A brief glossary of the museographic language

The world of museums has imported a large number of terms from other fields, such as theater, cinema, architecture or audiovisual production. At the same time, it lacks a terminology that is broad, descriptive and unique enough to fulfil its own semantic needs. This glossary is intended to be a sample of the extensive work that is still to be done in this regard and that is constantly in progress, aiming for brief and concise definitions that make them usable in practice.

Assets of the museographic language: they are related to the components of tangible reality that are carriers of meaning. These assets are the real object, which “is” and occupies space; and the real phenomenon, which “happens” and occupies time.

Audioguide: device or system that allows visitors, through different means –usually based on an audio narration –, to follow explanations in different languages during a visit to a museum or exhibition. It is very useful in some cases (such as accessibility for the visually impaired), but it can sometimes have the effect of hindering the desirable conversations between members of a group of visitors.

Auxiliary resources: these are products of languages other than the museographic language, that are used in an exhibition as tools to provide a sense of explanation in some very specific aspects and moments. Such auxiliary resources play a minimal role, acting as means and not as ends, and with the determined intention of catalyzing the assets of the museographic language. Typically, there are three auxiliary resources in the context of the museographic language: written text and graphics, technological and digital audiovisual systems, and spoken narration.

Beneficiaries: a broader and more global concept than visitors or recipients, and that identifies all the people to whom museums or exhibitions provide verifiable personal growth, irrespective of whether it is planned or not, or whether it is as part of a visit or not. This term can also be particularly applied to regular repeat visitors of museums or exhibitions, adding the connotation of the museum as an organization of social, educational and transformative action.

Communicative objective: purpose of the messages that are to be transmitted in the exhibition, and which in turn will articulate the key concepts. The formulation of objectives must take fully into account the needs and expectations of the intended recipients of the exhibition. The strategic panel will also contribute to this formulation, informed by the results of the evaluation work. The first short, general-purpose document outlining these objectives is sometimes called «mission statement».

Contemporary museum: an organization that uses the exhibition —as a product of the museographic language— for educational and social purposes, and that collects and preserves the objects and phenomena that it uses in this work.

Contextualized/exempt: characteristic of objects and phenomena that differentiates between those that remain in their original locations (contextualized) and those that have been selected to form part of an ad hoc exhibition (exempt).

Corporate museum: also called company museum, it is a museum space promoted by a private corporation that showcases products, services or values of that corporation, using resources from the museographic language. A challenge for corporate museums in the coming years lies in understanding that their purpose of fulfilling the various communication aims of the company will most efficiently be achieved by simultaneously provoking an educational contribution to society.

Curator: person or entity responsible for the rigor of the messages to be transmitted in an exhibition project.

Design: a fundamental part of the process of creating an exhibition that takes place after writing the the script, and that has the effect of implementing the museographic solutions in the exhibition space in an optimal way for a visit. When design acquires excessive prominence, the exhibition can become more a product of interior design than of museography, more of form than substance, and more of an aesthetic phenomenon than an ethical phenomenon.

Education: a much broader concept than teaching. Contemporary museums use the resources of the museographic language to promote it for their beneficiaries.

Evaluation: a fundamental activity for the development of the museographic language that, in the context of an adequate strategic planning, allows us to assess to what extent the messages that have given rise to the different key concepts and that have been appropriately transformed into museographic solutions, are effectively transmitted to visitors. The evaluation mechanisms will also clearly reveal which are the truly intended objectives.

Exhibit: a debatably precise but widely used term, which describes the smallest communicative unit of an exhibition that has a complete meaning and conceptual autonomy, and which constitutes the final result of a museographic solution.

Exhibition: the result of articulating specific communicative purposes through the native resources of the museographic language. The exhibition is made up of one or several museographic solutions properly linked in a coherent narrative (script) and can have different basic communicative objectives and purposes: educational, promotional, commercial, for-profi…

Explainer: sometimes called mediator, facilitator or interpreter (formerly «monitor», although no longer in use). It is a suitably trained person who, without the intention of being the protagonist, carries out in the exhibition hall the subtle task of catalyzing and promoting the assets of the museographic language, using different auxiliary resources such as the spoken language. Ideally, the functions of the explainer are not limited to the galleries, and extend to other processes such as the realization and exploitation of exhibitions.

