Why Exhibits Need Authors (plural)

Exhibits, as we’ve been discussing in class, are really products of their times, the cultural and historical moment in which they are created. They are not created (in the passive voice), real people create them (in the active voice). 

Exhibits have creators, they have authors, but museums rarely make any public acknowledgement of those people who had a plan, and who executed that plan and made it happen. There are several reasons why I think museums should credit their curators and staff, in the production of exhibits. These are: credit and attribution, accountability, and reflexivity. 

First, I think that the authors and creators, the people with the skills, knowledge, creativity and so on, need to be given credit for their labors in the production of exhibits. This is especially true, because even though curators as individuals sometimes get credit (this isn’t always publicly known, or accessible to find out), exhibits are the products of teams, not just individuals, as Alexander and Alexander have told us.  And the labor of all those members should be acknowledged. 

Have you noticed that the New York Times has changed how they show bylines? Many more stories have multiple authors, and at the bottom of a story, several additional people may be credited with “contributing reporting”. That’s part of the sea change in our culture that emphasizes how important all contributors are, not just the top billed or or highest ranked member of a team. This article, as a random example pulled off today’s headlines, has the following, very detailed, byline at the bottom: “Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from London. Stephen Castle contributed reporting from Brussels; Carlotta Gall from Kiev, Ukraine; and Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow.” Not only are all contributors credited (or at least that’s the impression they want to give), but their locations are offered as a way of supporting the contributions – the authority, access to sources, and expertise – of each author.

Here’s just one example of an exhibit with no authorship: Imperial Nature: Flora, Fauna, and Colonialism in India, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I happen to know the woman who was the primary curator, though I’m sure she wasn’t the only one working on or designing that exhibit. Her name is Risha Lee, and she has a profile page on the MIA website. But the exhibit page does not credit her as author, and her profile page doesn’t link to or even mention the exhibit. 

Second, I think that, as we understand museum exhibitions are contested, and they are specific to cultural and historical moments,  they incorporate the assumptions and biases of their authors, it is important to hold those authors accountable for the works they create.  Accountability means that there is a face and an identity, an embodied human person (or people) who are, and can be held responsible for the ways in which exhibits are produced.  Avoiding putting curators and staff members names on an exhibit, means these authors can hide and remain nameless in the face of controversy, or criticism.  

Lastly, I think that along side a public display of authorship, curators, as the authors (even auteurs) of exhibitions, should be encouraged to be reflexive about their role, their identities, their biases, and their influences in creating these exhibitions.  

As we move beyond the role of museums as authoritative structures that impart knowledge to the lowly and un-educated masses, towards an acknowledgement of multiple-voices in conversation,  the authors of the exhibits can and should make themselves known to the public they address. They, as curators and creators, should be made accessible to the public, and not hidden from view. Their backgrounds, experiences, identities are important for the public to understand, perhaps as important as the content themselves.

Such transparency in authorship would also make it clear when, for instance, museums are doing a good job of inviting community members, tribal authorities, or other stake-holders to participate, and when not.  If the Smithsonian puts together a new exhibit on the Lakota, how will we know whether or not they consulted tribal members, and if so, which tribal members, unless museums give them credit, and acknowledge their input? Shouldn’t those outside consultants get credit as well? 

Museums can never truly be considered as being in conversation with the public if they present themselves as monolithic entities, and faceless authorities on the exhibits they present.  Museum institutions are made up people, and those people deserve credit for their work, and the public deserves to know who they are. 

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Dramatic Trailer for the British Museum

Ok, so I guess I just inserted the dramatic movie trailer voice in my memories, which just goes to show how inaccurate memory really is. Maybe it would be cooler if the text were read in the movie trailer voice. In any case, this is a link to the British Museum page for their new exhibit “Ancient Lives”, where the video is embedded with some other interesting and useful pictures and links. 

But here’s the video, the main attraction, and I highly recommend you use the boxy button in the lower right hand corner to watch in full-screen mode. 

Welcome!

Welcome to the Beloit College Intro to Museum Studies Class Blog!

This will be the home of student posts, reviews, discussions, as well as comments and occasional posts by the professor (myself, Gwen Kelly).  Below are the instructions for how this blog will operate, and what you/the students are expected to do.

Goals: 

The blog for this course is intended to be an extension of and preparation for in-class discussions.  It is also a way to share the results of our projects, internet searches, and academic research, with each other, and with the wider community of Museum-auteurs.

Structure: 

The class will be broken up into three groups, A, B, and C, and each week you will rotate through different roles in contributing the class blog. Each week you will be either writer, editor, or commenter on blog posts. The deadlines are as follows:

Monday: Completed draft posts, on the subject for that week (by the group listed on the syllabus).

Wednesday: Completed edits and published posts.

Friday: Commenting group will read and reply to the published posts with thoughtful comments.

You will rotate through different roles in contributing the class blog. Each week you will be either writer, editor, or commenter on blog posts.

  • As writer you will be asked to do one of several kinds of blog posts, of around 500-1000 words:
  1. Critical reading response – an essay responding to some selection of the assigned readings for that week. What do the authors argue? How do they differ in their approach to the issues? What evidence and/or arguments do they use to support their position? What position do you take?
  2. Museum Exhibit Observation and Critique – an observational and critical essay based on your own visit to a museum exhibit.  Of all of the aspects, of display, informational plaques, audio-visual materials, community engagement, visitor experience and so on, what was done well in the exhibit, what was done poorly, and what would you do differently, and how?
  3. Review of an Online Resource – This may be a museum website, or other website dedicated to some aspect of ‘public’ history/archaeology etc., and/or ‘digital’ history/archaeology/humanities, etc., these might include blogs, home pages of researchers, research institutions, podcasts, youtube channels etc. You will consider how effectively these online/digital resources communicate with the public? Considering the same kinds of questions we evaluate for museums, how do these online resources compare? How would you change or improve the digital experience?
  4. Topic of your choosing – You must check with Prof. Kelly
  • As editor you will be required to read, edit, and revise (and work with the authors to revise) one of the week’s blog posts.
    • Things to read for include the coherence and structure, as well as spelling, grammar and punctuation.
    • For minor edits including spelling, grammar and punctuation, or word insertions and deletions, you as editor should make such changes yourself.
    • For content-related revisions,
  • As commenter you will be required to read and reflect on the posts of that week, and write a brief and thoughtful comment on each, of approximately 100-300 words.

Grades:

Your participation in the blog (in all three capacities) is worth a total of 25% of your grade. Each week you will earn a potential of 10 points, this is the same whether you are a writer, editor, or commenter.

Rubric: 

We will work together to develop the grading rubric for each role, to establish what will constitute the criteria which will be used to evaluate the blog contributions, and assign grades.