Why should I believe anything you tell me, you nameless and faceless institution?!?

I had the exceptional good fortune at MCN2011 of coming away with dozens of unanswered questions, and more than a handful of lovely people with whom to try to figure out the answers. My hands have barely left my keyboard in the last couple of weeks, as I’ve tried to capture ideas, exchange emails and make possible some of the grander schemes of world domination that have surfaced. But in doing so, I have alas neglected this poor little blog space.

So, to pick up from where I last left off, with a summary of the emergent issues that captivated me at MCN2011, I’ve decided to start with an exploration on the issue of authority on museum websites. It’s something that Claire Ross has also just written about, in her blog on MCN takeaways – although my discussion will take a somewhat different tack to hers. Claire writes:

This Panel took an interesting perspective to the authority question, asking how we should be building museum websites to gain and maintain authority online, something they argued that museums haven’t really earned in the online space yet, rather relying on the automatic ingrained authority physical museums have built up. But really can physical museum authority transmit in a digital space? And more importantly should it? That’s something I really came away with. Surely participation, dialogue and engagement with visitors breaks down the authority barrier to enable museums and visitors to work together to create an engaging online experience? Rather than a transmission of authority? So should museum websites be authoritarian at all? Right enough of a rant on that.

But here’s what I want to know… Can an institution even be an authority?

An individual can be an expert. An individual can be an authority. But I don’t know that a museum can be an authority on anything. Museums can be authoritative, sure, and point someone in the right direction (like the new Walker site seems to do pretty beautifully). But I am not going to believe something just because “the Tate” told me it was right. There is no accountability there. A blog post on the Tate site could have been written by a work experience kid who happens to be good with words and Google. Even collections information, unless it has a specific author’s name attached to it, gives me nothing I can particularly trust and believe in really (particularly in instances where there is no sense of how, when and by whom changes have been made to the collection record).

In a museum exhibition, I suppose there is a level of trust that the museum display has been created by someone who is an expert in the field. If someone got a job as a curator, I am hoping that they have some level of knowledge/expertise. Within this space, there can be room for intuitive judgement, for creating relationships between things based on experience and instinct.

But the information I get online, I want to be accurate – not accurate within a context. I want to be able to use it for my purpose (whatever that may be) – and so authority becomes more important in a different way.

In our panel, Koven raised the authority issue because he wanted to know how he should be building his museum websites. It’s a really significant question, but authority in an information context comes from more than just SEO and a trustworthy visual space and design. I want to know where the information came from. I want to know who entered in, and when, and why there has been a change in interpretation. If a collection object is re-dated, I want to know what prompted that change in associated information. I want to know who made that call, and why.

Until that happens, I don’t know whether our collections online will be truly authoritative. As some of my own research at the Powerhouse Museum shows, even curators don’t necessarily trust online collections records to be accurate. And if we don’t trust in our own information online, why should anyone else?


***nb obviously institutions have a name, but I’m sure you get my point.

10 thoughts on “Why should I believe anything you tell me, you nameless and faceless institution?!?

  1. You are not the average museum website visitor.

    The need for the seeker to feel that what they have found is authoritative is highly contextual. Those very casual visitors you found on the Powerhouse site probably aren’t overly concerned with it – seeing the domain name and the look of the site is probably enough for them to feel a sense of trust greater than the same information in WikiAnswers or Yahoo Answers.

    Would the average internet seeker trust anything on the Tate site just because it was the Tate? Definitely.

    You only have to read the comments on any number of tabloid newspaper website articles to see that people trust many things that perhaps they should question more.

    1. You are absolutely right! And in truth, I know myself that often if I found information on the “right” sort of site (ie, an institutional site), then I would often use it as if it was trustworthy (ie, as a uni student, I would have happily referred to it in an essay).
      But it is still an interesting idea to interrogate (at least on a conceptual level). I mean, can an institution be an authority, and not just authoritative? I don’t know that they can.

      1. I guess they can say “we are the authority on 9th century mobile internet devices” if indeed they are the only ones to have them in their collections.

        And I guess you can still be an ‘authority’ if you have a persuasive opinion. I’d wager that you are ‘an authority’ on “which nights are the best at the Cambridge” even though there are many gig guides telling me what’s on.

        Or is that the point? That you can be an authority in a way that the faceless gig guide cannot?

      2. Yes, that is more what I am trying to get at. There is that sense of voice, so someone can decide whether they do or do not trust the individual who wrote it. It means that you can use discretionary judgement, based on other examples of my work. To continue your example, if I always talk up the metal gigs at the Cambo, and your experience or knowledge tells you that I don’t a) know what I’m talking about, or b) like things that you are into, then you have some way of making a judgement based on it. Whereas if you were just reading a faceless gig guide, you might not have that same ability to make an assessment.

  2. So my brain is going down the path of anonymity vs. attribution. You’re making the argument of the 21st century scholar who knows you should critique your sources, and museums should, ideally, be assessed just as any other source should be — who wrote this? when? why?

    The point has been made that anonymity should no longer be permitted in exhibits. Labels should be attributed to the curators who write them. That way visitors can have a sense of who is speaking at them, rather than the nameless, faceless museum. This doesn’t actually happen, of course (labels are rarely “signed”) — but our websites are actually doing a great job of this. Nearly all blog posts are attributed, and museums who are “in the know” will state who is behind their twitter feeds, etc. But this hasn’t been carried over to online collections databases, for sure. I agree that it should be.

