Using a series of article with varied case studies, the book Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World explores how public history is dealing with issues of authority on the web, with community based programming, with oral history, and through contemporary art. In dealing with issues of authority the core questions of this work are: are these cultural changes fundamentally changing the relationship of the museum to the constituent, and how much will change and how much will stay the same? (pp 11-12)
In an attempt to make the shift toward more public authority less scary “Where are the best stories? Where is my story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age” by Steve Zeitlin and “Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age” by Matthew MacArthur both show how the ideas behind participatory and digital projects are not new but rather the technologies which allow the kind and scope of the change is new. This allows the changes to seem less threatening to staffs. In some ways I think that resistance from staff and the challenges this presents will lead to changes coming from outside the profession, as was the case in Benjamin Filene “Listening intently: Can StoryCorps Teach Museums How to Win the Hearts of New Audiences.” Perhaps this is the reason that Michael Frisch saw the same issues of authority and learning he dealt with the in ‘90s now being played out with digital tools in “From a Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back.” In the field of public history we still have not learned these core lessons of participation.
The idea of having to work within parameters of the staff could also be seen in two of the articles from the April 2012 conference titled “Museums and the Web 2012: The International Conference for Culture and Heritage Online.” “Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology,” by Robert Stein shows that many museums have been less successful than they could be because they do not adapt the digital strategy to the real world of museums. You need to understand that the nature museum funding and staff will lead to delays in embracing technologies. This is not about embracing outdated technology, but about choosing the tool that is the most practical for the museums’ reality and the staff’s willingness. “Social Media and Organizational Change” the three authors look at the examples of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH), Monticello, and the Getty each approached social media further reveals the power of staff. While each took different approaches to staffing social media projects either with new hires or existing staff, each of the sites found that building trust by educating staff on the tools, using the “center-edge model” where core employees to do most of the work and other employees as supplemental led to the most dynamic and active accounts, and that no matter what that social media experts need to be empowered to do the work for their institution. This makes it clear that staff willingness to participate is a key hurdle to a project’s success.
Within Letting Go? two projects seemed particularly successful at overcoming this obstacle. These were “The Black Bottom: Making Community Based Performance in West Philadelphia” by Billy Yalowitz and Pete Stathis, which looked at community performance and shared authority between Black Bottom residents and University of Pennsylvania students and staff, and “Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House If These Walls Could Talk” by Benjamin Filene, which looked at the bottom up and story driven exhibit from the Minnesota History Center.
In The Elements of Content Strategy Erin Kissane runs down the core principles and practices of the content strategy profession. These are broken down into three main parts: basic principles, the craft of content strategy, and tools and techniques. This book provided a nice continuation with the themes of last meeting’s Shirky readings. Namely, that old professions are dying out but that this is not a point of concern because new professions are emerging. That is the case with the job title “content strategist” which is a combination of marketing, information science, curation, and editing according to Kissane. In a lot of ways this book is most helpful as a guide for how to create space for a new profession before it is universally recognized enough to have professional standards, supportive organizations, or be a major in colleges and universities.
The remaining articles from “Museums and the Web 2012” provided something which was missing from the Kissane book: examples. In the article “Navigating the Bumpy Road: A Tactical Approach to Delivering a Digital Strategy” Carolyn Royston of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and Charlotte Sexton of the National Gallery (NG) show how their distinct museums created surprisingly similar strategies for creating digital content. In this way they emphasize the importance of creating clear, concise, and straightforward digital strategies to help for project creation and continued management of the site in the future. This, as well as their push for new staff positions devoted to digital content, fit with the recommendations of Kissane. However, unlike Kissane, they focused more on internal staff development than external user testing, which could reflect that they have already done user testing for other in-house and online projects. Also, they encouraged sharing across “peer organizations that are working on similar projects to benefit from shared experience and expertise.” (pp 9) Writing for the private sector, Kissane instead recommended more competition and less sharing.
In the article “From the Group Up (or the Inside Out): New Approaches in Digital Publishing” Sarah Hromack and Rachel Craft focus on the creation of publishing projects for museums. While they do push the importance of digital strategy, much of their article actually focuses on the steps before creating this strategy when “institutions… assess their needs and capabilities to support” the projects. (pp 11) While the case studies from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art show that there is no one route to successfully publishing online, they do show the importance of linking the goals of your publication to your institution as a whole and that museum staff should not resist these methods. They will add to traditional scholarship and create new kinds of visitorship, not lead to the end of traditional publishing or collections.