Future challenges

The full and preferent use of the museographic language in museums: museums today are a means of communication and not so much an end in themselves as they were in other times. In this context, in recent decades the contemporary museum has become a cultural space with countless functions and applications. Although this might look interesting at first sight, having a diverse offering is sometimes confused with being disperse, and being eclectic with being confusing, leading to a certain hypertrophy of the museum concept.1

Paradoxically, in the other extreme there is a certain atrophy of the concept of «museum», which, despite its original richness, has suffered a progressive erosion in its meaning and has often been reduced to only describe a place that exhibits a collection, and unfortunately sometimes with a connotation of staleness. This has given rise to various alternative names, that often even try to be euphemistic: information center, science gallery, science house, discovery center, science center, visitor center, children’s museum, science space… These names refer de facto to exhibitions or museums, in the sense that they are projects based on the use of the museographic language for communicative or educational purposes.

Naturally, a museum could do an infinite number of things and offer a multitude of services related to culture. But the challenge of the contemporary museum—if it aspires to become a necessary, unique and sustainable establishment— is not to offer everything that can be offered, but to identify what only a museum can offer.

Currently, several museums are committed to an intensive program of activities that bring it closer to the role of a cultural center with a fairly general purpose. Regardless of how interesting or opportune this approach may be, it can put the museum at serious risk of being expendable, because it loses its uniqueness. From the analysis of best practices and in order to define what is essential, it could be stated that “the full use of the museographic language at the service of education with a transformative purpose” would be the ideal approach to endow the contemporary museum with its own character and uniqueness, with its own and necessary distinctive competency.2 Indeed, as a corollary to this idea, we could recall an extraordinarily concise definition of «museum» that was already outlined at the beginning of this manual:

The contemporary museum could be understood as a means of communication that uses the museographic language for an educational purpose.

The use of the museographic language beyond museums: it is really hard to imagine any area of communication in which the museographic language could not play a role. In fact, this language is already penetrating different contexts, although perhaps in a way that is still not very explicit, or is disguised under various neologisms that ultimately refer to the resources of the museographic language. Private companies, for example, have in the museographic language an immense potential to tap into. The so-called corporate museums —museums of private businesses— are only the tip of this iceberg.

Avoiding the excessive use of resources of other media: it is essential to respect the natural subtlety of the channels of the museographic language, avoiding the temptation to over-mediate between objects, phenomena and visitors. Developing and polishing the best practices of the museographic language will surely give museum professionals enough work to be passionate about without the need to work instead on products of other languages. Ideally an excess of resources from other languages in an exhibition should be avoided, as this can render the exhibition so explicit that it erodes its powerful communicative capability and ultimately makes it redundant.

Certain cultural managers or explainers may think that the approach of this book does not take into account their passionate interpreter work in exhibition halls or museums in direct contact with visitors. Quite the contrary: the future of the museographic language is undoubtedly in their hands, if only they understand that their work is based on two pillars which will prevent them from becoming mere crutches of bad museography. On the one hand, in the context of the visitor experience, educators should give up all protagonism and contribute discreetly but skilfully to support the proper channels of the museographic language, which are based on a relationship between visitors among themselves and with the elements of the exhibition. On the other hand, in the context of exhibition development, explainers should get involved already during the stages of creation, production and evaluation as experts in the full use of the resources of the museographic language, thus contributing during these important steps to develop a true museum experience.3

A critical approach in museums to new digital technologies: as noted above, nowadays it is not easy to approach new technologies critically without being quickly labeled as a luddite or a misoneist, but I am willing to take the risk.

The museographic language is based on communicating through what is real and not virtual. But, although its distinctive competence and differential factor lies precisely in this, it goes without saying that this language can coexist with the virtual representations that are naturally part of the new digital communication technologies, whose presence is practically unavoidable in all spheres of contemporary communication.

Some approaches defend that high-tech digital communication systems are ideal for museums, given the multiple possibilities they can provide. Sometimes they even identify this type of solution with the resource of the demonstration of the museographic language. These digital proposals usually aspire precisely to imitate reality (as their own terminology suggests: 3D, Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), etc.) but due to their high ambitions that aspiration could become obscene in the context of an exhibition that, as a product of the museographic language, is precisely dedicated to what is real.4

There is no doubt about the possibilities that these digital resources have in their own fields —and even in exhibitions in very specific and measured contributions, and always as auxiliary means and not as ends— but it is necessary to remember that the museographic language already has its own resources and its own technologies, and it does not emulate reality but rather presents it. 5

The so-called digital transformation or digital transition is therefore a particularly confusing concept in the museum filed, which it has entered vigorously.6 A somewhat authoritarian attitude can also be noticed, in the sense that it assumes that it cannot be disputed that there is a need to transition-to-something, thus implying in a rather arbitrary way that current approaches are not optimal or that they could not become so. There is no doubt that, because many museums are not sufficiently aware of the potential of the museographic language —in addition to having little track record in strategic management—, the flight forward of this so-called digital transition can in some cases be received as a relief, at least momentarily.7

Here I propose three conditions for the use of digital technologies in exhibitions and museums. The first is that, in the first instance, all resources are focused on cultivating the museographic language, the one that characterizes an exhibition or museum and gives them their uniqueness.8 The second is that, like any resource from another language, the presence of these digital technologies is maintained on a subsidiary and auxiliary level when coexisting with the museographic language, without claiming protagonism, and at its service. The third condition is that the intervention of these digital technologies ultimately serves the best possible and most intense face-to-face contact of visitors with tangible and real objects and phenomena.

