Sharing Authority is More Difficult Than You Think

Michael Frisch’s advocacy of oral history as a tool for breaking down institutional barriers in history represented an important paradigm shift within the fields of public history and museum studies in the 1990s. Twenty years later, the concept of “shared authority” is now regularly taught in public history programs around the world and embraced by many cultural institutions seeking to highlight multiple historical perspectives. Rather than solely relying on the expertise of trained professionals to interpret and represent all voices of the past in public spaces, cultural institutions such as museums, historical societies, community centers, and libraries now actively seek the input of local community members in a shared endeavor towards interpreting the past. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello goes farther by tying shared authority in museums to promoting social justice causes and stronger communities in the present.

This need to share cultural authority is particularly acute in the United States, where public funding for cultural institutions is rapidly drying up. According to Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, editors of Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, “the country’s growing ethnic diversity and its economic crises have pushed museum leaders to recognize that the field’s traditional business models need to be revamped. Instead of taking public support for granted, museums are desperate to prove their worth to outside partners, voices, and interpretations” (11). Indeed, if cultural institutions are receiving public funding for their endeavors, shouldn’t the stories they tell reflect the communities of the people who contribute their tax dollars to these institutions?

I am an advocate for sharing authority and believe that history is best viewed through multiple perspectives. Recent examples of sharing historical authority are abound. City Lore’s City of Memory allows residents of New York City to contribute their own stories and memories onto a community map. From 2006-2009, the Minnesota Historical Society hosted an annual “Greatest Generation” festival that included an annual film competition; this competition included the opportunity for community members to create ten-minute films about friends and loved ones they knew who witnessed and participated in World War II. Even places like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum have embraced sharing authority. “The Power of Children” exhibit at the Children’s Museum encourages students to learn about the stories of extraordinary children in history and then write comments sharing their own views on racism, intolerance, sexism, and social equality. These comments are then posted on a wall for others to see in the museum.

Sharing authority is an important step forward for public historians and their work with public audiences. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to take a couple steps back and proceed with caution before jumping onto the “shared authority” bandwagon without considering the ramifications of what exactly it means to be “sharing authority.” The term, in my opinion, has become so dominant in scholarly discourse as to become a buzzword in the same way that words like “curation,” “preservation,” and “digital humanities” are sometimes bandied about without unpacking the actual meanings we attempt to convey when we use these words.

What factors should we consider when we talk about sharing authority? I propose the following considerations:

Collecting Stories: This factor is probably the most obvious when considering the term “shared authority.” “Collecting stories” can include oral histories, the creation of spaces within cultural institutions for people to write comments, comment boxes on cultural institution websites and blogs, or asking indigenous people and other groups to collaborate with a museum in creating historical exhibits.

Gathering Funds: As public funds for cultural institutions dwindle, institutional leaderships increasingly rely on private corporations and individuals to help subsidize the cost of creating exhibits, websites, public programs, and conducting oral histories. Robert Post’s fine book Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History points out that corporate donors to the Smithsonian over the past fifteen years have sometimes tied their funding for exhibits to demands that their company be interpreted in a positive light. Post points out, for example, that Trans World Airlines (TWA)–in one final push to stay afloat financially before later declaring bankruptcy a third and final time–donated funds to finance the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary celebration exhibit in Washington, D.C. TWA donated its funds to the Smithsonian’s “Corporate Partners Program,” and, according to Post, the final exhibit included an “adventuresome infomercial” promoting a positive interpretation of TWA’s history (x).

In this instance TWA expected the Smithsonian to “share authority” in interpreting their own history. This tenuous relationship raises serious questions about the practice of giving positive interpretations to the highest bidder. It also demands that we consider the interests of those donating funds to cultural institutions. How might donors ask for cultural authority in interpreting their own vision of the past, and what stories are they looking to promote? We should always consider the potential tension between sharing authority with underrepresented/impoverished groups and asking for funds from private donors who may have their own conception of interpretive history. Look no further than Kenneth E. Behring for an example of a philanthropist with his own goals of historical accuracy. Behring donated money to the Smithsonian in the early 2000s while also demanding that multicultural history be removed from the National Museum of American History in favor of a “real” American History that promoted American democracy and a narrative of “progress.”

Providing Access: Once the stories are collected, how do public historians go about sharing and providing access to these stories? Simply putting stories online does not mean that everyone will have access to those stories. Jean-Pierre Morin of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reminded us at the NCPH 2014 Annual Meeting that many indigenous tribes in Canada do not have ready access to the internet. When internet is available, it’s usually at the speed of a dial-up connection. (I also agree with Jennifer Guiliano, who argues that public history and digital history are not interchangeable terms). We should always consider how to best provide access to the stories we tell. I personally am a huge fan of the Philadelphia Public History Truck, which travels to communities around the city and offers residents the chance to share their own historical artifacts and stories at the truck.

Do Public Historians have the authority to share the stories of disaffected cultural groups? As Teresa Bergman points out, sharing historical authority has its limits. How do we maintain a sense of historical professionalism and a dedication to accurate history while promoting inclusiveness? Who gets to make the final decision in what gets included in the final draft of an exhibit, project, program, or website? Are museums, historical societies, and libraries truly for everyone, or should certain perspectives (such as the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War) fade over time and get left behind? Who owns history, and who gets to speak on behalf of the past?

“Sharing authority” means doing more than collecting stories and exposing historical silences. It also means working with donors who may have their own interpretive agendas, providing access to the stuff of history both on and offline, and working to ensure that the public stories being told are truly reflective of the communities that are doing the storytelling.

Cheers

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7 responses

  1. In my (yes, idealistic) world, ‘shared authority’ necessitates (or means) an open process for meaning-making – and radical trust in the people and process. So public contributions can be post-moderated if they are objectionable in the context of the agreed T&C, but by default, they are instantly published. And donors can set whatever conditions they like but public museums should only accept those terms if they are prepared to do so publicly. Seems to me that unless openness is baked into this concept of shared authority, the sharing is a pretence.

    1. “And donors can set whatever conditions they like but public museums should only accept those terms if they are prepared to do so publicly. Seems to me that unless openness is baked into this concept of shared authority, the sharing is a pretense.”

      I couldn’t agree more, Cath. Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. In think “shared authority” has sometimes become capitulating authority. The public historian as negotiator among various points of view rather than someone w capacity to create underlying coherence among those views.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks for commenting. I do agree that sometimes public historians are viewed in and out of the academy as merely “facilitators” or “translational” historians who convey the work of academic historians to a non-academic audience. While facilitated dialogue can and should be a part of the public historian’s tool set, I believe a good public historian also needs to have the “capacity to create underlying coherence among” different viewpoints because interpretation is fundamental to public history. And, as you point out, there may be a tension between interpretive history and sharing authority at times.

      1. It is not just that they are “viewed” as such; they/we behave as such. Meaning making is a two- (or three- or four- etc.) way street. And not all “meaning” is equal.

  3. […] history in historical context. For us today I think it’s easy to look at our current “shared authority” paradigm and think that we (from roughly the 1980s on) are the first group of practitioners […]

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