Inspiring Open Authority Lori Byrd Phillips Nearly two years ago, I had my first opportunity to define the concept of open authority thanks to the New Media Consortium and the MIDEA blog. The premise — combining the authoritative knowledge of museums with community contributions via open dialogue — has brought together a growing contingent of museum professionals who are interested in reconciling traditional notions of authority and the current expectation for openness, transparency, and collaboration. While the framework for open authority is rooted in models associated with museum theory (“the temple and the forum”) and the open source movement (“the cathedral and the bazaar”), I knew that there had to be more to describing what open authority actually looks like. Much of my initial inspiration had revolved around user-generated content and online communities like Wikipedia. But I became more interested in how open authority would pan out within the physical museum space — lo and behold, my “a-ha” moment brought me back to education. I’m lucky to have spent one incredible year teaching two-year-olds in a Reggio Emilia-philosophy preschool. Reggio Emilia is an approach to early childhood education that’s dependent on learning being led by the interest of the child, rather than the design of the teacher, producing authentic learning experiences through ongoing, collaborative projects. Teachers support learning through respectful interactions, making connections to prior experiences, and creating opportunities for community collaboration. As any Reggio educator will tell you, the experience has deeply impacted my understanding of a child’s capacity to learn, collaborate, and most importantly, to educate the educator. The Reggio Emilia philosophy is inspiring, and requires far more than a single blog post to accurately illustrate its many facets. However, I’m going to point out three of the main Reggio Emilia principles in order to show how the approach might inspire a true representation of open authority within museum interpretation. Learning is led by the interest of the child. In a Reggio Emilia classroom, the teacher closely observes the children’s interests, and as a class, they form a project around that topic. Provocations are placed around the classroom, and together they dive deeper into a topic, such as “what is a robot?” Similarly, when open authority is fully applied to the museum, the community is involved before, during, and after the interpretation of a topic. Truly adopting visitor-led interpretation requires community participation in the early stages of exhibit design, and requires a means for their insights to be incorporated into the core of the exhibit — not as an afterthought. There is respect and cyclical learning between the teacher and student. In a Reggio Emilia classroom, the child’s participation is highly valued because their contributions are based on their personal identities and backgrounds. The teacher is learning just as much as the student. Topics are never dumbed down. You won’t see a cartoonish representation of an artwork — you’ll see a print of the actual artwork, and students discussing it. This creates a confident community of learners where all views are respected, and everyone is on an equal ground, no matter their age. When a curator approaches the interpretation of an exhibit on an equal footing with the visitor, it’s analogous to the preschool teacher stooping to the level of the student so that he or she isn’t towering over them. Instead, they’re eye-to-eye with the student, speaking not in a condescending tone, but in a normal cadence as they would with any adult. The community is extremely important. The Reggio approach was built on the premise of community coming together around the needs of the children. The respectful dialogue of the Reggio Emilia teacher–student relationship empowers the child, which builds a strong learning community among all of the students. The physical representation of the Reggio Emilia community is the atelier, or studio. The atelier extends learning outside of the classroom through an open-ended art space, which creates the free exchange of experiences, materials, and disciplines. This is very much like the museum envisioned as a forum or bazaar, where community members share, create, and dialogue equally and freely with the museum. But the community not only requires a space in which to participate — they must also feel empowered to do so. The integration of Reggio Emilia principles in museums is truly open authority in action. I feel that if this can occur with children in classrooms, why can’t we begin to apply these ideas of community, participation, and cyclical learning to adults in museums? When we do, it will result in renewed respect and understanding of our communities, as well as new perspectives and dialogue within the museum, which is ultimately the goal of open authority — making it better, together. Thumbnail cc by-nc-sa dirac3000; photos cc by-sa Lori Byrd Phillips Lori Byrd Phillips is a museum, Wikipedia, and social media strategist and researcher who defines and explores open authority in museums. She has a background in pre-primary and secondary education, and is the Digital Content Coordinator at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. She can be reached at loribyrdphillips.com/contact. Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.