Have museums always been “authoritative?”

(Cross-posted from my Kinetic Museums Tumblr)

This guy looks pretty authoritative to me. From the Flickr Commons.

This guy looks pretty authoritative to me. From the Flickr Commons.

I’ve written about the concept of authority in museums here before, and it’s something I’m still grappling with. “Authority” is a word that we in museums use all the time without, I think, really knowing 1) if it’s something our public truly values or 2) if it even exists.

It would be interesting to do some research into the history of the use of the words “authority” and “authoritative” in museum discourse. It seems that at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, as museums entered a pretty severe identity crisis, we increasingly reached for the concept of “authority” as justification for our existence. I’d be curious to know if “authority” as a concept appears regularly in the literature in the pre-web days. Did we care about being “authoritative” before it conveniently became a thing that we and only we possess? I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s done a lot more research on this than me (which, um, wouldn’t be hard). I’d love to know more.

But more and more I’m bothered by this concept of “authority” in the way we use it. I kind of like the word trust more. Partially because trust is something you have to earn, whereas it seems like authority is something we feel that we’re owed as institutions, and I don’t think that’s healthy.

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  • Sheila Brennan

    From a very quick look at the ngram viewer and quickly reviewing those places where museum and authority are used together, it seems like the concept of a museum’s authority is grounded in discussions about representation of stories, voices, and collections in the late 80s, early 90s. And isn’t necessarily coming from within the museum profession itself talking about itself. That does make sense when we think about broader trends of cultural and post-modern criticism and theory of institutions and their construction taking place at this time. I agree that this is a good research project.

  • http://kovenjsmith.com Koven!

    Thanks, Shelia! That’s really interesting. I’m partially curious about this because I’m working with a group on a panel on Open Authority for MCN2014, and I realize that as we’re attempting to define what an “open” version of authority would look like, we don’t really (it seems to me, anyway) understand the concept of “authority” in a museum context. As someone who entered the field when this word was already being used all the time, it seemed to me like a concept that had been around for as long as museums themselves had been around, but it looks like that may not necessarily be the case.

  • Sheila Brennan

    You might want to search through back issues of Curator. I just tried this myself and found that I could do full-text searching, but don’t have access to the articles through my institution’s subscription. Perhaps a friend at a museum has access to the back issues.

    One thing that will be interesting to parse out is when museum professionals and their audiences become aware of the idea of authority and using it to define work the work done, that had mots likely been passed down by practices w/in the profession. I do think there is probably something happening in the late 20th century that relates to changes in exhibition design and the moving away from cases of objects to narratives that are highlighted with exhibits (not in all genres of museums).

    There are also most likely differences between the museum being seen as the authority and a curator being the authority on xx subject.

    I did see references to “museum authorities” in UK publications and those related to governing bodies overseeing museums. That might also be something to explore.

    I’m sure I can think of more ideas if you give me a night to think on it. ;-)

  • Sheila Brennan

    Reading something else, and it occurred to me that if you weren’t familiar with Michael Frisch’s book, A Shared Authority, about oral history and public history from 1990, that you might find it useful. I know we are passed M&W14 but in case you’re doing something further with your talk, here you go: http://www.sunypress.edu/p-766-a-shared-authority.aspx