Guided/commented/dynamized/dramatized visit: auxiliary resource of the  museographic language. Normally it is the product of the oral language (or sometimes of the performative language).

Interactivity: superseded term used in the last century to in allusion to science museums that made preferential use of the asset of the phenomenon over the asset of the object of the museographic language. They were called interactive museums. At the time this term implied an innovative concept, and made reference to the different physical actions that the visitor had to carry out to trigger or develop a certain phenomenon of museum value. However, it has been shown that it is possible to create an intellectual dialogue with phenomena without the need of any physical action by the visitor. On the other hand, it can currently be argued that the object and the phenomenon are two assets of the museographic language that are complementary without excluding each other.

Interior design: an important part of the design of an exhibition that ideally should not hold excessive prominence.

Key concept: concrete and well-defied notion of any kind that is intended to be transmitted through the museographic language, and that must be described prior to the development of a museographic solution, based on the message to be communicated. When defining key concepts it is important to consider two aspects. The first is that the better defied the key concept is and the more concise it is, the better the conditions will be for finding an optimal museographic solution. The second is that an exhibition must have a limited number of key concepts to be communicated that are adequately embedded in a narrative, so that the visit is intellectually adequate for its beneficiaries.

Label: one of the auxiliary resources of the museographic language, based on the written language, occasionally with photos or graphics. The label must have a limited length and seek a balance between providing sufficient information on the nature of a particular museographic element (and its operation where applicable), and not being excessively explicit, leaving room for self- exploration by the visitor, so that conversation is sparked and the assets specific to the museographic language can come into play.

Message: concrete idea that emanates from an objective and whose communication through the museographic language intends to reach that objective.

Museographic analogy: one of the four resources of the museographic language. From the museographic point of view, this is the name given to a real phenomenon that does not represent itself but another phenomenon or concept in a more or less metaphorical way. The development of a museum analogy will always involve some kind of mediation that does not exist in the case of the demonstration.

Museographic artifact: one of the four resources of the museographic language. From the museographic point of view, this is the name given to a real object that represents itself (presents itself) to communicate a message related to its own essence.

Museographic demonstration: one of the four resources of the museographic language. From the museographic point of view, this is the name given to a real phenomenon that represents itself (presents itself) to communicate a message related to its own essence.

Museographic language: a form of communication that presents in a tangible way the objects and phenomena that make up reality.

Museographic model: one of the four resources of the museographic language. From the museographic point of view, this is the name given to a real object that does not represent itself but another object or concept.

Museographic solution: result of working on one, some or all of the resources of the museographic language (artifact, object, demonstration and analogy) and, if appropriate, also a limited contribution of auxiliary resources, in order to communicate a specific key concept. It should be borne in mind that any museographic solution must be accompanied by its evaluation system, which will allow to check to what extent it effctively communicates the key concept from which it emanates. The exhibition can be considered as the set of all the museographic solutions, appropriately braided into a narrative.

Museology/museography: one way to understand the differences between these two terms is to relate them to other pairs of terms such as biology/biography or geology/geography.

Museum capacity: number of people who physically fi in a museum or exhibition, while guaranteeing that they will be able to have a full, satisfactory and relevant museographic experience. This number can be considerably smaller than the actual capacity of the building.

Museum experience: intellectual stimulus typical of the museographic language.

Museum R&D&i: this is the name given to any task that aims to advance the communicative possibilities of the museum language, both in terms of products and services.

Narrative: a structure that is applied to the key concepts —and consequently to their corresponding museographic solutions— in order to properly articulate and link them so that the exhibition is able to tell a story.

Object: one of the two basic assets of the museographic language. It is complementary to the phenomenon and also based on reality. Objects are perceptible elements of reality that occupy space rather than time and “are” rather than “happen”. The act of in-person coexisting in space with a real and perceptible object carrying a meaning, provides a unique intellectual asset with great communicative potential.

