Defining Open Authority
Saturday, November 23, 2013
I’m going to take some time to define the term Open Authority, which a...
Open Authority isn’t cut and dry. The reason we’re all here is because we’re still
defining it.
I think that there’s reall...
So I’m going to break this down into three main elements of Reggio Emilia
Starting with a focus on the interests of the ch...
The Portland Children’s Museum is one of the best examples of Reggio Emilia
applied in a museum setting.
The museum includ...
But Reggio is just something to possibly aspire to. Really you're probably already
embracing open authority, you just may ...
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Defining Open Authority: Museum Computer Network 2013 [NOTES]


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NOTES for the presentation "Defining Open Authority" presented as part of a full panel on Open Authority in museums at the Museum Computer Network in Montreal, 2013. Other panelists include Ed Rodley, Jeffrey Inscho, Porchia Moore, and Elizabeth Bollwerk.

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Defining Open Authority: Museum Computer Network 2013 [NOTES]

  1. 1. Defining Open Authority Saturday, November 23, 2013 I’m going to take some time to define the term Open Authority, which as Ed pointed out isn’t really a new idea at all – we’re just moving it forward. I’ll also take a first stab at establishing a “spectrum” of Open Authority, And provide some inspiration for the future I’ll then end with a list of elements of an Open Authority project. When I first began my master’s research there was a buzz in the air over usergenerated content and what this means for museums. And, on the user-side, it was really excited buzz, but on the traditional museumist side it was more like digging heels in— the museum’s authority should be final. So I became interested in figuring out, How can museums best integrate visitor contributions and still maintain our authority. The start of my answer came in 2011 when Rob Stein described the state of authority in museums, pointing out that museums should remain authoritative in their expertise, but avoid being authoritarian. They should move away from being this omniscient voice or the final “truth.” Instead, the museum professionals should be at the center of an open discussion with the public. Again, authoritative, not authoritarian. So, authority isn’t all bad. It’s needed. This increase in user-generated content has really made the role of the museum’s authority even more important. There’s so MUCH information out there, that someone needs to sift through it all and take part in the conversation. The “open” in Open Authority is influenced by the open source movement, where everyone is free to adapt and improve software in a decentralized way. An important principle in the open source community is, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Or, The more people you have looking at a problem, the more quickly you’ll find a solution. You can’t do this without giving up some level of control and sharing authority. So I define open authority as the coming together of museum expertise and community contributions. “Openness” is needed to remain active players in our insanely collaborative world. “Authority” is needed to bring expertise and context to all of that user-generated content. Basically, that means it’s not all or nothing. It’s not that the museum is necessarily always right, or that the crowd is always right, It’s that we can make it even better, together.
  2. 2. Open Authority isn’t cut and dry. The reason we’re all here is because we’re still defining it. I think that there’s really a spectrum of Open Authority, with many possible engagement models, beginning with more conservative approaches (often what museums are doing now) and leading to a more progressive approach. Mia Ridge recently pointed out an existing model for categorizing public participation in projects, and I’ve borrowed it for this spectrum of Open Authority. So more conservative projects are... Contributory, where the public contributes data to a project designed by the organization. The spectrum then moves on to... Collaborative, where the public helps refine project design, with the project still led by org. At the far end of the spectrum is... Co-Creative, where the public can take part in all processes, and all parties design the project together. Generally the spectrum is moving from being Less transactional to more transactional and Interactive with less dialogue to increasingly more dialogue Here is my first stab at some examples. Noting that this is all up for interpretation. I’d say that contributory projects are often what we consider crowdsourcing. In Mia’s clear definition, Crowdsourcing involves asks directed toward a shared goal that cannot be done automatically, and they have inherent rewards for participation. Generally speaking, crowdsourcing can be: Voting, Tagging, Identifying objects, Transcribing documents. Community Sourcing is a more nuanced approach to crowdsourcing, and involves bigger asks made of a more committed, loyal community Community sourcing can include Memory Sharing, Community Blogging, Idea Generation and Dialogue, or Sharing Media And at the end of the spectrum is true participatory interpretation, or co-creation. I’m going to spend the rest of my time talking about the Reggio Emilia educational approach as a model for this more extreme version of Open Authority. It really all comes down to “what does Open Authority look like?” Well we’re going to share a few current examples and perspectives on open authority coming up, but I wanted to describe for you what I believe to be the most perfect, perhaps extreme, representation of open authority. As I describe the Reggio approach, try to envision what it would mean for all visitors in museums (not just children in classrooms). Reggio is an approach to early childhood education that is dependent on learning being led by the interest of the child, rather than the design of the teacher, producing authentic learning experiences through ongoing, collaborative projects. Teachers supports learning through respectful interactions, making connections to prior experiences and creating opportunities for community collaboration.
