Sharing Authority

ŀshak Paşa Palace, Doğubayazıt; Ara Güler; silver gelatin print, 1965; Raymond A. Hare collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, A1989.03.3.9

ŀshak Paşa Palace, Doğubayazıt; Ara Güler; silver gelatin print, 1965; Raymond A. Hare collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, A1989.03.3.9

The topic on Wednesday was sharing authority, with a series of readings drawn mostly from museum contexts. Our conversation was wide-ranging, with significant time spent talking about museum education, the potential value (or lack of it!) of crowd-sourcing, public history, and whether there is or could be public art history.

Not surprisingly given the composition of our group, the focus of the conversation was on how this related to university contexts, both in terms of teaching practice and individual research priorities. As someone who spent 15 years as a university professor and still teaches occasionally, I loved the chance to hear from other group members about teaching resources and strategies that were new to me. I was disturbed by the extent to which some felt their research choices were driven by considerations of tenure and promotion, and the intellectual tension this causes them.

Had our group been more evenly divided between museum and university based scholars, I’m sure the day’s conversation would have been inflected very differently, and I would have liked the chance to participate in that discussion. The question of sharing authority is a fraught one in the museum world, and the readings for the day would have generated strong responses from museum practitioners.

I was struck by the extent to which the issue of sharing authority was framed as a matter of curatorial practice in much of what we read. While it is true that it is curators who have deep knowledge of the collection and primary responsibility for generating exhibition content, museum work is always collaborative and the final products bear the imprint of the entire team of designers, editors, art handlers, conservators, lighting designers, media specialists, educators and curators. A wish to change museum practice by one team member or group doesn’t easily translate into museum-wide change. I had first-hand experience of that recently.

In January 2013 I taught a course in the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. Through funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program can partner with local museums to offer courses allowing their students hands-on experience in exhibition projects. My course would begin the work for a small exhibition of the work of the well-known Turkish photojournalist, Ara Güler. After the students developed the exhibition concept and preliminary ideas for text, public programming and web features, the project migrated to the museum in May. Two students from the class worked on the project over the summer as interns. The exhibition, In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia, opened in December and closes this weekend. It was very well-attended and received a surprising amount of (very positive) press for an exhibition of its size.

The project also provided a good opportunity to test the sharing authority concept since this was the first time the museum had produced a student-curated exhibition. The project was strongly supported by the museum director whose only real desire was that the fact of the student curating should be obvious to the visitor. In other words, this exhibit should look and feel different than what we normally produce. But what did that mean, and how to accomplish it?

As with all exhibition projects, this one went through a series of review meetings. It was the curators who were especially helpful in brainstorming with us about how to make our exhibit stand apart from others in the museum. Essentially it came down to foregrounding the curatorial voice, in this case the students’ voices, and creating a much more direct dialogue with the visitor than our usual exhibition text allows.

This idea turned out to be a very hard sell with the editor and designer, who needed a lot of persuading to allow this non-standard mode of exhibition writing to go forward. In retrospect this is perhaps not so surprising: our museum has rigorous design parameters and is known for producing visually stunning and aesthetically compelling exhibitions. In a museum filled with high-achieving perfectionists, everyone finds it a challenge to let go of control over their part of the final product. In this case anyway, culture change of the magnitude described in the readings, even in small steps, is not a simple matter when so many people, long held values and entrenched practice are involved.

Source: Sharing Authority