Decentered authority, egalitarian participation, and VGC in archaeology

By Dominic Walker

University of Cambridge

My research contributes to the growing body of literature on collaborative, decolonizing and decentering theory and practice in archaeology. To date, the literature addressing this new programmatic debate has neglected the application and translation of decentered archaeologies in museums, and more crucially public engagement with decentered expertise. However, the public primarily encounters archaeology in museums and persistently regards them as possessors of authority and places within which they may encounter ‘facts’ about the past. Alongside the adoption of a range of postmodern theories and practices in exhibition development and collections management, the use of participatory/social media technologies by museums has further challenged the authority of traditional disciplines like archaeology.

My thesis explores how decentered theory is translated into exhibitions, applied online (e.g. through participatory technologies), and how the museum-visiting public encounters disciplinary authority. A number of inter-related primary questions frame this research. Firstly, how/why should archaeological expertise be realigned, and whom should archaeologists strive to serve? Secondly, is authority truly decentered, and how does this impact upon the authority of archaeologists and their ability to talk about the past? Thirdly, do participatory technologies allow for egalitarian participation? And, related, how does authority play out online? I will elucidate these questions through offline and online qualitative research of visitors and museum staff.

The Shape of Things conference significantly aligns with this research, and will allow me to discuss my views on the egalitarian possibilities of visitor generated content. Specifically, with relation to the impact of VGC on authority and power in museums, and its impact on who is allowed physical and epistemological access to museums.

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