Transmission metaphors in museums

Embodied in the language we use are all sorts of ideas and assumptions: some of which we are aware, others we are not. A paper in the latest Curator journal (Ntzani, 2015) explores how the “transmission” metaphors that are frequently applied to communications influences the way we conceptualise museums:

“[T]ransmission metaphors make communication seem like an easy or automatic process between active speakers and passive listeners. This presupposition has long haunted museum communication practices” (Ntzani, 2015, p. 63).

Drawing upon the work of Michael Reddy, Ntzani describes two main transmission metaphors: that of the conduit; and that of the container.

Some literal museum conduit - a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)
Some literal museum conduit – a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)

The two metaphors are distinct and often incompatible. Conduits are invisible and passive transmitters of information, whereas containers call attention to themselves in the way they hold information and impose a shape onto it.

Ntzani argues that the container metaphor is often implicit in the way we discuss museum objects, exhibits and indeed museum buildings.

 . . . transmission metaphors make us think of museum objects either as containers of intrinsic cultural information, or as conduits of information that are transmitted from museum curators to museum visitors. The first proposition sees museum objects as sealed containers of cultural values that speak for themselveswhile the second proposition sees museum objects as conduits of messages, the signs of a language museums employ to build their narratives.” (Ntzani, 2015, p.65, my emphasis)

That section in particular made me think about the language of objects issue I was grappling with last year. Could the container and conduit metaphors help explain differences in the way different curators conceptualise the object and its communicative role? The former positions the object as being imbued with inherent meaning. The latter renders the object as a mere tool for an interpretive storyline: it says nothing in particular until it’s placed into a wider narrative.

“When museums are discussed as educational institutions, attention falls on the transmission of messages; in this case conduit metaphors take the lead. When discussed as architectural spaces . . . container metaphors are more frequently used.” (Ntzani, 2015, pp.67-68)

The museum itself can be conceptualised as a series of nested containers, analogous to Russian dolls: an exhibit is nested inside an exhibition, which is nested inside a museum that itself is nested within a particular social or geographical context.

Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers - like Russian Dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)
Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers – like Russian nesting dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)

Extending the concept further, Ntzani points out that it is only the outside of each doll that is adorned – the interior is a plain, neutral container for the doll within. In museum buildings, there can be a tension between those who wish to have statement architecture that draws attention to iself, versus those wanting a discreet container that will fade into the background. The conflict between conduit and container may be a new way of conceptualising some of these debates about the role of museums.

Ntzani, D. (2015). Under the Spell of Metaphors: Investigating the Effects of Conduit and Container Metaphors on Museum Experience. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(1), 59–76. doi:10.1111/cura.12098

Audiences, Visitors, Participants

Sometimes you see the words “audience” and “visitors” being used more or less interchangeably. But to me they represent different concepts and there was a discussion on this point some time ago on the Museum Audience Insight blog. While there was some debate about this, I took the view that “audiences” was a broader term than “visitors”; audiences were passive recipients whereas the word “visitor” implied something more active (through physical or virtual presence). So, you try to reach audiences but they may or may not be listening. Visitors, on the other hand, have fronted up and expect to see something that interests them.

Thinking about this again more recently, I’ve noticed that there’s an interesting semantic distinction between the two. Readers familiar with their latin roots will not be surprised by the fact that that “audience” is derived from the word for hearing and listening, whereas “visitor” has its roots in videre, which means to see or to notice. And, at least in Western cultures, we tend to privilege what we see above what we hear (compare how we think of “eyewitness testimony” as opposed to “hearsay evidence”). So it’s not surprising that such assumptions have, knowingly or otherwise, crept into the way we conceptualise audiences as opposed to visitors.

But something is still missing. Visitors themselves can still be passive or active. In media, this has been described as a “lean-forward versus lean-back” model for the way people consume online content. “Lean back” is passive relaxation mode, while “lean forward” is active involvement in searching, creating and critiquing.* In a visitor experience context, I’ll draw upon Nina Simon’s work and characterise these “lean forwards” as participants. Just like there are many different types of visitation, Simon has characterised varieties of participation (but I won’t go into details here). Participation also has interesting etymological roots, having come from the Latin participium, itself borrowed from the Greek meaning “to share”.