Providing phenomena to exhibitions that only have objects and vice versa: the effectiveness of the museographic language is based on the appropriate balance between objects and real phenomena —and therefore between the four resources that derive from them: artifact, model, demonstration and analogy—, a balance whose development still has a long way to go. Once again, this is not only characteristic of the museographic language but of all languages. For example, despite the fact that the metonymy is one of the most important resources of the language of poetry, it would be quite unbearable to read a poem composed only of metonymies.

Certain problems with the management, the efficiency and the audiences of many museums could stem from the abuse of one or a few of the resources of the museographic language, to the detriment of the others. It is fascinating to imagine how exhibitions that only have objects—such as art galleries—could perfectly incorporate the resource of the phenomenon. And how exhibitions that only have phenomena—such as science centers—could incorporate the resource of the object. Probably one of the future strategic directions for the development of the museographic language lies in this exciting challenge.9

Collecting phenomena in museums and not just objects: elaborating to a certain extent on the above, if museums with objects obviously collect them with all the implications regarding the conservation of heritage, it is worth wondering why this is not done, too, with phenomena, which can also be collected and considered heritage. In fact, often more resources are invested in the development of certain phenomena for museum purposes than in the acquisition of objects. Many museums claim to have an immense number of objects from their collections in warehouses, which cannot be exhibited due to limitations of space and other resources. It could be thought that also an immense number of phenomena are patiently waiting somewhere –perhaps not even physically—for their opportunity to be revealed in museum halls.10

Promoting R+D+i of the museographic language: the museographic language could resemble the game of chess in a certain sense. The fundamental rules of chess are relatively simple, and the basic moves of the pieces can be learned in just a couple of hours. However a chess player can literally dedicate his whole life to the development and optimization of the game due to the intense complexity of the possible interactions.

The concept of R+D+i can be perfectly adapted to the museographic language. In fact, all languages have been developed over time thanks to research work that has been applied to their communicative possibilities, for example in the language of fim, which began as a scientific curiosity and is currently one of the most popular languages. At a time when it may seem that everything has already been invented, it is enormously seductive to be able to dedicate research, development and innovation efforts to such a powerful language as the museographic language, which is only in its infancy.

Evaluating the communicative effectiveness of the products of the museographic language in the context of adequate strategic planning: it is unthinkable to work in communication —in any filed of communication— without knowing if communication is achieved… In any serious initiative related to communication, the results are carefully defied in advance, carefully planned, carefully obtained, carefully evaluated and measured, and carefully reported to those who fund them.

In the case of the museographic language, this is so a fortiori, insofar as many museums work almost entirely with public funds. For this reason, a challenge of great importance for the future of the museographic language lies in establishing itself in a framework of regular strategic planning that systematically enables the analysis and evaluation of the results. This will make it possible to know to what extent the intended communication objectives are achieved, and to optimize procedures regularly. All this also needs to consider that the museographic language, by its very nature, works with especially complex and abstract channels that complicate the detection of its intellectual impact.11 In this same sense, it is essential that museums systematically analyze their audiences and procedures to know if they are effectively reaching those who need them most.12

Evaluating, therefore, is not only about knowing if museums attract (counting visitors) or are liked (measuring satisfaction), but above all about knowing their educational impact.

Properly combining executive management with strategic management in museums: Further building on the above, it is probably the difficulty in finding a common baseline in the use of the museographic language, together with a somewhat disorderly growth of some types of museums13, what has led to an excessive inclination towards the urgent management of day-to-day activities in museums, often in a somewhat hasty and hectic way, and on occasions confusing diligence with precipitation14

All contemporary organizations that work well do so in the context of a proportionate balance between strategic management and executive management. Thus, companies have boards of directors that, with their presidents at the helm, carry out strategic work while the CEOs and their staff develop executive management. In the public sector, civil servants are responsible for executive management, and political leaderships develop strategic management. However, it is characteristic of many cultural institutions —not only museums, but non-profit organizations in the broadest sense— that strategic management is not considered to be as important as executive management, so that the strategic issues are often improvised erratically by the same teams that work on the executive aspects. Despite the fact that there are bodies normally dedicated explicitly to carrying out such strategic tasks —such as the boards of trustees—, for various reasons they often do not actually do it. As the social organizations that they ultimately are, contemporary museums must dedicate resources to develop their strategic management, devoting the same efforts and with the same regularity that they apply to executive management. This is undoubtedly one of the most important challenges, although it is also one of the most negatively affected by the abuse of the outsourcing (or over-outsourcing) of services that the museum sector is currently suffering from.

