The issue of trust comes up frequently when discussing visitor involvement in museums, and can be viewed from a couple perspectives. First is the trust that audiences have in museums. A “brand” such as the Smithsonian, where I work, commands a great deal of authority. Most museums play trusted roles in their communities, or aspire to do so. Some feel that inviting users to participate in substantive ways diminishes our ability to be authoritative – and in a way is an abdication of our duty.
An experience I had recently illustrates this point. My staff and I were talking to a group of interns here at the museum, explaining our program which oversees the Web site. We thought it would be good opportunity to toss around some ideas for the future of the site with this group of young, smart students who undoubtedly all had their own Facebook profiles and were otherwise immersed in the world of Web 2.0. However, when it came to notions of user-contributed content on the site, all we got were blank stares. A few of them explained to us that as users, they would be looking for authoritative information from the Smithsonian, not input from other users or opportunities to participate. This group of aspiring museum professionals may not be a representative sample, but it definitely provided food for thought.
The flip side of the coin is the ability of museums to trust their users to be collaborators and co-creators. Bloggers have been talking about this point for some months now – see for example posts by Jim Spadaccini, Seb Chan, and Jennifer Trant. One of the interesting points they make is that loosening institutional control over our content, while it may have distinct benefits, also entails risks. To invite the possibility of someone posting mistaken, misleading, or offensive material under our banner is a big step to take. Other collaborative online spaces have been grappling with these issues for a while now and have come up with a variety of self-regulatory mechanisms that can serve as models.
I’ll explore this issue further in future posts – but meanwhile, I’ll throw these questions out there: if museums were more collaborative ventures, how would that affect mutual relationships of trust? Is user participation counterproductive to our mission, or essential to it?