So how do audiences, visitors and participants relate to one another?

At the simplest levels, Participants can be considered a subset of Visitors, who in turn are a subset of Audiences. In theory this could also be conceptualised as a progression, with an individual moving from Audience Member to Visitor to Participant. Is moving through this progression a meaningful measure of engagement? It it an unhelpful oversimplification? Do we need a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between audiences, visitors and participants?

*I recall attending a presentation that referred to “lean-forward” versus “lean-back” in heritage interpretation, and I *think* I remember who it was, but I’m not 100% sure. If it was you, let me know so I can link to it!

Unpacking “Experience”

Experience, n & v:
n: 1 – actual observation or practical acquaintance with facts or events
2 – knowledge or skill resulting from this
3 – an event regarded as affecting one (an unpleasant experience)
v: 1 – to have experience of, undergo
2 – feel or be affected by (an emotion, etc)
– Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd Ed (2002)

Straightforward enough, huh? Well maybe not.

I’ve been reading  Experience, evidence and sense: the hidden cultural legacy of English by Anna Wierzbicka. In it, she argues that the word experience, particularly in the third sense of the noun described above, is a peculiarly Anglo-English concept that cannot be easily translated into other languages. Furthermore, this use of the word is a relatively recent development in the English language, not appearing until around the 18th century. Its rise coincides with the rise of empiricism in British philosophy (Hume, Locke), in contrast to the rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz) that continued to dominate philosophical thought in the rest of Europe.

The original sense of experience was something that built up over time: experience as a body of accumulated knowledge (e.g. an experienced tradesperson). However experience has expanded to also refer to something that can be, ahem, ‘experienced’ in the moment – it is sensory, self-aware and subjective, combining perceptions, thoughts and feelings. In other words we can have experiences, and we are aware that we are having experiences while we are having them. Experience has become a countable noun: we can have an experience going horseriding; this is a very different thing from gaining experience in horseriding. However, this relatively new and now ubiquitous use of the word experience apparently has no equivalent outside the English language:

“The word experience plays a vital role in English speakers’ ways of thinking and provides a prism through which they interpret the world. While its range of use is broad and includes a number of distinct senses, several of these senses have a common theme that reflects a characteristically Anglo perspective on the world and on human life. This is why the word experience is often untranslatable (without distortion) into other languages, even European languages” (Wierzbicka, 2010, p.31)

So I’m wondering what this means for the way we conceptualise and study Visitor Experiences in a global context. It’s a significant question, as numerous theories in tourism, education and other areas hinge on defining characterising the experience. Obviously, English speakers aren’t the only people to have ‘experiences’. But maybe we are the only linguistic group to conceptualise and describe them in the way that we do. So when we talk about experiences across cultures, how do we know we’re all talking about the same thing?

Pine and Gilmore's 1999 work set up a value chain that had commodities at the bottom, then goods, then services, then experiences. So now I'm left wondering how Anglo-centric this highly influential idea is . . .

“Given the central role of English in today’s science, including psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, it is particularly important that such culture-specific constructs are not absolutised and also that they be well understood” (Wierzbicka, 2010, p.30)

I’m probably late to the party on this – it’s likely others have already given this considerable thought. I’d appreciate links to additional resources on this point. Given ‘experience’ is a key word in my thesis title, it is probably worth my while mulling it over for a while.

Pine, B. J. I., & Gilmore, J. H. (1999). The experience economy: work is theatre & every business a stage. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Wierzbicka, A. (2010). Experience, Evidence, and Sense: The Hidden Cultural Legacy of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Interpretation: whose business?

I have a confession to make.

Probably a contentious one, given I am Vice President of Interpretation Australia, but one I will make nonetheless: I’m having a bit of a problem with the word ‘interpretation‘.

The word is tantalisingly – misleadingly – simple: and this in itself presents an interpretive problem. Outside the heritage profession, it has a completely different meaning, usually related to translating foreign languages. And even within heritage circles, I sometimes wonder whether we are all talking about precisely the same thing when we’re talking about ‘interpretation’.

