Sharing Authority is not a Zero-sum Game

This post was originally published on 10/03/2015 as part of the Clio I class at George Mason University.

For the better part of the past one hundred years, museums have mirrored education in schools and favored an “empty vessel epistemology.” This understanding of knowledge posits that students are empty containers waiting to be filled. The role of the teacher as the authority is to disseminate as much knowledge as possible and fill the vessels or students. Recently, researchers started criticizing this education model and started pushing for a more collaborative effort on the part of teachers and students in constructing knowledge. For many teachers the sharing of authority is an uncomfortable situation, and they eschew new curriculum mandating such approaches. For other teachers, they have seen the benefit of shared authority and the empowering effect it can have on students.

Museums are following a similar trajectory from an empty vessel epistemology to an understanding of collaborative knowledge creation with their audiences. Museums have long been criticized for being cold and intimidating buildings staffed by equally cold individuals who carry themselves with an air of superiority. Silence and other unwritten customs rule the day. For many, the museum is a somber reminder of how much they do not know. In order to combat this perception, many museums have restructured not only their buildings but their operations and exhibits in order to facilitate more dialogue and audience empowerment. Ultimately, the goal is to make audiences feel better about themselves through experiential learning. The growing popularity of digital exhibits brings this dilemma to us, the “curators” of digital public history.

Digital public history is nothing more than using the developments in technology to engage with the public both as audience and as creator. The term digital history does not presuppose that it is “public” history. Much of what is considered digital history is just as inaccessible to the public as traditional scholarship in terms of language, paywalls, etc. On the other hand, digital public history is designed for (and frequently with) the public. The content, structure, purpose, and functionality of the project or exhibit are never separated from the goal of public engagement.

As with any exhibit, creators must ask themselves who their audience is and what role that audience plays in selection, design, and creation. Displaying exhibits on the web means that you do not have a captive audience. You are competing with the omnipresent urge to check Facebook, fantasy football, and/or download a new song. Therefore, your exhibit must be interesting enough to compete not only with other digital exhibits but with myriad distractions and alternative entertainment across the web. One way to achieve that goal is to engage your audience and solicit participation and suggestions. Although you may not want to hear that the user interface which you spent countless hours creating is confusing and hard to navigate, you must remember that the exhibit is not only for you. Likewise, you may feel uncomfortable allowing your audience to generate a portion of your content (depending on your goals this can be good or bad). However, a collaborative effort can result in a more interesting and impactful digital project. Whether you are creating a free encyclopedia by crowdsourcing expertise or soliciting submission to a memory bank, the digital medium allows for audience engagement in a way that is not possible with brick and mortar institutions.

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