class="column onecol"

Authority and Museum Education

I opened AAM’s recent issue of Museum News (November-December 2011) and was immediately drawn to Eric Ledbetter’s essay (opinion piece?) “Let Us Now Praise Museum Authority” (p. 21). Part of what drew me to the page was the words Excellence and Equity in the first sentence, words that all museum educators instantly zero in on.

Imagine my surprise then, when I read that Erik Ledbetter was holding museum education responsible (and not in a good way) for the anti-authority movement in museums. He writes: “Over the last few years, I’ve been more and more troubled by one such mixed consequence of the educational revolution: museums’ growing discomfort with their own curatorial authority.” WHAT? Who knew we had this much power? And as an aside, I love it when people imply that education is on one side of the museum arena, and curatorial on the other, as if we couldn’t possibly have both.

To Mr. Ledbetter, and anyone else confused about the Cultural Revolution called the Internet: social media is responsible for museums’ growing discomfort with their own curatorial authority. Before social media, museums created and distributed knowledge about their collections to the public in a one to one transaction. Social media has allowed others to join the creation and distribution of knowledge, enabling a many to many transaction. There are plenty, myself included, that think that the community knowledge generated by social media doesn’t take authority away from curators, but rather adds value to it. If any of you has doubts about this (Mr. Ledbetter), I urge you to read Angelina Russo’s paper on the matter –

Let me take up this issue of authority for a minute. I am not against authority, far from it. (See also my blog of March 2011 on Museums and Social Media) In fact, in my training as an educator, I learned that denying authority is a dangerous business. Consider the teacher who convinces her students that she is their best friend, and then turns in her student who she caught smoking in the bathroom. Result: everyone is confused. Consider the docent who clearly has the answer to the question she poses to her tour group, but pretends that she doesn’t in order to “promote” conversation (this one makes me especially crazy). Consider the parent who cannot bring themselves to ground the child who obviously should be grounded, because the parent is more worried about being a pal to the child than in claiming their authority in order to do right by the child. In my book, curators are authorities on the museum collections they work with, and educators are authorities on learning in museums, onsite and increasingly online. But while authority shouldn’t be denied it, can be shared, and there is more than one way of knowing about something. Enter social media.

Back to Mr. Ledbetter, who ends his Museum News piece imploring us to let our curators’ record audio tours, “Schedule those evening gallery talks,” and “Offer a pamphlet in the gift shop…” Who does Ledbetter think schedules those gallery talks, creates those pamphlets and audio tours? For crying out loud it’s us, not the curators! Now I’m mad at AAM. Couldn’t an editor work with this guy? Why is the professional publication that is supposed to serve us so completely clueless about our roles and contributions?

Let me not get too sidetracked by Museum News. Here’s my main point: curatorial and education need each other. If curators didn’t create exhibitions, what exactly would we educators do? Without educators many curators would publish their scholarly research in obscure journals, and the public would never get the benefit of their knowledge. Curators’ focus on the collections, education focuses on the public. When the two work hand in hand the visitor is the one who benefits, even in this world of social media.