Putting the design of the exhibition at the service of the museographic language: too often museography is confused with interior design. Sometimes style prevails over substance, means prevail over ends and aesthetics prevail over ethics in many areas of the museum profession. It is quite common to confuse an exhibition —the product of and the space for the museographic language—with a more or less showy mix of products from other languages located in a room, ultimately created just as a project of interior design. Underlying in these cases is a clearly aesthetic intention that does not seem to serve any communicative purposes, as such purposes are neither clearly defied beforehand, nor is their degree of achievement subsequently evaluated.

Spatial design is very important in a museum project: it makes exhibitions welcoming, enveloping and immersive, ensuring adequate comfort to the visitors that enter them. It also helps to focus their attention, promoting mutual conversation. Naturally, given that the museographic language is based on the communicative capacity of what is tangible, i.e. what is and happens right there, the design of the space that contains all this will never be a minor matter. However, it is necessary to unabashedly grant the leading role in this design to the development of the museographic language15, which the design should support and not the other way around.

A deeper development of innovative resources to optimize the visit to a museum or exhibition, munderstood as the basic context of the museographic experience: cinemas or theaters have adequate seats in which the public sits calmly and comfortably; ambient light is reduced, acoustics are taken care of, rhythms, tempos and durations are managed to make the communicative experience enjoyable, etc. Silence is kept in libraries and a climate of serenity and comfort is created. In all these cases, there is an explicit intention to adequately optimize both the channels and the context of the communicative experience of the cinematographic, scenic or written languages, respectively. However, in exhibitions it is not common to take into account aspects related to an adequate intellectual reception by the visitor. Frequently, in the exhibitions the public is poured into the rooms and lef to their own fate, without a prior and detailed analysis of the complex dynamics of the visit as a process. Despite the fact that the audience of the exhibitions is characterized by its particularly proactive and exploratory role, moving physically around the room at will —and also in conversation among members of a group—, there is also room to study and apply systems aimed at further optimizing the effectiveness of the visit, although at the same time without regulating it or restricting it excessively. If this exciting challenge were addressed, the assets and communicative capacities of the museographic language would be greatly enhanced.16 This complicated subject is completely beyond the purposes of this book, but it represents an exciting future challenge for exhibitions and museums.

Next: A brief glossary of the museographic language.

Previous: How to use this language.

  1. See for example, the surprising definition of museum that the ICOM presented at its conference 2019 in Kyoto and which was rejected with the recommendation of a review
  2. Using the terminology of the business world, it could be said that the core business of the contemporary museum lies in the use of the museographic language for educational purposes.
  3. As already noted: it must be taken into account that the museographic language has its own mediation resources in the form of the museographic model and the museographic analogy.
  4. Strictly speaking, the museographic language would actually represent the summum of the aspirations of these new technologies. No botanic garden yet is known to have swapped its real plant beds for advanced hi-tech infographic videos depicting real plants.
  5. The approaches of this book in no case intend to question the capabilities of other languages, but are determinedly aimed at delving into the possibilities of the museographic language, looking for its singularities and unique aspects.
  6. Other languages, such as the scenic language of theater, have not suffered as much pressure to address these digital transitions, at least not in such a radical way. In any case, it is not the first time that an attempt has been made to replace, without success, the unique and singular communicative resources of the museum. A phrase attributed to A. Karpov comes to mind when he was questioned about the future of chess in the context of the irruption of computers: chess will not die with computers for the same reason that cycling has not killed of athletics.
  7. Naturally, this is not referring to the indisputable support of digital technologies in aspects such as the museum’s communication with its potential audiences, the management of collections or even the conservation of some aspects of certain tangible phenomena, as would be the case of sound banks or the preservation of oral histories.
  8. …and remembering that the museographic language already has its own technologies.
  9. This aspiration also fits perfectly with the vision of a contemporary museum without surnames (of science, of art, of history… .), a museum related, in short, to knowledge in a transversal and universal sense.
  10. One could reflect on a new line of work for museum curators as curators of phenomena. Something along the lines of the CTS museum project (https://www.conservethesound.de/).
  11. In any project, the evaluation actions will clearly reveal the initial purposes: tell me what you evaluate now and I’ll tell you what you aimed at initially.
  12. Frequently there is the paradox that museums that aspire to educate, end up attracting above all a more and better educated audience.
  13. With the boom in science centers, the number of science museums around the world multiplied by ten in just twenty-five years.
  14. This way of doing things has become so embedded in certain cases that some museum professionals find it impossible to work differently.
  15. In a similar way, bronze foundry professionals also have a very important role in the world of sculpture, but they do not usually aspire to hold a protagonism that would be very inappropriate.
  16. The erratic and sometimes even thoughtless behavior of school children in museums and exhibitions is often criticized, but one should try to imagine what kind of behavior those same school children would have in a cinema —or in a theater— that was arranged as an open room where they had to stand around without an allocated seat, in a space full of people, with ambient lights always on, or barely audible sound…
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