The visitor to a museum engages in a dialogue, enters a political space, or constructs a visual legacy, all of which signify membership in a larger community that links past, present, and future. Membership in such a community is made possible through communication. Whether one views the museum as an exchange of information or as the construction of a shared identity, communication serves as the starting point. The museum offers a public space, distinct from the mundane activities of everyday life, designed to communicate a sense of time and place distinctly different from workplace and home.
One can think about the museum in terms of specific tasks: for example, the role of the guide, curator, designer, fundraiser, or conservator. One can also consider the specific tasks of communication: for example, to display objects within a space, to explain the significance of the display, or to educate the viewer about the historical implications of the display.
Yet communication includes more than merely making the right choices for the layout of a display or the design of a brochure to illustrate that display. Just as a museum is much more than a collection of objects, communication is more than a collection of skills. In this context, communication as a field of study offers a theoretical perspective for understanding why the design and construction of some environments lend themselves to engagement while those of other environments do not.
Understanding the complex ways in which the structure of the museum depends on communication can reveal the essential features of the museum. The concept of museum and the concept of communication stand as reciprocal terms. The museum deals with the cultural transmission of information, typically through the conservation and presentation of objects. The study of communication is also concerned with the ritual transmission of cultural information (Carey 1992). For example, the museum curator may be interested in the study of indigenous tools. In like manner, the communication scholar may be interested in the ways in which the rituals of communication construct cultural identity. These are related activities; understanding how the tools of an earlier era identified the workman with a guild suggests that artifacts symbolically structure both past and present relationships.
Prior to the earliest museums, there were private collections of art and artifacts that served to display the wealth and prestige of kings and aristocrats. The first public museums opened in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. As the concept of public museum took hold, the private collections were slowly replaced by art-historical arrangements. The concept of the museum encouraged a new way of thinking about art as a necessary component of every society, rather than as a luxury for a privileged few (Duncan 1995).
Today the museum offers not only new ways of thinking about art, but also new paradigms to encourage innovation, interdisciplinary teaching, and learning (e.g., the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College). Displays, exhibits, presentations, and lectures enlarge our understanding of education and provide opportunities to develop robust educational models. As museums have moved from modern to postmodern configurations, the opportunity for engagement has expanded to include virtual tours, hypothetical constructions such as the experience of the coal mine (Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago) or the internal plumbing of the human anatomy (Franklin Institute, Philadelphia).
Collections of valuable artifacts can teach the viewing public about the significance of everything from rare butterflies (American Museum of Natural History, New York) to the Japanese tea ceremony (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco). This requires that the curator carefully consider not only the conservation of such objects, but how best to display and represent the essential qualities of those artifacts. The space is constructed for a particular effect, thoughtfully arranged to engage the eye, heart, and mind of the visitor. The museum can serve as a training ground for the communication scholar who is interested in visual culture. Though the experience of the museum may be described as sometimes auditory or kinesthetic, it is often primarily a visual experience. At the center of the museum experience resides a profound riddle that has long fascinated communication scholars: how is the image different from the word? One’s experience of the museum embodies crucial questions relevant to the study of communication. How does the grammar of the text capture and yet fail to capture the visual display? How does the visual display move different viewers to a verbal understanding of their cultural history?
Consider the exhibit of the Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland). This rare manuscript required a display under dim lights and glass, making it very difficult to examine the detailed design of script and decorative elements. Trinity College wisely provided a second room with large copies of the text plus translations, displayed with full lighting. The juxtaposition of the two rooms, one with large prints and the other with the cherished manuscript under dim lighting, provided a delightful contrast that engaged the viewer.
Whether large or small, urban or rural, the museum preserves shared memories through the critical use of artifacts and displays. The varied spaces of museums often create an educational experience, sometimes offer exploratory play, and inevitably provide a sense of social engagement. Despite the diverse types of museums and variations in mission, all museums share common elements, which can best be illustrated through the study of communication.
- Carey, J. W. (1992). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. New York: Routledge.
- Duncan, C. (1995). Civilizing rituals: Inside public art museums. London: Routledge.
- Evans, J., & Hall, S. (eds.) (1999). Visual culture: The reader. London: Sage.
- Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000). Museums and the interpretation of visual culture. London: Routledge.
- Pearce, S. M. (1993). Museums, objects, and collections: A cultural study. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Weil, S. E. (1990). Rethinking the museum and other meditations. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.