Moving beyond us vs. them

Recently one of our curators at NMAH came to me to discuss the aftermath of the Smithsonian 2.0 conference.  “You have an image problem,” he told me.  According to him, the buzz among his colleagues is that the conference was mostly a dump on curatorial authority, despite my protestations to the contrary.

Rethinking the role of credentialed expertise in a “crowdsourced” Web 2.0 world was certainly one of the subtexts of the weekend, and indeed of conversations in the larger online museum community.  And yes, some questioned the monopoly that credentialed experts have traditionally enjoyed over interpretation and allowed uses of our collections.  Dan Cohen and his crew over at the Center for History and New Media produced an excellent podcast on the subject as a follow-up to the conference that is well worth listening to for an informed outsider’s perspective on this topic.  On the podcast, Tom Scheinfeldt provides some useful historical context, reminding us that the question of who gets to interpret museum collections is as old as museums themselves, and periodically gets raised as museum practices change and evolve.

This is an area that really interests me.  I am convinced that as we continue to dialogue as a museum community, and collaboratively examine and experiment with new technologies to see how they might be of benefit, we will make progress toward solutions that threaten no one and benefit everyone.  Our NMAH blog is a good example of this.  When we started it last summer, it had a handful of advocates and contributors and many skeptics.  Now, it is really starting to blossom as more staff members come on board and use it to share their work and interact with the public.  Of course we hoped it would be an instant success, but in this instant-everything world, sometimes good old-fashioned persistence pays off (and Obama agrees with me on this…).

Speaking of sharing our work on the blog, I have started an effort to carry this very conversation to our blog readers and solicit their input on the role of the digital museum.  In response to an embedded survey about museums and trust, over 75% of our unscientific sample were of the opinion that museums would become even more important as trusted sources of online information (curators, take heart!).  Only 9% felt that museums’ role would diminish.  We will be using these responses to continue the conversation – please join us and follow along!

In addition, for anyone who will be at the AAM meeting in Philadelphia, I will be conducting an Idea Lounge discussion on the topic “Digitizing Museum Expertise.”  As museums continue to produce increasing amounts of digital data, how can we similarly expose our wealth of human talent by facilitating creative connections and/or collaborations between museum experts and online audiences?  Look for it on Sat., May 2 at 8 a.m.

5 thoughts on “Moving beyond us vs. them

  1. Nice post Matt, and on something that matters so much!
    SI 2.0 participants were blown away by the Institution’s curators and researchers – – something that internal Web teams have known for a long time: our curators, researchers, and subject-matter experts are superstars – – and the best thing we can do is make it easy for them to get their work (and themselves) online.
    Most of the Institution’s Web teams work very hard to cultivate these relationships, and they feel genuine pride and satisfaction when they succeed. And most of the Institution’s subject-matter experts are enthusiastic believers in the power & potential of digital scholarship, research, publication. Though, of course, there are doubters.
    I’ve heard a lot of frustration from Web teams that they weren’t able to get their curators, researchers, and subject-matter experts involved in the SI 2.0 workshop from its inception – – they saw this “us vs. them” problem coming and tried to head it off. (I think it was an error of omission rather than commission: the snag was a difference in vision about the scope and openness of the event. My sense is that it was originally conceived as a very small, exclusive, charrette.)

  2. Good thoughts. While I could see the curators being threatened by the proposal of “crowdsourcing,” one of the things that I found most exciting about the Web 2.0 conference was the willingness to dialogue. Museums have been a one-way conversation for a long time, but now that we have the ability to make it an open dialogue, there is no reason not to do it. Like the NMAH blog, it might be a slow process, but as more and more of the SI collection gets digitized and available for easy online viewing, the easier the exchange of ideas will become, and I look forward to seeing it happen.

  3. To say that the conference was mostly a dump on curatorial authority is a little shortsighted in my opinion. I tend to agree with the ideas opposing his views. Doing more popularity polls will gain an understanding of the viewpoints beyond the forum.

  4. It would be unfair to say the conference was mostly a dump on curatorial authority is unfair.
    I agree with ACAI in saying that doing more polls will aid in understanding peoples viewpoints.

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