Museological Blogging

I’ve had a lot to get my head around lately.

My PhD studies began in earnest at the beginning of this month, and I’ve since become an avid collector of museum and design related literature. That’s the easy part – now to get down to reading, digesting and making sense of it all such that it can help me inform my research question and methodology.

As an area of academic interest, museums sit at the juncture of several fields and schools of thought: pedagogy, sociology, psychology, semiotics, architecture and design research are just some of the areas I’ve had to start to get my teeth into. There is so much out there that sometimes you can find yourself butterflying from one thing to another very quickly: social semiotics in the morning; statistical analysis of visitor data in the afternoon.

But I’m seeing patterns of thinking emerge and I think I’m starting to get a bit of a handle of how all these fields tie together, what ideas have influenced what and where there might be gaps in the existing literature.

Over the next few weeks I will write a few blog posts as bite-size summaries of the main areas of academic enquiry that I’m reading about. I plan to do this for a couple of reasons: firstly, I hope that preparing fairly brief summaries the main areas I’m reading will help me sort out my thoughts as I go. Secondly, it will give me a way of documenting the trajectory of my thinking (knowing full well that it may well make cringeworthy reading 2 – 3 years down the track!).

It also goes without saying that I hope that these posts will be of interest to those of you who are interested in exhibits, design and the visitor experience (and if you’re not, why are you here??), but have neither the time nor the inclination to trawl the literature yourself.

I have created the Museology category for these posts, so they will be easily found (or avoided) depending on your inclination. I hope to post the first one in the next few days.

Museums and (community) memory

Australia is no stranger to extreme weather, and recently such events seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity. Just in the past few weeks, vast swathes of Queensland have been swamped by flooding. Brisbane, a city which only a few years ago was under severe water restrictions due to drought, was inundated and low-lying suburbs completely submerged. Shortly afterwards the north of Queenland was battered by Cyclone Yasi; while at the same time there was flash flooding in Melbourne and bushfires in Perth.

Living in Australia, the forces and vagaries of nature are a part of life. The effects of punishing droughts, catastrophic floods and devastating fires have all seared themselves into the national consciousness. Or have they?

ABC Radio National’s Rear Vision recently aired a program titled “Deluges that have gone before: floods in Australian history” (transcript available). Drawing upon historic major floods, in particular the 1893 and 1974 Brisbane floods, the program looks at what happens as these events fade from living memory and to the back of the collective consciousness.


Aerial view of the 1974 Brisbane Flood (State Library of Queensland)


Early European settlers ignored the warnings of Aboriginal inhabitants by building towns on flood plains. As historian Emily O’Gorman said:

“It seems to have been listened to with interest, but largely ignored. Later kind of retrospective accounts after a number of floods, people from outside Gundagai who knew about these warnings speculated that there was perhaps an element of racism at work, as well as I think the validity of oral testimony itself was in question, where the records of floods needed a numerical height to be taken seriously at that time.”

But even when prior events have been in the written historical record, and the subject of Government enquiries, lessons have not always been learned. Richard Evans, a historian who has specialised in the aftermath of natural disasters, has found a pattern in the way lessons fade from memory and are eventually lost:

“Reading the reports of various official inquiries . . . they are eerily similar. They will almost inevitably find very similar contributing factors to the severity of the disaster; they will make very similar recommendations, and they will, sad to say, usually be largely ignored in the longer term. In the short term there will be interesting commitment, but it doesn’t last more than a few years, certainly it doesn’t last decades. What really strikes me is how we have the disaster, we have the inquiry, we find out the same painful bitter lesson that too many of the people who live here don’t understand the nature of the place they’re living in, and then they forget it again. And then in the course of a generation or generation-and-a-half, the disaster recurs . . . and again we forget”

The problem, it appears, with enquiries, reports and recommendations is that they lack a permanent presence. Eventually they are retired to a shelf somewhere; there is nothing to keep the experiences and lessons learned fresh in the minds of communities over a period of decades or generations.

So can museums play a role in keeping these memories fresh and ever-present, thus helping us prepare and avert disasters better in the future? This was something that historian Helen Gregory suggested during the program:

“. . . because natural disasters are such a feature in Australia, it struck me that for instance, Victoria could have a museum of the bushfires, Brisbane could have a museum of the floods . . . there is a real, not just a community memory function in having a museum, to cover all the floods . . .because this is very much part of the city’s history and its relationship to the river. Not only is that important for the memory of the whole community, but to give people the opportunity to have their stories recorded . . . I think that Brisbane has a wonderful opportunity for developing a special repository for floods . . .”

Now obviously there are practical issues: museums are a significant capital and operational undertaking, not to be entered into lightly. But if something like this helps us better prepare for disaster in the future (perhaps in the context of an existing museum, if a dedicated museum is not feasible), it would be worthwhile.

In this vein, the theme for 2011’s International Museums Day, which is held around May 18 each year, is  “Museums and Memory”. The purpose of this theme is to highlight the role that museums can play in collecting and preserving the objects and stories which constitute a community’s memory.

Australia’s relationship with its history of natural disasters is a timely example.

Museums and your Worldview

Does who you are affect what you can talk about?

Exhibitions don’t exist in a vacuum: people experience them in the context of the institution in which they are located. And often that institution has a long-standing reputation (call it a ‘brand’ if you like) which will influence what people expect to see there. (You wouldn’t expect an exhibition in Questacon to be the same kind of thing as an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, for example).

To explore this idea further, let’s consider museums of science. Does an audience’s expectation-arising-from-reputation mean that science museums are obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world in their exhibitions?

I’d like to explore a case study: the ‘The Science and Art of Medicine’. exhibition in London’s Science Museum. I’ll say up front that I haven’t seen this exhibition, but it is described on its website thus:

The Science and Art of Medicine gallery, one of the world’s greatest collections on the subject, reveals the history of medicine across the world and across cultures . . . A newly redisplayed section deals with other living medical traditions, including African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic practices.

