Letting Go | Shared Authority in the Digital Age

Featured image courtesy of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage

Long before a defiant Elsa belted out her signature song from her ice palace, public historians have been engaged in a conversation about “letting go.” To the authors of the 2011 book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, the phrase means “letting go of the notion… that one can or should control all outcomes in the museum” (13). The experience should instead be one that the public is actively involved in creating, one in which the public shares authority.

There are certain limits to shared authority in a physical museum; staff cannot, for instance, allow visitors to handle important artifacts. Yet the stuff of a curator’s nightmare may be the digital humanist’s dream. The web is a place where letting go and sharing authority take on new meaning, a place where participation and preservation can coexist. In this blog I’d like to wander into this wonderland and explore just a few of the ways that the web can and should break down institutional authority. While the most obvious connections here are to born digital materials, there are lessons to be learned about digitized collections as well.

Public and digital historians must let go of traditional assumptions about preservation. 

Storage, as Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart point out in Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, can do more harm than good when it comes to born digital materials. When stowed away, technologies obsolesce, bits decay. Ippolito and Rinehart offer several recommendations for better ways to preserve new media art, and it is clear that the digital community has begun to implement these ideas. The authors of “Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections,” for instance, discuss the acquisition and preservation of the app Planetary, which is being preserved, in part, using open sourced code that allows the public to interact with and change the code. This ensures that the app will live on as it is adapted, updated, and shared. This challenges not only traditional preservation practices, but also the ways historians engage the public, inviting a truly immersive and interactive experience.

Public and digital historians must let go of control of the exhibit experience.

This is precisely the message that the authors of Letting Go? want to send, but the web can take this to a new level. In a physical exhibit, planners can predict, to some degree, visitor experiences. In many cases, for instance, they can determine the order in which guests will move through the exhibit. They can wager that large objects prominently placed will attract at least a glance.

On the web, all bets are off. Hypertext and search capabilities mean that the exhibit experience never has to be linear, and probably never is. With no admission fees or time constraints, visitors can browse and bookmark, enter and exit at will. Public historians need to embrace this – to create exhibits that respond to and enable these behaviors. Unfortunately, as Sheila Brennan points out in “Getting to the Stuff,” despite the movement to share authority on the web, “there still seems to be little effort to… explore the ways that evidence can be interpreted in different ways, that ultimately encourage visitors to learn to look, compare, contextualize.”

Yet there are many tools at a historian’s disposal to do just that – Omeka, for instance – and plenty of available advice. In “A Draft Style Guide for Digital Collection Hypertexts,” for instance, Trevor Owens offers some useful guidelines for what he calls “online exhibition-ish pages for the web.” According to Owens, exhibits should anticipate the ways that users interact with the Internet – creating labels that can stand alone and using hyperlinks to connect concepts, for instance. Historians can use these techniques to create meaningful online experiences, letting go of the ways an exhibit functions. 

Public and digital historians must let go of the notion that digital interactions are less meaningful than human ones.

MuseumBot copy

The Met’s @MuseumBot shows off a delightful “figure.”

They must, in other words, share authority with the Internet. As insane as that might sound, letting go of the assumption that, in Tim Sherratt’s words, “experiences mediated through online technologies are somehow less authentic than those that take place in this space that we often refer to as ‘the real world,’” opens some fascinating doors for historians. MuseumBots, for instance, are able to randomly select and share objects from a museum’s collection, exposing the public to artifacts that a curator may never have otherwise shared or put on display. Truly letting go in the digital world means ceding control not only to the public, but to the medium used to reach it.

Thus, while historians have long talked about letting go and sharing authority, the web is a game changer. In fact, I would argue that there is no authority to share online, because the Internet is a great equalizer, where everyone is a consumer, a creator, and a participant. Public and digital historians must earn authority by creating spaces that respond to and explore new possibilities on the web. I’ve tried to avoid any more references to Frozen, but here’s one for the road: it’s time to “test the limits and break through.”


5 thoughts on “Letting Go | Shared Authority in the Digital Age

  1. ar5249a says:


    I really enjoyed this post. Particularly the connection to our readings from Public History Seminar. Also, this connection is what I was trying to hint at with my take away in class last week.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your idea that “[t]he web is a place where letting go and sharing authority take on a new meaning, a place where participation and preservation coexist.” As much as public historians believe in collaboration, there are these certain limits that prevent the collaboration between museum professionals and the public. I think that digital collections provides a remedy for this issue and allows the public and professionals to truly share authority and collaborate without harming certain aspects, such as collections.


    • giamje01 says:

      Anna, thanks for your comment! I’m glad the post resonated with you, there really are so many connections to the kind of things we talk about in public history. I have said so many times over the past few semesters that all historians should do public history, I think now I’m starting to also believe that all public historians should do digital history, even if that only means having an understanding and appreciation for what can happen online.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ch3825a says:

    Jen–this is such a nice break down of the key arguments raised in the readings for this week. The section where you talk about public and digital historians letting go of control of the exhibit experience seems like something you and your Practicum team had to anticipate as you were designing your online exhibit, Business of Beauty. How did you plan for the nonlinear online visitor experience? How did you “let go” of the way an offline exhibit normally functions?

    Likewise, I found it really thought-provoking when you said, “truly letting go in the digital world means ceding control not only to the public, but to the medium used to reach it.” Do you think this means that historians have to start from scratch to establish their cultural authority on the web, even though our cultural authority in “the real world” is well determined?


    • Jen Giambrone says:

      Thanks for your comment, Chelsea! “Letting go” certainly did come into play when we were working on the Business of Beauty project. There wasn’t a ton of flexibility, but we did try to write labels that could stand on their own, we wrote everything with the assumption that a given object/label might be the only thing someone would view. It was definitely a challenge to also connect these labels to the big idea, to accomplish both narrative arc and stand-alone-ability. We also started a conversation with the museum about ways that visitors could potentially tell their own stories through the website, that discussion will hopefully be ongoing!

      I would absolutely agree that historians need to establish their cultural authority on the Internet by creating products that respect both visitor needs and the nature of the web. With so many creators of digital content, museums need to work to stand out among other history sources (Wikipedia, or @HistoryInPics, for instance). I think that unless historians truly begin to take advantage of the possibilities of digital history, they cannot claim any real authority or superiority.


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