Interpretive Planning – Part 2

In my continuing quest to catch up on the latest thinking on interpretive planning, I’ve got hold of the second edition of The Manual of Museum Exhibitions. Published just last year, this must contain the cutting edge of modern museum thinking…

Or not. Maria Piacente’s chapter on Interpretive Planning very reasonably starts off with three essential questions: “What meanings do we wish to communicate? To whom do we intend to communicate these meanings? What are the most appropriate means of communicating these meanings?”

She says proper planning leads to exhibitions that are “Relevant, Meaningful and Relatable: because the majority of visitors are not artists, curators, historians, scientists or members of a special interest group, museum professionals need to find better ways to communicate complex and unfamiliar ideas.” She invokes the grandfather of Heritage Interpretation, Freeman Tilden:

Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information

A good plan will also be visitor centred, and Piacente points out that “Visitors attend as individuals or in groups, as tourists, as part of a school visit, or as a family. Each grouping or type or visitor learns and behaves differently in a museum setting.”

Which leads in to a piece on learning styles contributed by Christina Sjoberg. Now, there has been a lot of discussion about the validity of Learning Style models in recent years, which I’ve touch in previous posts, but what is definitely true is that museum visitors are in a very different learning mode to academics or schoolchildren. As Sjoberg says, “Museum learning is: informal; voluntary; and, affective.”

This last is important, Sjoberg argues that museum learning focusses “on our feelings, attitudes, beliefs and values” rather than being purely cognitive. Later in the chapter, learning styles come up again, when Piacente identies the “means of expression” a designer might use. I like this phrase, because it doesn’t just straight to defining the medium – though of course each means of expression does steer one’s thoughts to specific media. She lists four:

  • “Didactic means of expression include text panels, cases of artifacts and displays of works of art […]
  • Hands-on/minds-on activities are often low-tech interactives that incorporate mechanical devices, comparative exhibits, feedback stations and open-ended questions […]
  • Multimedia […] from videos to touch-screens and from augmented reality systems to simulators or even large-format theatres […]
  • Immersive environments include walkthrough experiences and dioramas that may incorporate sound, video and hands on experiences.”

Piacente expands a little on Spencer’s discussion of the thematic framework, re-introducing the idea of a linear, or “sequential” structure, giving as examples a simple chronology, and spacial sequences – room to room, or traversing a country. Of course she also explores nonlinear structures, which she says “accommodate more complex exhitions that require the presentation of multiple voices and perspectives.” She offers a number of examples of nonlinear structures:

  • “Focal specific structures establish one major topic or theme around which are clustered a number of subthemes that radiate from the core, much like the petals of a flower or or the layers of an onion […]
  • Parallel thematic structures establish a set of themes or subthemes that are used over and over again to explore many topics. Natural history exhibitions often employ this type of interpretation[…]
  • Independent Structures are frameworks in which individual loosely related or unrelated topics are addressed within a single area or gallery. […] such Structures are sometimes employed by science centers”

So far, so good. I’m not seeing anything new here, which on one hand, is good, as it doesn’t appear I’ve been particularly old fashioned in recent years (always a worry when the years as an undergraduate, where you think you’re inventing everything, recede into the distance). But on the other hand, I’m disappointed there apparently hasn’t been much development in thinking over the last ten years.

For example, even though Sjoberg speaks of “our feelings” and mention is made in a later case study of “anchor experience or ‘wow’ in each thematic area,” there’s no discussion of the relative merits the various structures have in manipulating visitors’ emotions. (I’ll tell you for free – linear structures are better at engaging people emotionally, because of the narrative paradox, not withstanding the problem that in real life, away from the exhibitor’s drawing board, visitors skip all over linear exhibitions, doubling back, taking shortcuts and and missing chunks out. )

I’ve got some more books to read, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll report back, but here’s a plea. Does anyone out there know of any papers with some really fresh thinking on interpretive structures and narratives?

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