The Personal is still Political: Museums, Participation and Copyright

Helen Graham, Rhiannon Mason, Nigel Nayling

Abstract


Copyright is a means of managing the interests of individual authors and those of the ‘public interest’. In a museum context, copyright is a technical practice which illuminates how museums imagine and manage their own organizational legitimacy – a settlement which has often operated through a ‘public interest argument’ (‘we need you to hand over control of your object/story for the benefit of all’). Drawing on interviews with people who work in museums and those who have taken part in a museum participation project, we focus on a digital storytelling project to show how copyright was deployed to make an in-practice argument for the how museums might legitimately relate personal story telling with the ‘public interest’. The project did this through three processes: coming into the public via managing informed consent through evoking future audiences, making an author through creating intentional decisions and ‘responsibilization’ and making an object by transforming a digital story into a ‘finished’ object which is, in turn, transferred into the museum collections. While those involved in the project recognized they had signed over the rights to their story and were, in most cases, broadly happy with this – ‘that’s what the form was for’, as one put it – the personal nature of the story itself (linked to personal memories, friends and family) and the sociality of the process of making it (in a group; through interactions with museum staff) was also emphasized. This sociality was expressed in the sense that participants would like to be told when a story is going to be re-displayed, be sent drafts of interpretation and be invited to the opening of the exhibition – a mode of relationship with the museum consistently described as ‘courtesy’. The article concludes by suggesting that the expectation of courtesy – though it might seem like a very modest claim – does something to museums and makes way for more nuanced asymmetries within the public interest argument. Rather than assuming that ‘the public interest’ lies in treating people (slightly coldly) in the same way, the lens of courtesy might suggest ways of both respecting the importance of the public ethos (for institutions to address themselves to ideas of fairness, inclusion and equality) yet might also work to socialize this impulse and reimagine a responsive public museum from the bottom up.


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Copyright (c) 2015 Helen Graham, Rhiannon Mason, Nigel Nayling

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360