Episode 3

3. Museum Authority in a World of User-Generated Content with Seb Chan

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About this Episode

As one of the nation's most-trusted category of institutions, museums project an enormous amount of authority over their subject matter. In this episode, Seb Chan, Director of Digital & Emerging Technologies at Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, talks about the ways that museums can share that authority with museum visitors comfortable with a less top-down approach to authority.

For discussions on how museum's got to amass so much authority, stay tuned to Museum Archipelago.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 3. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.


When we walk into a museum, we trust that the objects laid out across the table are done so with some expertise. Who gets to decide where those objects go? In a school, the teacher is the authority. In a household, the parent might be the authority. And sometimes the museum can lend the parent some authority.

Seb Chan: When I was working in a science museum, we would always talk about making sure that the labels had enough nuggets for the parents to feel smart.

This is Seb Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Media at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

Seb Chan: The kid would ask, "What is that, mom? What is that, dad?"

Seb Chan: And mom or dad would look at the label and they would need to be able to glean, in a second or two, two or three main points about that thing and one that would make them seem really smart to their kid.

That's delightful.

Seb Chan: And it was a tactic that you know you employ in museums because you're not designing it for the kid to read, you're designing it for the parent to read, and the parent needs to feel that they are smart in conveying this information to their child. They also need to feel that they can trust that.

Our topic today is museum authority, specifically museum authority in a world increasingly comfortable with user generated content. Our story begins in 1994 at the National Air and Space Museum. The museum plans and exhibit on the Enola Gay to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Critics of the planned exhibit, particularly U.S. Veterans Groups charge that the exhibit focused too much attention on the Japanese casualties inflicted by the atomic bomb rather than on the motivations of the bombing or the discussion of the bomb's role in ending the conflict with Japan. Who gets to decide? In the earlier age, this decision is simple, it's the authority of the state. The official reason for dropping the bomb was what would be reflected in the museum. In 1994, you had the debate over the moral and military reasons for dropping the bomb play out in the context of an exhibit that hadn't opened yet. The Smithsonian canceled the exhibit and the Director of the National Air and Space Museum resigned.

Seb Chan: I mean, the Enola gay at the Smithsonian is one of the canonical examples in museum studies. I mean, everyone who studies museums looks at that and looks at it almost as a cautionary tale of what happens in a politicized situation.

This is Seb Chan again.

Seb Chan: But I think what is important going forward and particularly in a time where more people have more voices and we can hear global perspectives. There are alternatives to traditional mainstream media. There are alternative political viewpoints available to us, perhaps not always accessed and utilized, but available to us at least. Museums more than ever need to be confident in presenting and arguing potentially controversial and difficult subject matter and they need to stay the course, I think.

Why I like this story is that the controversy happened before the idea of user generated content was widespread. What would it look like today? Today, many museums allow visitor input. It doesn't have to be fancy. Sometimes it's a pile of pens and the stack of sticky notes on which visitors are invited to write about the memories of the Kennedy assassination like they are at the Newseum in Washington D.C. Sometimes it's a more elaborate system like the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City where visitors' stories are displayed elegantly on the wall. We call this a participatory museum, but where does the authority come from in a participatory museum? Surely, we don't want the person next to us telling us about history. We don't want the creationists telling us about how evolution works.

Seb Chan: And I was thinking about this when I was traveling through Arizona and Utah, traveling through those areas, and I came to the Natural History Museum in Utah, a fabulous museum, one of the best museums with fossils and dinosaur skeletons. And you think about that area and you think about the deep time that is evident as you pass through it, and the museum is providing tangible proof for evolution and tangible proof for a very old earth.

So there is authority in the size of an exhibit space. Thinking of exploring a giant virtual world, I asked Seb about authority in video games. Perhaps there is some authority in the game system. It certainly feels super special when you find a hidden room or a secret passageway in an environment.

Seb Chan: A player who gets immersed in a game, tries to figure out the rules, and so when I'm playing a video game or I watch my kids playing video games, they are testing the boundaries of the world and trying to figure out how the rules work in it and how to figure out the story, how to figure out the story and the game mechanically. The museum is itself like a video game. There's a series of rules and once you learn the rules of the museum, you can understand it, you can have a mastery of playing museum. You can learn the words that art curators mean when they say things on those object labels. You can interpret that. That's mastery of museums. You can do exhibitions well, you can understand what a non kind of linear narrative really means.

Seb Chan: I think it's actually very hard to build a mastery of museums because museums don't often consciously worked towards making those rules explicit in a way that visitors can understand them.

A participatory museum can also be thought of as analogous to Web 2.0, the idea that software gets better the more people use it. But Nina Simon, Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and the author of the book, The Participatory Museum, argues that participatory museums only get half of Web 2.0 right. She says that there are two tent poles to Web 2.0. The first is that users do something that generates information like uploading a picture or editing a post. This is what museums do now by allowing visitors to upload their own experiences. The second tent pole of Web 2.0 is that the system adapts to those changes to create a better experience. Think of how YouTube will always generate a new recommendation, a recommendation compelling enough for you to click on. Museums don't make it clear how the information you're uploading will be used. Nina Simon says that's as if Netflix encouraged its users to rate movies they've seen but not provide better recommendations based on their input.

Without the second tent pole of Web 2.0, the majority of visitors, the visitors who don't think they have anything to add, are underserved by the exhibits that invite you to add your own voice. Who wants to drop a slip of paper into a comment box? But now let's imagine a share your own story exhibit that acts in the way that we're already comfortable with acting on the web. The most interesting stories would land at the top providing a much better experience for the majority of visitors who have no intention of adding something to the conversation. So let's take this one step further. Instead of just being able to rate user contributions, there's now a robust tagging system, the type that museum visitors have already been comfortable with on the web for over a decade.

For our modern day and Enola Gay exhibit, let's picture this tagging system. Users can add whatever they want, whatever opinions they have, and thanks to rating and tagging, the opinions slowly organize themselves along axis from pro atomic weapon to anti atomic weapon. Like video games, the authority in the museum should come from users trusting the system, not the institution itself. Wikipedia has authority because we trust the way the system works, not because we trust the people contributing to it. There's no reason why museums should be any different. If your job is to display only one quote, you have to choose a well rounded quote. How do you choose a well rounded quote for dropping an atomic bomb? But if you display multiple extreme points of view, you won't have a well rounded quote, but you will have a well rounded exhibit.

This has been Museum Archipelago.