Broadening: visitors making sense of the museum experience
Broadening is the term Roppola uses to describe “[h]ow visitors find themselves in relationship with the interpretive content of museums” (Roppola, 2012, p.216) as they negotiate “the poetics and politics of display” (ibid. p. 217, original emphasis). Examples of broadening that take place in museums include:
- Experiential broadening: seeing or doing something you would not normally have the chance to
- Conceptual broadening: improving understanding of a theoretical principle
- Affective broadening: exploration on an emotional level
- Discursive broadening: considering an issue from another point of view
Roppola’s study encompassed a wide range of exhibit types – classical dioramas, multimedia exhibits, artefact-based displays and so on – covering topics across the sciences and the humanities. I’ll summarise some examples very briefly.
Broadening in the sciences:
- Physical to Theoretical, Theoretical to Physical: the links people made between conceptual scientific knowledge and the physical experience of using hands-on interactive exhibits.
- Standing in testimony to life: the ability for natural history and nature-based exhibits to increase an appreciation of the value and beauty of the natural world.
- Science as storied: exhibits provoking visitors to think about the processes of science, science as having agency and acting in a broader social and political context.
Broadening in the humanities:
- The guts story of people: engaging with powerful human stories on a visceral and emotional level
- Who is telling whose story, and how? The representation of different cultural groups in the museum context prompts visitors to critically evaluate the way different cultures are presented and from whose perspective.
- Speaking silences out loud: exhibits providing an opportunity for visitors to talk about things which usually remain unspoken – for instance death or a family member’s experience of war
Conclusion: Bringing it all Together
Framing, Resonating, Channelling and Broadening are not a sequence of processes that visitors undergo – all four can be seen taking place simultaneously over the course of a museum visit. What I find appealing about this study is that the theoretical constructs have emerged from the words of actual visitors in an exhibition context – it is a ‘home grown’ museological theory. Interestingly as well, three of the four concepts, Framing, Resonating and Channelling, are all relatively “content neutral” in that they describe the relationship between visitors and exhibits in a way that transcends the specific interpretive messages that exhibits are meant to convey. This is a novel insight, particularly since most museum visitor research historically has taken as its starting point what visitors “learn” from a given exhibition (however learning is defined). It’s also encouraging as it mirrors the content-neutral approach my own research has attempted to take: trying to understand the gamut of visitor experiences that include but are not limited to the specifics of exhibit content.
Summarising the complexities and nuances of a whole book in a mere 4 blog posts is an impossible task – I’ve necessarily been superficial in my treatment. However, I hope I’ve adequately conveyed the main ideas (and encouraged you to read further).