    I also agree with Seb’s point that the average museum website user will not be as overly critical of the source as you or I, however I think this is because we’re still years behind the day when your average student or internet user will actually have the digital skills to know to be critical of web sources. (Will we ever get there, really?) But, it would indeed be best practice to still provide this contextual information about changes to online content, in spite of the fact that most visitors wouldn’t have even known they were missing it.

    I could also go on about the role of brand loyalty and perceived trustworthiness in online collections database, but that’s for another day.

    1. It’s interesting that you’ve made this comment now. I just logged onto the blog because I wanted to explore the idea of transparency a little further. I guess that one of the arguments for putting collections online at all is for the sake of transparency about what museums have in their collections. But without the attribution of who enters and changes the information, that apparent transparency is still limited, because the processes behind collection data are still kept secret. Changes can be made in a collection record without any acknowledgement as such, and in a trust/authority role, maybe there are problems with that.

      I do agree that on blog posts etc, lots of museums are doing a good job. I suppose it’s more thinking about the collection records, and if we argue for openness of information (ie putting the collection online at all), then we should be pushing for openness of process as well. The transparency talk at MCN2011 by Rob Stein and Tim Svenonius was great for considering institutional openness, both inside and outside the museum. But it didn’t really address this issue of scholarly, curatorial openness. Hmm.

    2. Part of the problem with attribution is that many people accept it without question. An example, my mother recently sent me a chain email warning of dangerous criminals using a particular drug to subdue women surreptitiously and… well you get the idea. The email itself claimed to be “not a hoax. Snopes verified…” and even linked directly to the snopes article about the claims the email was making.

      The Snopes article actually refuted the story and completely debunked it, but the mere presence of the snopes link was enough to turn off the critical parts of the sender’s brain and they forwarded it right along. They didn’t read the link. They just saw “Snopes verified” with a link and instantly trusted it.

      The point of that example is this: I don’t think attribution is necessarily the way to establish authority or accountability. It’s a great way to give people the illusion of authority and accountability, but that’s about it. I think the transparency needs to be in the processes we use to draw our conclusions rather than just exposing the people who are drawing them. We’re starting to do this in small doses, with blog posts from experts and the like, but I think this is something that we’re just stumbling around trying to find because we’re still transitioning to a world where we can ubiquitously capture what we’re doing, what conversations are happening and where our data is being gathered from. We can capture and share more of that now than we ever could before, but we haven’t fully transitioned to that new way of existing yet.

      But as the tools of ubiquitous capture become more… ahem, ubiquitous we’re going to start really examining our own ideas of where our own authority comes from (some of that will likely be uncomfortable) and then we’ll have a clearer idea of how we can translate that into a message for our audience.

      The real problem I see is how we communicate that history succinctly and effectively. I think mobile technology will play a huge role in this *eventually*, but right now it’s a daunting challenge. Imagine walking up to anything in any museum and being able to instantly pull up on your phone the history of that exhibited item and all recent scholarship related to it as well as any public conversations about that item (online or even on-site, or recorded lectures or whatever your imagination can conceive of capturing somehow). Now imagine being able to do that from anywhere in the world and contribute to those conversations any time you choose to drop in. We’re nowhere near being able to do that right now, and even if we could only a small percentage of the audience could take advantage of it. But someday…

      The below discussion about integrating critical thinking into the mission of the museum is interesting as well. I’ve been thinking about the role of museums in our society a lot lately and this post and discussion have been great fuel for that. Lots to think about.

  3. Great stuff and lots to ponder here. Thank you for putting your thoughts and questions for us to think about with you.

    Apropos of this discussion was one that occurred at our 2011 Developing History Leaders @SHA program (http://historyleadership.org/) which features not only about 30 presenters at all levels of the history profession.

    The SHA coordinator, John Durel, posted this on the SHA blog: What is the role of the historian in the age of shared authority and radical trust? http://j.mp/uRfvMp. And a bit more about Radical Trust is here http://aaslhcommunity.org/historynews/radical-trust/

    I know that none of these directly address the premise of your post, but I thought they might offer some additional food for thought as you sort through the questions in the thoughtful way I know you will.

    Bob Beatty

    1. Hi Bob! Thanks so much for posting that great link to the John Durel blog. The idea of equipping people to be historians was also something that came out of MCN2011, in a great panel on “History Museums are Not Art Museums. Discuss.” A number of the panelists made the comment that they saw their role online was not to simply teach people history, but to teach them historical method – to equip them to actually become historians, so that they can make their own discoveries.

      I think it’s a fantastic idea. Equipping people to think critically is something that is probably even more essential in a world with so much available information.

      Having said that, I guess we have to acknowledge that not everyone wants to think critically, and that maybe that’s ok too. In the above post, it is written “The public’s interest in history is based on the enjoyment of good stories rather than an appreciation for the critical thinking, weighing of evidence, reasoning, and knowledge of multiple perspectives that goes into an interpretation of the past.” But it’s ok simply to allow people to revel in what is enjoyable for them.

      Like Seb’s point in the comments above, the “average” museum website visitor is not necessarily looking for something they have to think critically about. I guess where historians and museums alike can play a part is by helping those who do want to be better able to do so.

      What do you think?

Leave a Reply to Suse Cairns Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s