Publish at December 16 2014 Updated January 19 2022

Collections, collaborations

When curators and communities collaborate to document works or create exhibitions, it is called open authority.

Screenshot Carnegie Museum of Art, Exhibitions and events

In a presentation from the 2014 MCN conference held last November in Dallas, titled (Re) Defining Open Authority in the Museum, and available for viewing on the conference's YouTube channel, Lori Phillips, digital content coordinator at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, attempts to identify and redefine, along with her co-panelists, the transformation of the relationship between the museum as custodian of the collections and the community of most interested visitors.  She sees open authority as the sum (product?) of expertise about the collections on display in museums and contributions from the multiple-voiced communities they serve.

An open authority would lie at this intersection where the museum professional, the expert on the collection object, would have the role of facilitating the engagement of the visitor seen as a collaborator and actor in interpreting and creating content around collections. For Lori Phillips, these yet-to-be-defined expert-public partnerships take many forms and models that amplify the dialogue and interactions between the museum, its collections, and visitor-collaborators.

Contributions, collaborations

Crowdsourcing is one example. These projects call on visitors to enrich data and knowledge about the collections and where the public is for example invited to index content (tag), transcribe analog data into digital, identify objects, representations, vote for their favorite content in the collections, etc. Examples include ArtMaps (Tate), the Transcription Center at the Smithsonian Institution, or What is a museum?, artist Sam Durant's project at the Getty Museum.

Some collaborative projects around collections more closely involve members of specific communities in the design of a museum project, for example in projects using Wikipedia, community blogs, virtual memory-sharing spaces, etc.


In other projects around collections, the public takes part in the creative process in collaboration with museum experts. This is the case with the OH SNAP!, project described by Jeffrey Inscho (@StaticMade), former digital media and web manager at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. In a 2013 experiment with visitors, without a curator, thirteen new acquisitions (photographic works) were hung in a room in the museum, and visitors were asked to create photographs themselves based on them, using their phones, tablets, etc. The visitors' digital responses were archived online and exhibited in situ, in the museum's exhibition hall, around the works that inspired them. The experiment was a success  more than 1,400 photos were submitted in two months by a group of enthusiastic photographers.

The project also included events at the museum with participants, including discussions with some of the photographers who created the works that served as the starting point for the exhibition. Jeffrey Inscho says the project served as an experimental framework for thinking about what a new model for programming at the museum might look like, an incubator for a longer-term, grant-funded project that has emerged (Hillman Photography Initiative) that focuses on innovation and research in the photographic image, on the life cycle of a photograph (creation, exhibition, curation).

For the A People's History of Pittsburgh project from the same WCAO, hundreds of participants share their memories, indexing them in an online archive so that they are available for keyword searching, including by years or neighborhood. An interesting fact about this Carnegie Museum of Art project is that scanners are available to the public, at the museum, for one day, (Scanning Day), during which interested parties can go scan their images in preparation for their participation in the project, which will otherwise be the subject of a paper publication initiated by the CMOA.

Jeffrey Inscho attributes the success of these two collaborative projects to the convergence of online activities and in-person events in the museum's galleries. For him, it's not enough to open the museum door, you have to literally invite people in and have a mission to share with the community.

Inclusive Museums

Porchia Moore (@PorchiaMuseM), a doctoral candidate in information science and museum management at the University of South Carolina, a panelist at the open authority presentation, studies racial issues in heritage. In one of her research studies, she found that only a tiny proportion of African-American students reported visiting a museum in the previous five years when the study was conducted at a university with three major museum institutions. For the researcher, these and other statistics pointing in the same direction are troubling, and projects to partner and co-create around museum collections with these communities for whom museums are still just public white spaces, are especially important.

Elizabeth Bollwerk of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of including communities for museums with collections of objects from indigenous cultures and gave the example of mukurtu, a content management system (CMS) made by archaeologists and members of the Warumungu Aboriginal community in Tennant Creek, Australia, and subsequently taken up by museums such as the NMAI in Washington. In this co-creation project, the collections data management system was developed using the community's cultural protocols and includes superusers, the community elders, who have sole control over all collections-related content in the database.

Should the museum, custodian of heritage collections, be a temple or a forum? Both, it was concluded at the end of the discussion following the presentation.



CMN 2014 presentation: (Re) Defining Open Authority in the Museum [accessed December 15, 2014]

Twitter: #openauthor

Lori Byrd Phillips: @LoriLeeByrd

Jeffrey Inscho: @StaticMade

Porchia Moore :@PorchiaMuseM

Elizabeth Bollwerk @ebollwer

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