I am a recent graduate of the public history graduate program at Rutgers University. I currently serve as the digital media coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, where I wrangle bloggers and tackle our social media platforms.
In the last two years I've created an oral history database using StoriesMatter for the Salem County Historical Society, collected data on school group attendance for the education department at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I've digitized the Balch Institute Ethnic Images in Advertising Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I volunteer at the Alice Paul Institute in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey and the Digital Center at HSP.
In my spare time I am often silly and irreverent.
So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?
Ed Rodley has gone and done it again. His latest blog post, “Natural’s Not In It” has given me a revelation in how to bridge two disparate thoughts I’ve had for awhile now—Open Authority and critical pedagogy.
About a year ago I had an “intellectual ah-ha moment” in which I realized that, “my opinions about social engagement in museums really do boil down to my views on education: just as the classroom should be shaped around student interests, the museum experience should be shaped by visitor interests.”
You can read the above post to see just how passionate I am about the Reggio-Emilia teaching model. Reggio is a progressive constructivist approach to pre-primary education that is dependent on learning being led by the interest of the child. Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” also deeply impacted my thoughts on the balance of power between teacher and student, and caused me to internalize the connection between didactic teaching methods and oppression. (It causes one to pause over the use of omniscient and authoritative voice in exhibit labels…) I feel strongly that non-hierarchical models, where the teacher-student remains equal in learning, should be integrated into the interpretation of cultural heritage in museums.
Ed’s post articulates this concept in a new way that is really helping me make the leap from critical pedagogy to open authority. He attempts to re-frame the convoluted exhibition-development process by looking at the term “inhibition,” which would presumably be the opposite of “exhibition.” I was confused by how “inhibiting” anything could be seen as positive, but things quickly became clear when the factor of “power” entered the picture (read: “authority,” if we’re overgeneralizing.)
Ultimately, the conclusion is that…
[exhibit developers should] be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space.
Ed has effectively turned my frame of reference for Open Authority on its head. I have always looked at Open Authority as a means of increasing the visitors’ power in order to have an equal voice in the interpretation within an exhibit. But I like Ed’s notion that authority within an exhibit is a zero-sum game, and raising everyone’s power level is implausible. Instead, Ed is positing that we take it down a notch.
Putting my two-year-old-teacher hat on (from bygone years), I look at this in a Reggio-esque way. An exhibit developer inhibiting their power within an exhibition is similar to how, as a 2’s teacher, I would stoop down to the level of my students so that I was not towering over them authoritatively. Instead, I was eye-to-eye with them, and speaking with them not in a sing-song-y, condescending tone, but in a normal cadence like I would with any other adult. Open Authority is not putting the child on stilts to increase their power, it’s stooping to their level so that we’re all on a level playing field.
This brings me back to Freire’s critical pedagogy, and the important point that dialogue with the oppressed [didactically instructed children/visitors] is essential to humanizing [empowering] them. For the museum professional, entering into this dialogue requires inhibiting our current power structures, and only then will we get closer to an Open Authority.
I’ll close on an interesting tidbit. The 40 pages of my thesis on Open Authority do not include Freire, in spite of his work deeply impacting my thinking on democratization in museums. I did, however, craft a paragraph linking the two thoughts in my earlier drafts (it just ended up on the editing room floor.) So here’s my first stab (written a year ago) at summarizing how critical pedagogy connects with Open Authority, even conveniently ending on a note of “empowerment”…
Philosopher Paolo Freire first framed the issues of authoritative voice by defining the re-humanization of the “oppressed” as the empowerment of the under-served through community dialogue and critical thinking (2000). While his revolutionary work targets the educational system, many correlations can be drawn to the museum field and the singular representations of peoples in exhibit narratives. At its very basic, Freire’s perspective reminds us to respect the learner and to not speak for them, but to let them learn for themselves while providing guidance along the way. Museums will do well to more fully implement this deeper form of constructivist learning, and in so doing become true forums for community dialogue. The purpose of the forum is to allow others to have a voice, and provides a means for reflection and critical dialogue, which Freire considers to be imperative to empowered learning (2000).
So thanks, Ed! I feel lucky to have colleagues who continue to challenge my thinking and help me to make sense of the fine, idea-connecting threads that get stronger as we weave together our (seemingly) errant thoughts.
I took my oral exam on Tuesday. One of my questions was to compare and contrast two methods of material culture analysis. So, I’m sitting in front of three professors on Tuesday, desperately to remember every detail of both Prown’s and Flemming’s models. Rather than ask the question as written. my professor (mentor, and boss) all nonchalantly pulled out an image of a porcelain doll excavated during a dig at Rutgers-Camden. Instead of just talking, I had to DO something. It was terrifying but also sort of amazing when I realized… I CAN DO THIS! I can totally do this. I got this.
And I did.
And I passed.
That’s a good moment. I hope everyone gets to have at least one of those moments in their lives.