Defining Open Authority in Museums


British Museum Great Court Roof By Andrew Dunn ( CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As part of my museum studies MA, I have been researching the potential of Wikipedia as a platform for museums to encourage accessibility and community dialogue. My research happened to coincide with an incredibly inspiring discussion about authority among museum professionals, which led me to propose a new model for authority in museums: open authority.

What is open authority?  That’s a good question, which I can begin to explain by describing the parallel theories that frame my research.  These theories are actually mirroring metaphors:  The Temple and the Forum in the museum field and The Cathedral and the Bazaar in the open web community.  In 1971, Duncan F. Cameron posited that the museum should be both a temple and a forum — an authoritative space and a place for dialogue that coexist within a museum but remain separate.  In 1997, Eric S. Raymond wrote The Cathedral and the Bazaar as a comparison between top-down software development and open source software development that is available for all to adapt and improve, with Linux as the quintessential example. The important conclusion is that, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” I believe that the future of museum authority lies in bringing these two metaphors together.

I see open authority as the coming together of museum authority with the principles of the open web. In other words, open authority is a mixing of institutional expertise with the discussions, experiences, and insights of broad audiences. Opening up authority within a global platform can increase points of view and establish a more complete representation of knowledge.  Just as “with more eyes all bugs are shallow,” cultural interpretation will only improve with diverse participation.

What does open authority look like?  Projects across various disciplines have experimented with sharing levels of authority with museum audiences.  The recently published Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World is a great overview of where the history field stands, and offers enlightening case studies ranging from digital participation, oral history initiatives, and community curation.

Wikipedia is just one of many platforms that can be better utilized to encourage open authority in museums. In fact it can be seen as both a “temple” (the main article) and a “bazaar” (the talk page.) The article talk page is a true digital forum where collective knowledge is brought together within a broad, global discussion. Adding curatorial expertise to this discussion will further enrich the information that is ultimately presented on the published article.  In fact, the Wikipedia articles themselves can be viewed as a sort of authority in flux, where the best version of the moment is presented for view while details are continually negotiated behind the scenes.  In this “temple” it is understood that no narrative is definitive, neutrality is the goal but bias is inherent, and interpretation is continuously improved through an abundance of perspectives. Might this be the new authority we need to embrace?

This is one vision of what open authority may look like, but there are many others out there. I’ve found that sometimes it takes defining something to see its potential.  I’d love to hear your ideas and examples of open authority in museums, from what can be done today to what we have to look forward to in the future.


9 Responses to “Defining Open Authority in Museums”

  1. Rachel Varon says:

    Hi Lori:
    I really enjoyed your post. You have a lot of interesting ideas here. I really like the Temple/Forum metaphor. I am wondering, where is the “with more eyes all bugs are shallow” quote from? I have never heard it before and I am curious as to what you mean.


  2. Hi Rachel!

    Great question & happy to elaborate. “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” was first published in Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and is attributed to Linus Torvalds, the developer known for establishing Linux. It’s also known as “Linus’ Law” and you can read all about it here:

    It basically means that, instead of just having a small group of individuals holed up trying to develop software (or, in my application – create an exhibit!), you will more easily discover all of the bugs or errors in your software (or interpretation! :) if you open it up to the masses and let everyone have a go. With more eyes, there are fewer errors.

  3. Steven Lubar says:

    Delighted that you’ve pulled together temple/forum and cathedral/bazaar. It really does put museums in a new light. But I wonder if “more complete representation of knowledge” is really appropriate for a museum. Might not clear points of view be more enticing? There are interesting differences between a neutral style, fine for an encyclopedia; a community curation, important for local cultures; and an expert curator, with a story to tell. All have their place, and the trick (and the art) is to know which to use, when…

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Steve! I do believe that a more complete representation of knowledge is appropriate for museums, but the trick will be the correct balance when, as you say, curatorial, community, and neutral points of view all have their place. I have hopes that museums in the future will find unique ways to incorporate all three, with each complimenting and influencing the other, but still remaining distinct (harkening to Cameron’s points in the Temple and the Forum.) I do agree it’s important to maintain clear points of view, which is why “authority” is still included in the concept of “open authority.” The trick will be how to make it less top-down which, as much as some have tried to change this, still remains the pervasive means of interpretation, with community dialogue often remaining on the periphery.

      I’m sensitive to the fact that these are sweeping generalizations regarding “today’s” museum and the “future” museum, which is why I’d love to hear about additional contemporary examples of this in action. (“Letting Go?” is a great start!)

  4. Rolin Moe says:

    Great post! A couple of questions:

    *Current museum spaces don’t leave a lot of room for negotiated or oppositional readings, to take terms from Stuart Hall’s “encoding/decoding.” I see the same sort of thing in Wikipedia; articles create a dominant narrative, and on occasion give credence to other views or schools, but those are embedded and not as developed. How can Wikipedia creators build more of those negotiated and oppositional readings into the artifact knowledge systems? The Mona Lisa page on Wikipedia has a small section for “speculation” and “legacy.” Legacy gets a bit into the cultural history of the artifact, but no one discusses feminist readings, religious readings, and the legacy only touches on the modern reading of the Mona Lisa. How do those voices rise up?

    *Your work reminds me of the research article “Becoming Wikipedian,” with a strong focus on the community of wiki creators. But taking from Wenger’s notion of a community of practice, the vast majority of Wikipedia users do not create, and the vast majority of Wikipedia creators do so on the periphery of the community. I agree with you that the talk pages of a Wikipedia article are often more engaging than the content, but so few users interact or are even aware of their existence. How do we promote open authority using such a platform? Are there other platforms that might do a better job?

    Thanks for the great read!

  5. [...] suggestion, from the MIDEA wing of the New Media Consortium, discusses the use of Wikipedia as a method to create community and interaction, through what is termed open authority, where there is a greater discussion among users of the [...]

  6. [...] Open authority is a new model in museum authority proposed by Lori Byrd Phillips in which a museum’s authority is (as it sounds) opened up to broader audiences and created with help from the public on open platforms. [...]

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  8. [...] July 9, 2011). 4. Lori Byrd Phillips, “Defining Open Authority in Museums,” MIDEA Blog (New Media Consortium, January 13, 2012). 5. “GLAM-Wiki US,” [...]

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