Have museums always been “authoritative?”

April 30, 2014
Thinking about the concept of ‘authority’ in museums an how that idea manifests itself in daily practice.

OLD-ISH CONTENT WARNING: You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

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.

Image credit: Amerikaanse vogelkers (Prunus serotina), Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt, 1596 - 1610 from Rijksmuseum