The language of objects

Objects may not be silent, but what difference does that make if you don’t speak their language?

I’ve been doing a bit more musing on some of the anecdotes Stephanie Weaver shared during her keynote at the recent Interpretation Australia conference (first instalment here). She mentioned the often-heard claim that objects “speak for themselves” (a view that appears especially prevalent in art circles), thus rendering interpretation irrelevant at best, interfering at worst. In response, one time she challenged some “speak for themselves-ists” with an image of a carburettor, similar to this one:

Did the object speak to them about what it was? Was it a particularly fine or noteworthy example? In the absence of any relevant mechanical or technical knowledge, Stephanie’s interlocutors were stumped. They accepted that this object was mute in the absence of interpretation (at least to them).

But Stephanie also told the story of the object that spoke to her immedately, profoundly, and so powerfully it moved her to tears – no interpretation required:

In this case, the painting was the trigger for an avalanche of meaning that lay within Stephanie’s own life experience. It was in the Musee d’Orsay, during a much-anticipated and long-awaited trip to Paris. The painting was beatifully presented in a gallery context. The content resonated with Stephanie’s childhood as a dance student. And of course there is an aesthetic appeal that needs no overt explanation*.

This made me think that the “objects are mute” vs “objects speak for themselves” debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.

Some communication transcends language: in another conference session, Pamela Harmon-Price described how a Japanese tour guide used timing, gesture and body language to convey considerable meaning, despite Pamela not understanding a word of what was said. Drawing analogy to objects, there may be some aspects of an object: form, colour, positioning, and so on, that can speak to us on some level.

But then there is the Tower of Babel of other languages any given object may speak. And of course the same object may speak multiple languages (the languages of technology, or art, or social history). And that is where interpretation can step in – conveying that meaning to those who don’t know enough of the language enough to understand it.

On a radio interview held with Stephanie, Pamela and John Pastorelli during the conference, they reflected on the fact that people outside the cultural sector tend to assume “interpretation” has something to do with languages. Perhaps on some level they’re right: it’s just that it’s intepreting the languages of objects and places rather than other people.

So next time you see an object that you think “speaks for itself” – ask yourself: can you only hear it because you already know the language?


*At least to people enculturated into a Western perspective of aesthetics. Although there are some aspects of aesthetics that may be ‘hard wired’, so to speak, yet others will be a product of the culture we live in, and we deem those as “universal” at our peril!

Your experience footprint is bigger than you think

It all started with a mysterious bear. . . 

But before I explain, first a little background: Last week I was at the Interpretation Australia national conference, Enriching the Visitor Experience, in Brisbane. The opening keynote was Experienceology‘s Stephanie Weaver. As the author of Creating Great Visitor Experiences, she had plenty to share about the role of interpretation and storytelling in crafting memorable and meaningful visitor experiences.

So back to the bear – Stephanie’s museum career started out at the Chicago Children’s Museum, which at the time was located in North Pier. Consistently in evaluation and focus groups, children kept on mentioning that “the bear” was one of their favourite exhibits. Good to know – except staff at the museum had no idea what exhibit the kids were talking about! There were no bears, teddy bears, pictures of bears, or anything remotely bear-related in the Museum. So what was this mysterious bear exhibit?

It turns out the solution wasn’t in the museum at all. As it happens, North Pier was at one end of an atrium mall, and this mall had a toy store. And across the atrium this toy store had strung up a large model of the “Ernest the balancing bear” child’s toy that cycled across and back on its tightrope. Although this display had nothing to do with the Museum – they didn’t manage it, they had no control over it – it was nonetheless perceived by visitors to be an integral part of the Children’s Museum experience. In fact, when exhibit staff proudly proclaimed the “bear mystery” finally solved, the Museum’s ticketing staff told them “oh yeah, we get all sorts of complaints when that bear isn’t working”.

Ernest the balancing bear (from

From this, Stephanie said she learned two important lessons about visitor experiences:

  1. The extent of the visitor experience as perceived by visitors – what I’ve called the “experience footprint” here – is much bigger than you might think, and may well include factors beyond your control (but which you still need to think about).
  2. Front-line staff often have a better idea of what’s happening on the exhibit floor than exhibition staff or management.

I’ll share a few more insights from this and other sessions over the coming days and weeks.

What if every label was tweet-sized?

I’ve just read Will Stanley’s article on Medium: Museum tours on Twitter. 

In it, he describes using Twitter to create virtual tours of selected galleries at London’s Science Museum. He describes the challenges of distilling an exhibition into a few dozen select tweets, while still retaining the curatorial voice. What’s essential? What can you leave out? This is often difficult enough with a 140-word exhibition label – let alone 140 characters!

It made me think – often I have to redraft a thought several times to make it tweetable. In the process you realise how many superfluous words and phrases you can live without. You find the core of idea you want to communicate, and that’s all there’s room for.

Makes me wonder – perhaps drafting exhibition labels as if they were tweets might be a useful exercise in becoming more (as Susan Cross would call it), “precise and concise”.