experimenting with labels with content provided by public contributors, in addition to the “official” text, in one small gallery) can seem like a profound threat to the ordered workings of the museum universe.
Personally, I think that when the AAM Accreditation Commission wrote the Characteristic of Excellence that reads “the museum’s interpretive content is based on appropriate research,” they meant that museums should be diligent in ensuring the material they present is accurate, and ensure they do not present bad information based on sloppy research. That’s different from saying that a museum can’t decide that “appropriate research,” in some cases, includes asking members of the public what they like, or what they remember, or what they think is important. But evidently, there are a variety of opinions on the issue.
Please weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of Round Three of the ethics forecast, where you can address this and other issues.
If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.