Reflections on Museum Interpretation and Audience Agency

The Rudolph Stingel Exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art. Photo Credit: Adrea Mohin/New York Times
The Rudolph Stingel Exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art. Photo Credit: Adrea Mohin/New York Times

Whenever I get a chance to visit a museum–whether it be related to history, art, science, or even a children’s museum–I expect to be challenged intellectually. I believe the best museums are the ones with lots of questions, lots of arguments, lots of discussions, and lots of opportunities for visitors’ preconceptions about the world to be enhanced, challenged, questioned, and/or proven wrong. That’s what learning is about, right? Indeed, having lots of exhibits, artifacts, and informational labels will mean nothing if there is no effort at an interpretationThe who, what, where, and how informational questions are important for building a foundation for learning within a museum setting, but visitors also want the why questions. Why does this matter? Why are we here? Why this and not that? Why should we care? Without making an interpretive argument, museums become dull and boring. I would rather go to a museum that made terrible arguments rather than one that made no arguments at all.

University of Leicester Museum Studies professor Richard Sandell’s 2005 publication Museums, Prejudice, and the Reframing of Difference points out that all too often museum professionals are hesitant to take strong positions or convey “messages” to their audiences. A range of explanations account for this hesitancy, including concerns about the possibility of museums being viewed as places of indoctrination or sectarianism, the possibility that donors and other stakeholders are uncomfortable with museum messages, and even self-doubts within museum staff about the power of cultural institutions to enact meaningful change in society.

While acknowledging that different museums have different missions, goals, and objectives to accomplish, Sandell criticizes museums that make strong claims to impartiality and objectivity. “These concerns about partiality,” argues Sandell, “are used as an excuse to avoid engaging with social issues and acknowledging that museums of all kinds . . . embody particular moral standpoints” (196). In actuality, museums that strive to make no interpretations, arguments, or commentaries about the present are themselves still making a sort of interpretation through their own silences. Rather than striving for objectivity in museum exhibits and programs, Sandell suggests that museums should strive for fairness: places that promote inclusiveness, open and honest discussion, social interaction, and understanding between different people and groups in society.

Part of the reason why museums (especially art and history museums) have been struggling over the past ten to fifteen years, in my opinion, is that audiences are tired of purely information-based experiences in museums. If I just want information, why can’t I look that up on Wikipedia or do a Google search instead of traveling to a museum? It is true that museums today face more competition for attention and leisure time than they did in the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, museum practitioners should be working to convince society that museums are truly beneficial places (socially, intellectually, mentally, even physically) that are really worth the time to visit in person or online. This work of convincing society of the importance of museums means that practitioners and professionals need to work towards creating experiences that give audiences the ability to be active users within the museum setting, not passive visitors merely seeking objective information.

The recently deceased cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall‘s analyses of culture and media production provides important insights for museum educators looking to move beyond a purely informational educational experience. Hall and many of his cohorts in the 1980s and 1990s argued that consumers of media information–whether through radio, television, or the internet today–create their own processes for understanding messages conveyed to them. Rather than being passive recipients of a static message, media audiences themselves contribute to the construction of their own messages that could be radically different from the intended message a media outlet attempts to convey. In the process of consuming media messages, people bring with them their prior experiences and knowledge of the world. They are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with passive information. Describing Hall’s “encoding-decoding” model, Sandell points out that students of media studies have shifted their inquiries from “what media messages do to people, to what they mean to them” (11).

What does this have to do with museums? Above all, it’s important to remember that visitors of museums bring with them their prior experiences and knowledge. Museum visitors use these tools to construct their own messages from exhibits and programs, just like they do with media messages. True, the intended message of a museum may turn out to be radically different from the message an audience member interprets during their experience, and these misinterpreted messages could be potentially difficult for museums that attempt to promote diversity, inclusiveness, and/or the healing of historical wounds from past injustices such as slavery, segregation, or genocide. Nevertheless, from where I stand, museums that convey messages are better than ones that convey no message. For museums that profess to be objective, everything is black or white. There is no room for discussion, no room for questions, no room for multiple perspectives or interpretations of museum messages. Look at an exhibit, get your label text information, go home. For museums that convey messages, an acknowledgement is made about the fact that museums are not neutral spaces. By promoting fairness instead of objectivity, these museums acknowledge the agency and intelligence of their audiences. Indeed, these museums enhance their own capacity for growth by understanding that museums are shaped by their audiences just as much as audiences are shaped by the museums they visit.