The 'A' Word

Lydia Johnson

by  Lydia Johnson

AAM 2009: The Museum Experiment is now history.  In the weeks following big conferences like this, where ideas sizzle like Pop Rocks candy, it’s always interesting to see what sticks.  What topics will we still be chewing on next week…next month…next year?  (and I don’t mean the obvious “how do you throw a party when nobody can afford to come?”)

This year, I’m putting my money on Authenticity.  Yeah, I know that seems old hat.  Museums are all about authenticity, and always have been – we are the authenticity authorities!  Authenticity is the coin of our realm.  It’s our ultimate destination.  We focus on authenticity in our collections, authenticity in our missions, and, most recently,  authenticity in our brands. (Who hasn’t had a conversation about “look and feel” lately?)

Well, AAM09 made me think about authenticity in a new way.  While our focus is on presenting authentic things and authentic experiences (both relatively static and clearly-defined activities), it seems the rest of the world is thronging to a different authenticity altogether.  They are using online social tools (facebook, twitter, blogger, ning, flickr - the list goes on and on) to find like-minded authentic people.

Think about that for a minute: the search is on for authentic people.

What makes a person authentic?  Is it an absence of pretense, (or to use a current buzzword) a “transparency”?  Or maybe it’s about spontaneity? Or a certain self-awareness?  I’m not sure what it is.  However, I’m pretty sure authentic people share a commitment to broadening and deepening their human experiences in honest and open ways.  Whether they do it dynamically or incrementally, authentic people choose to engage.  Some ponder, some debate, some think aloud, some assess, some question…but they all engage and adjust.  Authentic people change.  And therein lies the paradox: the authenticity of things rests on the fact that they don't change; the authenticity of people lies in the fact that they do. (unparallel construction intentional)

Perhaps understanding the complexities of this paradox is the key to finding our way into the Brave New Social Networking Online World.

Authenticity: this year’s Hot Topic.




this is great. you present a serious challenge, and one that compliments well the concepts of "leadership at every level" -- a willingness to respond to change. really, it is being human, right?
thanks for posting.

I'm writing a couple of short essays right now on museum professional development and audience development, and this piece about authenticity is exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks so much!

I was inspired by AAM to ponder this very same facet of authenticity: how social media facilitates access to person-to-person connections and a spectrum of individual voices (dynamic and changing, and sometimes fleeting or deceivingly authentic), and how many in the museum world are still focused solely on authenticity of things (objects, buildings, places) in the bricks-and-mortar realm.


Thanks for your stimulating comments! I especially liked your ideas about authenticity and connecting with people. I've been pondering this for the last couple of years, and I find it fascinating. I also find it interesting that my daughter's high school is having an "Unplugged" day tomorrow. In a note to families announcing the "Unplugged" day, the school said, "We will be promoting face-to-face communication and are hoping that kids will discover the role that technology plays both in society and in their own lives."

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Just want to see if you are a robot.