Occurrence: arbitrary and sometimes even capricious idea, unlikely to be evaluated in its communicative capacity, which emerges easily and promptly in certain museum projects, and which can be confused with a brilliant museographic solution.

Phenomenon: one of the two basic assets of the museographic language. It is complementary to the object and also based on reality. Phenomena are perceptible manifestations of reality that occupy time rather than space and “happen” rather than “are”. The act of in-person sharing one’s own time with the occurrence of a real and perceptible phenomenon that carries meaning, provides a unique intellectual asset with great communicative potential.

Polysemy: similar to what happens with words in written language, polysemy is a quality of museographic language that consists in the fact that the same museographic solution can have different meanings, depending on the intended communicative intention.

Presenting/representing: representing is based on replacing reality with something that is understood to be similar (metaphor). Presenting is to choose reality itself (literality).

Production: this term refers to all the work of physical creation and assembly of the exhibition, based on previous design work. However, sometimes this concept is also related to the promoter/financial entity of the exhibition, as is usual in other languages. In museum projects of a certain level, it is recommended that the design and production phases be carried out by different and specialized professionals.

Reality: concept that serves to express everything that has a tangible objective existence, so that it is present or actually happens.

Recipients: also called target audience. This term defies all those people to whom the message is addressed through the museographic language, so that the objectives of an exhibition are closely related to their interests or needs, which should have been previously studied.

Replica: specific case of the resource of the model when it tries to faithfully represent an artifact.

(The) resources of the museographic language: artifact, model, demonstration and analogy. Thy arise by applying to the tangible and real objects and phenomena the two communicative functions in an exhibition: either presenting (literality) or representing (metaphor).

Rigor: the museographic language can display different types of rigor that are complementary: technical rigor, in the sense that the contents that are communicated must be sound; museum rigor, ensuring that the exhibition is based on the museographic language; and educational rigor, insofar as the exhibition aspires to relevant intellectual transformations in its beneficiaries.

Scenography: a hybrid museographic solution that aims to reproduce reality with special rigor, applying with balance the four resources of the museographic language (artifact, model, demonstration and analogy) in real-scale spaces that can even be enterable.

Script: basic document in the realization of an exhibition in which the key concepts are collected, opportunely linked in a narrative, and associated with their corresponding museographic solutions detailing their realization. This document will feed the successive phases of design and production. Sometimes, the most exhaustive part of the script – the one that shows specific details for the realization – is called «content creation». Additionally, in a previous and synthesized version —before the script itself—a document called a «prescript» can be generated.

Showcase: common piece of furniture in exhibitions that is ideal for exhibiting single-layer objects or phenomena.

Single-layer/multi-layer: property of objects and phenomena that differentiates between those that offer a single level of spatial (objects) or temporal (phenomena) perception, and those that offer several levels of spatial (objects) or temporal (phenomena) perception.

Stimulated conversation: an outcome of the visit to an exhibition that takes place among the members of a visiting group, whatever its type. It is such an important asset for the museum experience that it can even be used as an indicator of the communicative capacity of a given museum element.

Strategic panel/strategic planning/strategic management: all the resources dedicated to the management of communication objectives in the medium and long term are grouped under this concept. In museums and exhibitions, this type of management must be separate from, and be as comprehensive, regular, and relevant as the executive management, which is complementary to strategic management.

Tangibility: property of the assets of the museographic language, the object and the phenomenon, which are intensely real, close, present and perceptible.

Uniqueness/commonness: property of objects and phenomena that differentiates between those that are singular or unique (uniqueness), and those that are museistically equivalent (commonness).

Video: auxiliary resource of the museographic language. It is the native product of the audiovisual language.

Visit: action by which people —normally forming various types of groups— engage with an exhibition to receive the messages communicated through the museographic language. In the same way that concerts are heard, movies are seen or books are read, exhibitions are visited.

Visitors: people who enjoy an exhibition as a product of the museographic language and co-construct the message through conversation within the social group with which they visit. In a museum, visitors are part of the total number of beneficiaries.

Next: Basic procedure for developing and managing an exhibition.

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