17th Century Acupuncture teaching doll, one of the items on display in the exhibition (From Science Museum website; image no 10284604)

Its coverage of alternative medicine, in particular homeopathy, has apparently caused a bit of a ruckus. As one blogger said:

Depressingly, the [Science Museum] seems to have pandered to the whims of quacks by allowing them to create their own exhibit, and it looks like there was no quality control . . . [this] matters because the [museum] is supposed to promote science and understanding, not fuel an ever increasingly tiresome debate between those that painstakingly research and collect data and those that appear to pick any old idea then try to convince people it works.

The blog post closes with the statement:

Institutions like the Science Museum unfortunately do not have the luxury of sitting on the fence with issues such as these, especially when they hold a huge responsibility of informing the public.

This statement is telling – the writer seems to be just as vexed by the location of the exhibition (in a science museum) as he is about the exhibition’s content. Implicit in his statement is the assumption that the science museum is vested with a sense of authority, and from this comes a responsibility to ensure only scientifically verifiable facts are presented. Indeed, this writer and others suggested the museum should go further and expose unscientific and unsutstantiated claims wherever it can.

There was sufficient a wave of discontent for the museum and the exhibition’s curator to release an official response to the criticism, explaining their rationale for its inclusion of ‘alternative’ medicines in the display:

we take an anthropological and sociological perspective . . .we do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world. Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present . . . We consider that these ‘alternative’ medical practices are of considerable cultural significance. We also recognise that some may consider the inclusion of these practices in the Science Museum controversial.

This statement in turn triggered its own flurry of comments, such as:

I strongly believe that something so fundamentally unscientific, really has no place in a science museum, no matter how anthropologically and sociologically interesting.

Again, the problem seems to be that the exhibition is presented in the context of ‘science’, more than the fact that the story is being told at all.

I first came across this controversy on Twitter, when someone (a scientist) posted a link to the Science Museum’s response, calling it ‘appalling’. When I retweeted the link, one of my colleagues (a historian) wondered what the fuss was all about, thinking that the inclusion of this content in a science museum was a refreshing dash of ‘anti-imperialism’.

In these different responses, I think I see a bit of a philosophical clash regarding what a museum (particularly a museum of science) is for.

One the one hand there are those who wish to promote a scientific viewpoint of the world, with all the benefits and knowledge science has brought to our lives. They might see the inclusion of alternative medicince as a kind of  slippery slope towards giving airtime to misleading claims and scare stories, leaving society the worse for it. (For instance the consequences of the so called MMR ‘scare’, where the conjuring of a false risk led to a decline in vaccination rates, thus exposing children to the real and deadly risk of diseases like measles).

On the other hand, the ‘march of progress’ narrative which is often implicit in science and technology exhibitions makes some people (in particular some museum professionals) feel a bit uncomfortable. Other experiences and perspectives can appear to be marginalised in a ‘technology trumps all’  kind of triumphalism. Science and postmodernism do indeed make odd bedfellows!

(But this is all getting a bit philosophical . . . and if I sound like I’m sitting on the fence it’s because I think I have a better view of the whole landscape from there . . .)

So let’s bring it back to visitors. What do they expect from a science museum?

There is research to suggest that visitors do see Science Museums as venerable, authoritative institutions. And this does affect the way they perceive exhibits they see there: they expect to be told clear facts and a scientific view of ‘truth’. In this context, a science museum would need to tread carefully: display does not necessarily mean endorsement, but visitors may take what they see at face value unless authorship is made extremely clear.

What this means for this particular exhibition at the Science Museum I can’t say, although I do know that the museum generally conducts thorough audience research during their exhibition planning process. It would be interesting to see what their research says about this one.

UPDATE: Sometimes you get so caught up in planet Interwebs you forget what’s sitting on your bookshelf! Following writing this blog post and others, I’ve once again picked up my copy of “The Politics of Display: Museums, Science Culture” edited by Sharon MacDonald. It looks at the political consequences of scientific displays and argues that they cannot claim to be apolitical. Have a look if you want to explore this topic further.

What does ‘raising the bar’ really mean?

A recent posting on the Visitor Attractions discussion group on Linked In made me look twice: “Delivering minimum expected customer service rather than trying to deliver remarkable customer service is a better strategy. . .”

The title concerned me: I thought it was going to be an argument for cutting corners and maximising throughput; the ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ philosophy. Who cares about quality when you get what you pay for . . . (In other words, the business model pursued par excellence by the budget airlines).

The provocative title worked because I clicked through and read the whole blog post (ready to violently disagree). And it turns out that the message was far more subtle: namely that it’s better to be acceptable 100% of the time than excellent 10% of the time and substandard the rest of the time. 

No one is perfect, and sometimes in the pursuit of perfection we can overextend ourselves – offer too much; or make promises that our current resources can’t consistently deliver on.

Too often when we look at our visitor experiences and envisage how they could be improved, we look at the best case scenarios: how can we improve the best of what we have to offer? Conversely, this blog post argues that we’d do better to have a closer look at how we are doing on a bad day: how can we make sure that the minimum we have to offer is at the very least acceptable?

In other words, it’s a call to get the basics right: investment in whizz-bang technology or slick marketing campaigns is well and good, but it will not take away the bad memories of poor basic infrastructure or surly service. (Similar to the hierarchy of visitor needs in this presentation I gave to the Interpretation Australia conference last November)

It’s also about managing expectations – underpromise and overdeliver rather than the other way around.

So when we think about ‘raising the bar’ of visitor experiences, we should remember that it’s not always about making the best better. It’s can also be about improving ourselves at our worst.