What is museum authority and why do we need to think about it now?

The demands of the “information age” have raised new questions for museums. It has been argued that museums need to move from being suppliers of information to providing usable knowledge and tools for visitors to explore their own ideas and reach their own conclusions because increasing access to technologies, such as the internet, ‘… have put the power of communication, information gathering, and analysis in the hands of the individuals of the world’ (Freedman, 2000, p.299). Freedman also argued that museums should become mediators of information and knowledge for a range of users to access on their terms, through their own choices, and within their own place and time.

Research has found that visitors appreciated the role museums could play as authoritative, trusted and credible sources of information, and that they were accessed by a wide range of people (Cameron, 2006; Ellenbogen, 2002; Falk, Brooks & Amin, 2001; Lake Snell Perry & Associates, 2001). In research conducted looking at controversial topics it was found that visitors welcomed museums having exhibitions and programs on these kinds of topics as long as they could comment on them somehow (Kelly, 2006). At the time that research was undertaken the Internet was in early stages of development, a Web 1.0 environment with a primary focus on access to information (Seely Brown & Adler, 2008). Since that time the Internet has opened up a whole new way of engaging users, with Web 2.0 now giving access to people – where those with common interests can meet, share ideas and collaborate. Seely Brown and Adler feel that the most profound impact of the Internet is ‘… its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning” (2008, p.18) and therefore, I suggest, to solve problems together.

In the most recent edition of the Exhibitionist, Daniel Spock discussed whether museum authority is ‘... up for grabs ... or following a long trend line’. He notes that museums have always been participatory spaces, however, I believe that now the ground rules have shifted due to Web 2.0. Daniel also makes the pertinent point that ‘If you invite people to really participate in the making of a museum, the process must change the museum’ (2009, p.7, emphasis in original). Audience research has long been the way museums can invite and encourage participation, and the new tools of the web (such as Facebook and Twitter) can enable a more transparent two-way dialogue between museums and their audiences, as Ellis and Kelly (2007) stated ‘Web 2.0 puts users and not the organisation at the centre of the equation. This is threatening, but also exciting in that it has the potential to lead to richer content, a more personal experience’.

Many years ago now, Stephen Weil said that museums need to transform themselves from ‘… being about something to being for somebody’ (p.229, emphasis in original), and Spock notes that addressing this may be hard as ‘... a museum has to be willing to both listen and change’ (p.8). In my view, social media provides the perfect vehicle to take this further, with the museum being about doing with somebody and well as being for somebody.


  • Cameron, F. (2006). Beyond Surface Representations: Museums, Edgy Topics, Civic Responsibilities and Modes of Engagement. Open Museum Journal, 8.
  • Ellenbogen, K. (2002). Museums in Family Life: An Ethnographic Case Study. In G. Leinhardt & K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 81-101). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Ellis, M., & Kelly, B. (2007). Web 2.0: How to Stop Thinking and Start Doing: Addressing Organisational Barriers. In J. Trant & D. Bearman (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.
  • Falk, J., Brooks, P., & Amin, R. (2001). Investigating the long-term impact of a science center on its community: The California Science Center L.A.S.E.R. Project. In J. Falk (Ed.), Free-Choice Science Education: How We Learn Science Outside of School (pp. 115-132). New York: Teacher's College Press, Columbia University.
  • Freedman, G. (2000). The Changing Nature of Museums. Curator, 43(4), 295-306.
  • Kelly, L. (2006). Museums as Sources of Information and Learning: The Decision-Making Process. Open Museum Journal, 8.
  • Lake Snell Perry & Associates. (2001). Americans Identify A Source of Information They Can Really Trust. Washington: American Association of Museums.
  • Seely Brown, J., & Adler, R. (2008). Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE, January/February, 17-32.
  • Spock, D. (2009). Museum Authority Up for Grabs: The Latest Thing, or Following a Long Trend Line? Exhibitionist, Fall ‘09, 6-10.
  • Weil, S. (1999). From being about something to being for somebody. Daedalus, 128 (3).