Is your audience contributing to your permanent exhibitions? Should they?

It’s refreshing that in an age when “interactivity” seems synonymous with “hi tech,” (see post below!) Museums still find ways to engage simply with pen and paper.  This has long been true with younger audiences of course, with carts, activity rooms, etc.  An inspiring reminder of audience input comes from a recent story in the newsletter of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.  In preparing for their new 22,000 sf permanent exhibition to open in 2010, the Museum’s exhibition designers mounted a show asking for substantial feedback from visitors on a range of topics.  The staff did not avoid difficult issues, as so often happens, as the questions range from “Should the U.S. always support Israel’s policies?”  “Is it fair for rabbinical seminaries to refuse to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis?” Does intermarriage represent the triumph of American pluralism?”  

 NMAJH2       NMAJH1

But the bigger issue is one that seems to resurface again and again, that of “authority” and the blurring of lines between the Museum’s authority, and the perceived authority of its visitors to create and contribute their own perspectives, and the expectation that they’ll be taken seriously.  There seem to be a few common responses to this issue in the meetings I attend – either flat out resistance, the argument that a Museum can present both equally without harm, and the idea that, in a few years as the YouTube generation becomes full blown professionals, it won’t matter – all the content will be fluid and democratic.  What do you think? 

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