After a long break, we’re excited to host our second blogpost from our regular contributor, Porchia Moore (find her first post here). This month, she discusses the topic of Open Authority in museums with a focus on what this concept might mean for communities of color as visitors. She invites us to think critically about the language we use to describe our work and aspirations; what weight do words such as “participation” carry and might we be better served by different terms? Her analysis below builds momentum for next month’s post on The Kaleidoscopic Museum.
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In recent years museum conference themes have centered on issues of reformation and change. This movement toward re-imaging museums seems to have, at its core, an entrenched aspiration for active participation from the communities we serve. Museum professionals are devoted to their respective institutions and work tirelessly to make them better. Stronger. More relevant. This emergent undertaking toward self-assessment and growth is the exact launchpad needed for the kinds of revolutionary inclusive practices that I sincerely believe will alter both museum-going behaviors and institutional practices.
In recent months I have had the extreme fortune to be a part of insightful discussions regarding matters of engagement and participation. By far, the single most important conversation that I have had the honor of being a part of was presenting on the Open Authority panel at the 2013 Museum Computer Network Conference in Montreal. The panelists (Lori Byrd Phillips, Elizabeth Bollwerk, Jeffrey Inscho, and moderator Edward Rodley) discussed the many aspects of Open Authority and I applaud the incredible work that Lori Byrd Philips is advancing in her exploration of this subject.
As a critical race theorist, I find that the topic of Open Authority provides a rich source for an even deeper exploration for my work as it pertains to interrogating the museum with an eye towards race and racial inclusion. Recently, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting upon definitions for the two terms, “open” and “authority” individually, while simultaneously continuing to explore and support the concept of Open Authority as a significant approach to improving engagement and collaboration within museums. As a result, this post seeks not to focus on Open Authority intrinsically but to achieve the following:
- To ponder what “openness” and “authority” might mean for communities of color as visitors.
- To advocate for institutional change in discourses of participation with co-creation as the fundamental core of that change.
The Importance of Language
While I find it necessary to understand the theoretical underpinnings regarding discourses of participation, those theoretical musings are too much to explore in this post. However, I do wish to pose an important question: what do discourses of participation genuinely mean for museums? On a basic level, the museum’s discourses of participation speak to a desire to connect with the visitor in new, meaningful ways. Subsequently, as a critical race theorist, I am interested in what impact discourses of participation have on visitors of color.
In my work I continuously advocate for museums to learn the language of cultural competency. That is, I want museums to become steadfast about being able to know, identify, and execute with continuity; congruent policies, attitudes, and behaviors which value and promote the customs, beliefs, values, and linguistics of racial and ethnic groups regardless of the type of museum. We know that historically, visitors of color constitute a low percentage of the total number of museum goers annually. I feel that culturally this low instance of museum-going in some form has to do with the fact that museums are often viewed as a public white space of which a barrier to entrance is perceived socially, economically, and even psychologically. Consequently, when visitors of color seek out institutional cues which might assist them in navigating an entrance to the museum it is possible that we add to their confusion by using terms such as “invited spaces”.
Increasingly, I lean more toward a culturally competent “language” which reinforces inclusion by both implementing and replacing “invite” with terms such as “co-create”. The concepts of co-creation and power-sharing are not new in our field. All the same, as a critical race theorist, I have come to understand that when museums extend invitations to participate rather than opportunities to co-create it is plausible that museums send a mixed-message to communities of color. Specifically, discourses of participation which focus on invited spaces may, in fact, be interpreted as a veiled exclusionary practice. That is, “to invite” possibly reinforces a perception of Outsider status even as the good intent is toward being more inclusive. Participation connotes a willingness to forgo an authoritarian legacy; whereas, co-creation re-imagines “authority” as willingly suspending authoritative power and uniquely relying upon the visitor to act as a specialized reservoir of knowledge—one that the museum not only values but recognizes with somewhat equal influence. Therefore, the museum is now “open”. For communities of color, this power-sharing could conceivably offer three very significant power shifts:
- Allows visitors of color to perceive the museum as a public space as opposed to one regulated by a dominant white culture.
- Dispenses with the unspoken perception that museums privilege white ways of knowing thereby allowing a place to insert new narratives which then allow visitors of color to feel as if their lived knowledge and experience as deemed as equally valuable sources of expertise.
- Cultivates a new value system which elicits Radical Trust.
When we employ discourses of participation which rely upon invitations, we “subtly encourage [the visitors] to assume the role of ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘clients,’ which influences what people are perceived to be able to contribute, or entitled to know and decide” (Lynch and Albert, 2010). While replacing one word for another might not first appear to be a revolutionary act of change, adopting a mindset of co-creation and co-production for communities of color might provide a linguistic tool with which to function as a stepping stone for a paradigm shift in discourses of participation for museums wanting to engage traditionally disengaged audiences. In my next post, I want to explore this concept of Radical Trust and make a case for what I have coined The Kaleidoscopic Museum.
Lynch, B. T. and Alberti, S. (2010). Legacies of prejudice: Racism, co-production, and radical trust in the Museum. Museum Management and Curatorship, 25(1), 13–35.
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Porchia Moore, is a third year doctoral candidate dually enrolled in the School of Library and Information Science and McKissick Museum’s Museum Management Program at the University of South Carolina. She is the recipient of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Leadership fellowship as endowed by the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant. Her work employs Critical Race Theory as an informative framework for interrogating and exploring the museum space as a means to advocate for inclusion in the museum world. In addition, she is interested in the intersection between culture, technology, information, and race. She is a 2013-2014 Humanities, Arts, Science & Technology Alliance & Colloboratory (HASTAC) Scholar. Currently, she serves a two year appointment to the Professional Development Committee, which helps design and plan the annual conference for the South Carolina Federation of Museums. She regularly presents on race, culture, and museums at conferences such as Museums and the Web and Museum Computer Network. She is an avid lover of museums, having explored museums from Malaysia to New Zealand and back. Follow her on Twitter @PorchiaMuseM.