Open to Interpretation?

The end of the year is a time to reflect.

As I look back over the year, the things I’ve read and the discussions I’ve had, it’s given me pause to think about my own biases, assumptions and weaknesses. How do these shape my work and my approach to interpretation?

First, some context: my academic background is in the sciences. My subject choices at school became increasingly sciencey as the years progressed. Of course, to choose science was also to reject other options. In my case I think it’s just as telling to consider the path not chosen as the one that was. Was I drawn to the sciences or repelled by the arts? Perhaps a bit of both.

I dropped art fairly early on in high school – mainly because I lacked any real creative skill or talent in the visual sense. I was, however, fairly skilled at writing and this was my creative outlet. For as long as English lessons focused on the mechanics of grammar or the creativity of free writing, I enjoyed it and did well. But that all stopped when English ceased being about creation and started being about criticism. Frankly, it got all opaque and impenetrable to me.  We were now supposed to deconstruct the intent of another author, find metaphors in poetry and hidden meanings in literary text. I just didn’t get it! If an author wanted to say something, why didn’t they just say it? I struggled writing essays with minimum word counts when I felt I had said all that I could meaningfully say in half that.

By contrast, school science was an oasis of sense and logic – there were rules; you learned them; you applied them. As you grasped the rules you started to see the patterns in them. Chemistry in particular made perfect intuitive sense to me. Inevitably, I was drawn to the certainty of the sciences rather than take my chances on the humanities, where so much of your grade seemed to be down to teacher judgement or sheer luck.

While age and maturity mean I now have a renewed appreciation for the arts and humanities, I’m still stumped by things like poetry. Every now and again I duck into literature, but I worry that there is some grand metaphor that I’m completely oblivious to, and that I’m really only seeing the tip of the iceberg. In short, sometimes the arts can make me feel pretty darn stupid.

So what does that mean for my approach to interpretation?

I think it means I’m particularly wary of anything that does not make its intent explicit – anything that expects me to “make my own meaning” with minimal support. Make my own meaning with what? How? How do I know that I haven’t got completely the wrong end of the stick? While I might critique it once I know it, I still want to know what the ‘official’ answer is supposed to be.

I’m aware some people are polar opposites. They love the freedom to make their own meaning and can find interpretive tools (that I find essential) a distraction or even an intrusion. Perhaps they grasp something intuitively in the art or literature in the same way I did in chemical equations. Perhaps they have confidence in their own interpretations in a way that I don’t. Perhaps their brains are just wired differently. I don’t know. I do know when I meet such people though, as they tend to find interpretation “shouty”, overbearing, or dumbing down. I’ll call such people “meaning makers”, to distinguish from people like me who are probably more “meaning readers”.

Being a meaning reader must influence my approach to interpretation. To my mind I’m putting clarity before confusion. But is that how a meaning maker would see it?

In any case, how can we accommodate both in the same experiences? How do we not shout at the meaning makers, while still providing enough context to ensure the meaning readers don’t end up feeling like they’ve missed the point?

Are you a meaning maker or a meaning reader? What does it mean for your approach to interpretation and exhibitions?

US Museum App Review: Barnes and MoMA

I made a point of trying out different museum smartphone apps during my US trip this July-August, and I’ll post some general comments and reviews of my experience using them over the next few weeks, in no particular order.

But first, a big golden rule for museum apps: No wifi, no point. OK slight hyperbole there – but it’s essential for international tourists and a huge convenience for everyone else. I had mobile data well and truly disabled to avoid any nasty roaming charges upon my return. If there wasn’t reliable wifi to enable me to download and use the app easily, I wasn’t going to use it. Even locals may have concerns about exceeding their data limits, and I’m starting to think that free wifi is becoming one of those facilities that people will increasingly expect.

