‘Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power.’

Posted on August 3, 2011


I came across the title for this post in the comments section of an article discussing the recent releasing of JSTOR academic documents by Aaron Swartz, where fred_bauder writes: Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power.

It’s an interesting sentiment. Around the time of the wikileaks US diplomatic cables leak I remember reading an article about privacy in this age where the author asserted that the only way that people could now guarantee that secrets would be kept secret was to ensure they were never recorded or written down; that governments, businesses and individuals could all now be called accountable for everything ever committed to paper/email/device. In some ways, this has always been true… people have always been held accountable by what was recorded – be it on paper or tape – but things are publishable now with renewed vigor and ease, and that changes the game somewhat. The relationship between secrecy and power seems to be shifting.

Shortly after the wikileaks scandal, I had a conversation with a psychiatrist about the implications of the above, and he mentioned that for similar reasons he no longer records (non-critical) material in someone’s files that could one day be used against them. He no longer trusts in the sanctity of the files, because there is the possibility that with time, anything recorded could become public (if in doubt, check out this article about the Mug-Shot Industry [That] Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again).

Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power…

So why do I think this is important for museums? As museums put their collections online, they may be held newly accountable for what is and is not recorded within them. The public may (if they choose to look) become aware of ways in which museum records are incomplete, or even contain information that has been shown to be false since it was initially written down. This is not necessarily a negative thing. As Seb Chan noted in his MW2007 paper Tagging and Searching – Serendipity and museum collection databases on the Powerhouse Museum’s OPAC2:

the exposure of these records, and their increased searchability, especially through Google, has led to the Museum receiving additional contextual information about objects, or corrections to research. Sometimes this additional information comes from international experts, collectors and researchers, but at other times, as was the case with a convict love token, it comes through community members researching their family histories – and simply searching for a series of family names in Google.

But it is indicative of the fact that as museum collection documentation becomes available online, it is open to new scrutiny.

Paradoxically, this openness does little to challenge the fact that museums are, and have always been, secret societies filled with people who have special knowledge about the objects in the collection that not everyone is privy to. In their earliest iterations, museums were places for philosophical societies to meet, serving as a locus for research about the world. Even once museums became public institutions, the aim was to teach those without knowledge about the world and the collection. However, there is always a power imbalance between those with knowledge (and power) and those without it. All knowledge is secret knowledge if it is not freely and fairly available to all parties, and to some extent this is precisely where museum power is drawn from.

Museum knowledge is stored not only in our artefacts and documentation but importantly also in our people. We speak in secret languages (taxonomies) and have often-silent rules of accepted and acceptable behaviour that can be daunting to the ‘uninitiated’ (a term which is itself loaded with implications). Museum power is not in the things that have been committed to print – it’s in the knowledge of staff and their intuitive understanding of objects and collections. It’s in the judgements made when curating exhibitions. It’s in all the silent things that can never be fully recorded.

Julia Noordegraaf, in her book Strategies of Display: Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Visual Culture, writes about a similar schism that occurred in museum display in the nineteenth century. She writes (emphasis mine):

There is a paradox in the fact that most nineteenth-century museums were designed to accommodate large groups of visitors, while at the same time provided little information about the objects on display. Whereas the museum was thought to be a civilising and cultivating institution, its presentation was aimed at people who could find their own way through it and could interpret the objects on display by themselves. According to James Sheehan, this tension between the general and the exclusive lay at the code of nineteenth-century culture and society, ‘[…] the tension between the aspiration to have institutions that would be open to everyone and the structural inequalities that made these institutions inaccessible to all but a minority of the population.’

The paradox can perhaps be explained from the fact that in the nineteenth century, museums were conceived as places as much for the research or the advancement of knowledge as for popular instruction or the diffusion of knowledge. Until the end of the century, when museum innovators like Henry Flower recognised the need for different types of display for these different aims, museums were trying to fulfil both aims with one and the same type of display. It seems that in the nineteenth century, museum managers designed the script of museum presentation from the idea that educating the people simply meant opening the museum doors to everyone.[1]

Museums may be opening the virtual doors to their collections to everyone. However, this doesn’t mean that the audience is equipped with the same knowledge as the museum curator or educator. Even with digital openness, museums still have secret knowledge – and secret knowledge is also power.

[1] Julia Noordegraaf, “Strategies of Display: Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Visual Culture,” ed. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam (Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2004). 80. Noordegraaf quotes from Sheehan: Museums in the German Art World 2000: 115.

Posted in: Ideas, Museums