We live in an age of social engagement. Online and off, there is a growing interest to include as many voices within a conversation as possible. As an application of postcolonial theory, organizations and institutions (like museums, universities, cultural centers) are working to broaden their audiences and elevate marginalized voices with the hopes to rewrite history and deconstruct some of the systematic injustices that exist in the cultural and information sector.
Laura Carletti et al. present the different types of crowdsourcing models: correction and transcription contextualization (transcriptions, revisions, editing); complementing collection classification (adding tags or metadata to records); co-curation (actually curating, or writing, web exhibitions/publications); and crowdfunding (money). We can see many museums, art projects, and exhibitions utilizing one or more of these models. (See NYPL Public Projects, Anno Tate, Smithsonian Digital Volunteers, and the Smithsonian Social Media Policy, just to name a few)
I recently had a discussion with some colleagues about the purpose of crowdsourcing and the benefits (or not) of museums applying crowdsourcing models to their exhibitions, programs, and educational initiatives. it seemed that collectively we were hesitant to fully support crowdsourcing as an effective way to provide scholarly, accessible, and diverse information. I should note that we weren’t skeptical about the purpose of crowdsourcing, in fact we celebrate the museum’s effort to decentralize its scholarship. Yet, some of us began to worry about the integrity of art exhibitions/scholarship with the inclusion of non-experts or amateur critics. Is it practical to bring in as many voices as possible to curate an exhibition? In an effort to make art accessible to diverse communities, would anything be drowned out by all the voices?
Embarrassingly, I don’t know where I stand in this debate. In part, I am reminded of an earlier blog post “Decolonizing Digital Humanities,” in which I argue for crowdsourcing projects– to collect many different stories about one object to record a more complete understanding of its historical and social value. I still stand behind this goal, truly, and definitely recognize the value in plurality. But yet, when it comes to exhibitions– co-curated shows by the public– I remain skeptical. Would an exhibition that valued the voices of many be as intellectually rigorous than one created by a few experts? I don’t know. Could an exhibition do both– framed by the expert and amended by the public? Yes, of course. But what would that look like? Would the art be lost in the crowd?
My hesitation with crowdsourcing ultimately leaves me frustrated. I have preached decolonization and the value in uniting multiple voices, interpretations, and ways of seeing into one conversation. So why should I hesitate with the idea of a crowdsourced exhibition? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. But it is through my skepticism and frustration that I realize I should take a step back and recognize my preconceptions of museums, exhibitions, and art historical ‘scholarship.’ I was trained to think of the museum as the pinnacle of the academy– a presentation space for rigorous scholarship that challenged our understandings of art and society. But what does scholarship look like? Or rather, what could it look like? I am learning that perhaps arguments that live in complex and sometimes ambiguous zones are just as valid as definitive “2+2=4” arguments. That knowledge does not exist in the space of certainty, but rather in uncertainty as this space allows for growth and transformation. If museums (and the exhibitions they house) are supposed to be a space for knowledge (and, I should mention, a space accessible to all) then it wouldn’t make sense to expect a cut-and-dry approach to art– the empirical ‘truth.’ Instead the museum should be a space for dialogue— a participatory and open space in which ideas are exchanged, shared, and negotiated.
So should museums be crowdsourced? I still am not sure, but am excited at the possibility. Why? Because the participatory museums demands a new way of understanding the function of an institution as well as how knowledge is communicated, revised, amended, and transformed among multiple voices.