Barnes Collection, Philadelphia

The great thing about this free app is that it duplicated content that was in the audio guide (pre-loaded on an ipod touch that you could hire for $5). And an audioguide was essential as there was no other labelling besides printed catalogues in each room which just listed the titles and artist. (And these didn’t exactly advertise their presence as the picture below attests. But I digress . . . )

Catalogue guides were set in little wells in the seat in each gallery – but, being a very similar colour to the walls, it took me a while to realise these existed, particularly since the galleries were busy and seats often occupied.

Artworks at the Barnes are displayed as ‘ensembles’ – groupings of works that Barnes had used as a pedagogical tool, with juxtapositions intended to show similarities or contrasts in colour, line, form, etc.

Interpretation of individual ensembles, as well as an explanation of the ensemble concept.

There was also interpretation of individual works, colour coded by room to aid orientation.

Interpretation of individual works

The app also featured maps to aid orientation and there was a tailored tour for families.

The app offers a choice between Masterworks and a Family Tour. The Masterworks was available in English, French and Spanish.

The app was intuitive to use and had a good level of detail, although I didn’t always listen to the audio descriptions to the end (not that they’re overly long at about 1-2 minutes, but I was just trying to get a flavour and hadn’t planned to spend more than a couple of hours or so at the museum). There was nothing that was really innovative or remarkable about its features, but this no-gimmicks approach means it did what it said on the box. There is nothing wrong with a functional and straightforward guide app.


The MoMA is more of a combination of a brochure and guide in app form. There is a calendar feature that shows what is on today or on a date of your choosing, which would be more useful for locals than one-off visitors like me.

The app offers a few different ways of exploring the collection – by location, by audioguide number, or by searching for a particular work alphabetically. Detailed visual descriptions are provided for the benefit visually impaired visitors (or those seeking an in-depth looking experience).
The app allows you to search the collection by artist, title, or keyword. There is also an alphabetical list of art terms (that I’ve only just discovered but is a great way of decoding some of the specialist language you see in art labels).

The MoMA app is also offered in an impressive range of languages:

The MoMA app had many more features than I had the time, need or inclination to use during my visit (including podcasts and links to YouTube and further iTunes content). To be honest I can’t recall how much I used this app during my visit (months on it’s all a bit of a blur) compared to the standard paper guide map – I suspect not much but just because I was pretty museumed out by this stage of my trip.

Don’t box me in!

I’ve been having an interesting debate on Twitter about the usefulness of applying categories or segmentation models to museum visitors. I’ve previously blogged about Falk’s Identity model and Morris Hargreave McIntyre’s Culture Segments, and several museums have their own in-house audience segmentation models that they use to inform exhibition development, programs and marketing.

But some people have a problem with such categorisation: I recall many years ago the first time I was introduced to the Myers-Briggs Type Index in a training workshop – someone in my group found the very idea offensive. So while some people may feel a sense of self-revelation when they discover they are an ENFJ or ISTP, others think it has as much insight as a tabloid horoscope. Their starting premise is that people are each individuals and are not so easily typed and categorised.

Personally, I think visitor typologies are useful, at the very least as heuristics: yes each visitor has their own unique interests and circumstances, but it’s not practical to consider each and every visitor as a unique individual who cannot possibly be grouped in any meaningful way. Conversely, we know the public is not an undifferentiated mass with the same interests, needs and prior knowledge. So segmentation is a middle ground and visitor research tends to bear out the fact that there are patterns in the visiting public, even if the emergent categories are not exactly the same for every museum and at every time.

I wonder if resistance to categorisation arises when such categories are used inappropriately or injudiciously – when they become laws of the land rather than rules of thumb. For instance I’ve taken the MBTI test on more than one occasion and each time I’ve come out with a slightly different result. Therefore it would be wrong to say something like “Person X is an INFP. It necessarily follows that they will do Y in circumstance Z”. Similarly with visitor categories – they are not meant to be dogmatic and they can be fluid: the type of visitor I am today does not necessarily predict the type of visitor I will be tomorrow.

What do you think? When are visitor categories useful and when are they constraining?