  3. 3. So I’m going to break this down into three main elements of Reggio Emilia Starting with a focus on the interests of the child In a Reggio Emilia classroom the teacher closely observes the children’s interests and as a class they form a project around that topic. Provocations are placed around the classroom & together they dive deeper into a topic, like “what is a robot?” When open authority is fully applied to the museum, the community is involved before, during, and after the interpretation of a topic. In museums, truly adopting visitor interest-led interpretation requires community involvement in the early stages of exhibit design, and requires a means for their insights to be incorporated into the core of the exhibit. Like in a Reggio classroom, the community should be involved before, during, and after the process. Also key to the Reggio approach is the notion of respect and cyclical learning between teacher and student The child’s participation is highly valued because their contributions are based on their personal identities and backgrounds. The teacher is learning just as much as the student. Topics are never dumbed down. You won’t see a cartoon-y representation of an artwork. You’ll see a print of the actual artwork, and students discussing it. This creates a confident community of learners where all views are respected and everyone is on an equal ground, no matter their age. When a curator approaches the interpretation of an exhibit as if they will be on an equal footing with the visitor, it is analogous to the preschool teacher stooping to the level of the student so that she is not towering over them. Instead, they are eye-to-eye with the student, speaking not in a condescending tone, but in a normal cadence as they would with any adult. The Reggio approach was built on the premise of community coming together around the needs of children. The respectful dialogue of the Reggio Emilia teacher–student relationship allows the children to be empowered, which builds a strong learning community among all of the students. The physical representation of the Reggio Emilia community is the atelier, or studio. The atelier extends learning outside of the classroom through an openended art space, which creates the free exchange of experiences, materials, and disciplines. This is very much like the museum envisioned as a forum or bazaar, where community members share, create, and dialogue equally and freely with the museum. So the atelier may provide some inspiration for a community space in your museum.
  4. 4. The Portland Children’s Museum is one of the best examples of Reggio Emilia applied in a museum setting. The museum includes the Opal School and the Center for Learning, which is made up of a private preschool and a public charter school for ages 3 through 11. The school is physically within the museum and uses art spaces, outdoor areas, and exhibits, in addition to their own classrooms designed to implement the Reggio approach. They describe their teaching method as “a pedagogy of listening and relationships.” This is an example of Reggio applied within the museum. The students were tasked with creating a new exhibit space, so they framed it around the question, “What makes a good place to read?” and they decided together that a cozy treehouse was the way to go. The exhibit design was totally led, and then implemented, by the students. This process is well documented in the space. Susan Mackay is the Director of the Museum Center for Learning. When she took me through the museum she said something that really stuck with me. She said ‘We have to participate as a community, together, in order to get a full perspective. At Opal School the children learn this at a young age; we’re building empathy from the beginning’. I thought this sign perfectly summed up the peaceful, respectful environment of a Reggio classroom. It’s an invitation to an event that says, “We would love if you could come! (It’s okay if you can’t.) Love, Opal School.” But if this was an invitation to open authority I’d add, “..BUT you really should.” So all of this to say, the Reggio approach is a pretty spot-on model for museums to increase open dialogue with our communities. If we’re already doing this with kids in classrooms...why not with adults in museums?
  5. 5. But Reggio is just something to possibly aspire to. Really you're probably already embracing open authority, you just may not realize it. Here are some elements of Open Authority to be cognizant of so you can really hone in on making your next project truly open authority. Access to Expertise& Community Participation We’ve already talked about Open Authority being a combination of institutional expertise and community contributions. So these are the first two, basic elements. A Platform You then need a platform or a method for your community to engage with you. It could be an existing platform (Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia) or a created platform on your website or elsewhere. Content to Engage With You also need content or a topic that motivates your community to participate. If this content is able to be “open” –that’s even better and can increase participation. Shared Control and Dialogue You can’t just provide the means for a participatory project and then walk away. The museum should be a continued part of the conversation, creating a transactional dialogue. What there can be more of is shared control over the project, from start to finish. The community should have a sense of ownership, right alongside the museum. A focus on process, not product Trevor Owens has written about the importance of the process, not the product. Early on with crowdsourced projects, the focus was on the end result (x number of letters transcribed), when the more valuable aspect had become the community and the process behind that product. Evidence of Collaboration Throughout the project, there should be some way of illustrating that the community played a key role. If in the end the museum takes credit, then that defeats the purpose of open authority. Be proud of that collaboration. Ultimately, we’ve already come far in opening up to our audiences, but the possibilities really are endless. Now, onward to some real-life examples of open authority.