The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud from (One of the top images which came up from a Google search under 'interpretation' - yet another meaning for this vexed term!)

Before I go on, I’ll bring in an analogous example – the word ‘theory’. No-one would need to go look it up in the dictionary. Through common usage we all know it means a ‘hunch’, something we’re basing on conjecture but which we don’t have enough evidence to prove outright. In common usage, ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’ are interchangeable terms. But not to scientists. In science, a ‘theory’ is something that is so well backed up by available evidence that it can be taken as an established fact. A hypothesis, on the other hand, is closer to our common understanding of  the word ‘theory’ – we think we know what might be going on, but the results are not yet in.

This disconnect between everyday and specialist usage of a seemingly harmless word such as ‘theory’ has its consequences.  For instance, people who wish to undermine the well-established Theory of Evolution for their own political or religious agenda can turn around and say:  “Well, it’s only a theory, isn’t it?”

Now ‘interpretation’ doesn’t suffer quite like ‘theory’ in the way it is wilfully misinterpreted. But even so, I think the issue of definition runs deeper than just having to clear up confusion when you answer one of those ‘So what do you do?’ questions at dinner parties. How do you get someone to value something when they’re not even sure what it is?

The latest edition of Interpreting Australia focuses on the business side of interpretation: does interpretation make sense from a business perspective? How can we incorporate the value of interpretation into business bottom lines? Is there a firm line where marketing and customer service stop and interpretation begins? And what does this mean for who should be charged with ‘doing’ interpretation?

Sue Hodges writes the first instalment of a thought provoking series (the rest will be coming on the Interpretation Australia website soon) about how the unclear definition and intangible nature of interpretation makes it easy for it to be undervalued and ‘claimed’ by other professions rather than being a separate entity, calling for its own dedicated expertise and budget:

Intepretation suffers from being pluralistic. It spans many disciplines . . . Yet it is this very adaptability that currently threatens our profession; many other disciplines also want our slice of the pie . . . most [interpretation] could theoretically be undertaken by anyone because the required skills base is neither mandatory, legislated nor confined to the arts or sciences. Interpreters are vying for business against specialties which are more clearly defined, such as architecture. . . . it can be hard to justify adaptive and intangible interpretive work against the familiar and tangible work from allied professions. (Interpreting Australia Issue 43, p6)

In this context, consultants from all sorts of fields can claim they can do the ‘interpretation’ part of a project. And if clients aren’t entirely clear what interpretation is, and get different definitions depending on who they speak to, this only muddies the water further.

In a similar vein, I recently had a discussion with someone who is charged with helping local tourism businesses create better experiences (to the end of increasing visitor spend and of course, profits). While we both understood intuitively how interpretation can (and does) enhance tourism experiences, it’s hard to quantify exactly what interpretive ‘inputs’ will lead to a specific set of bottom-line ‘outputs’. And without this hard data, it can be difficult for some business owners, unfamiliar with the term ‘interpretation’ in the first place, to get it (and see why it’s a wise investment).

Our discussion did make me wonder whether the use of the term ‘interpretation’ was actually counter-productive in this instance, and whether we should just be seeing good interpretation as an integral part of creating a distinctive experience, regardless of what we call it?

Or maybe we turn it the other way around –  and show how interpretation is something people know about already! In another of the Interpreting Australia articles, Michele Bain of Designhaus draws upon the example of Jamie Oliver as an ‘interpreter’ of food and nutrition:

. . .he engaged us and inspired us so completely we never even noticed that we were actually learning to cook. (Interpreting Australia Issue 43, p10)

Perhaps if we described interpretation in these more familiar terms – i.e. applying interpretive principles to communicating the very concept of interpretation – we might help businesses make the conceptual leap from seeing interpretation as something that sounds very academic and not particularly relevant to them,  to understanding that it is the ‘secret ingredient’ which makes the difference between so-so and must-see.

To take the cooking analogy a step further: bricks-and-mortar might be the meat-and-potatoes of a destination, but without the carefully planned and expertly created ‘sauce’ that is interpretation, the experience may satisfy the basics but it is hardly going to be unique,  memorable or emotionally satisfying.

Maybe that is the way to describe what I do at the next dinner party . . .