Forming an Open Authority in Cultural Heritage

The following post is by Lori Byrd Phillips, who served as the 2012 US Cultural Partnerships Coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation and is now Digital Content Coordinator at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Her research on Open Authority was recently published in Curator: The Museum Journal. You can learn more in this video from Ignite MCN and on her blog, “Defining Open Authority.”

No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity.—Pierre Lévy

Lori presenting at the MCN ignite sessions - Michael P. Edson -  cc-by 2.0

Lori presenting at the MCN ignite sessions – Michael P. Edson – cc-by 2.0

This often quoted idea of collective intelligence holds true now even more than when it was first written 20 years ago, due much to the interconnected, social, and open digital worlds in which we live. Yet, in spite of the advances in online community organizing and crowdsourcing, many cultural institutions are still uncomfortable with the idea of being “open”—and not just “open” as in “access” but “open” as in the co-creation of knowledge. The premise of this fear lies in the tension between traditional, curatorial authority and the unknown consequence of community participation and user-generated content. I believe that we’re often afraid of the things that we don’t understand, and that putting a name to something is the first step towards building understanding. So I coined the term “open authority” as a way to show that this scary idea of “open” isn’t actually so scary after all.

It’s no wonder that curators see themselves as the last bastions of legitimacy in this digital age. While new technologies are allowing user-generated content to grow exponentially by the day, curators just see the clutter. Meanwhile, others are undermining the role of traditional curators by declaring that everyone’s now a curator! But here’s the thing, professional curators are needed now more than ever to make sense of this user-generated content. The curator’s newfound relevance lies in being a facilitator of the dialogue happening on open platforms. One doesn’t lose authority when they become “open.” The expert’s role becomes even more significant when they actively participate in the broader conversation that occurs after the content is freely available.

In finding a framework for open authority I was inspired by the Reggio Emilia educational approach, which holds as its core tenets a respect for the contributions and interests of the child and the importance of community collaboration in art and in life. In a Reggio Emilia classroom the teacher never talks down to a child, but instead gets down on their level and works alongside them, letting the student guide the direction of learning. This is an already-existing vision of open authority that can be applied to museums—where the expertise of the curator comes together with visitor insights for the benefit of the community as a whole. To achieve this, the goal must be to establish institutional respect for the role of the community’s voice in the interpretation of our shared heritage.

So what really is open authority? Well we know that openness, both in access and transparency, is needed to remain relevant in our insanely collaborative world. And authority is needed to bring expertise to all of that user-generated content. Maintaining authority and being open do not have to be mutually exclusive. Openness and authority are not an “either/or” thing, they are an “and.” And that’s what open authority is: The coming together of museum expertise with meaningful contributions from our communities, both online and on-site.

So the next time the question of open access comes up, be sure to soothe the fears of those around you. With open authority, it’s not about giving up anything—it’s about collaborating with our communities so that our institutional expertise can be made even better, together.