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Disputation: Emily Christine Oswald

Master of Arts Emily Christine Oswald at the Department of Education will be defending the thesis "Pa-KOW! Doing Participatory Knowledge Work in Museums and Archives" for the degree of Ph.D.

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Trial lecture - time and place

Thursday 14th of October, 2021, 4:00 p.m., Lecture Hall 2, Helga Engs Hus

Title of the trial lecture: "On the contribution of interaction studies to participatory knowledge work: Toward democratic aims via knowledge institutions."

Adjudication committee

  • Professor Joseph Polman, University of Boulder, USA (the first opponent)
  • Professor Alexandra Weilenmann, University of Gothenburg, Sweden (the second opponent)
  • Professor Åsa Mäkitalo, Department of Education, Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Oslo

Chair of defence

Professor Anne Line Wittek, Department of Education, Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Oslo



Museums and archives in the twenty-first century are memory institutions that interact with publics. These interactions often occur in the context of processes of participation in which staff at museums and archives communicate, collaborate or consult with individuals and groups from “outside” their institution. Participation is typically understood to be distinct from experiences of attending programs or exhibitions that do not involve opportunities for feedback or input, and is further assumed to reflect an institutional interest in the contributions and knowledge of publics. Some researchers and practitioners argue processes of participation can contribute to the democratization of memory institutions; others observe these processes reproduce the very power dynamics and negative outcomes participation aims to correct.

This dissertation explores processes of participation in museums and archives through case studies of three institutions: the Museum of Oslo, the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum, and the Norwegian Folklore Archives. Three overarching research questions are posed, inquiring into the role of technology in processes of participation; the exercise of agency by institutional and public participants; and the methodological strategies that account for current practice as well as innovation and change. In each case, the processes of participation involved different material from institutional collections, interaction with different publics, and different modalities for communication. In the first case, Facebook users viewed and commented on historical photographs from the Museum of Oslo’s collection, in response to a question posed by the museum: “Do you see where this is?” In the second case, members of a botanical society improved metadata about plant specimens preserved in the Natural History Museum’s herbarium through an online portal. In the third case, Oslo residents 16-19 years old contributed new material to the Norwegian Folklore Archive including internet memes to document the experiences and perspectives of the city’s young people.

Methodologically, each case involved ethnographic observation of interaction between institutional and public participants as well as micro-level analysis of utterances. In the second and third cases, the process of participation was developed in collaboration with museum and archival staff through a research-practice partnership; interactions between institutional and public participants in that process were then analyzed. The first case was a retrospective study of the museum’s activity on social media.

The first and second research questions are addressed by developing the concept of “participatory knowledge work” or Pa-KOW! to account for specific aspects of interaction in which publics meet memory institutions and memory institutions meet publics. These aspects include the exercise of agency by institutional participants in establishing communicative contexts for interaction; the importance of artefacts and of interaction among public participants in publics’ exercise of agency; and the ways in which digital media and infrastructures mediate knowledge practices and institutional collections. The third research question is addressed through the development of research-practice partnerships and formative interventions that involved close collaboration with museum and archival practitioners. The implications of Pa-KOW! for museum and archival practice and for research on memory institutions are discussed.

Published Oct. 1, 2021 1:30 PM - Last modified Oct. 14, 2021 11:06 AM