How the museographic language communicates

The museographic language has its own, native communicative resources in everything that is perceptible as tangible and real. Its playground is Reality in its strictest sense.

Three of the most notable characteristics of the museographic language are developed below, which originate in its intimate relationship with reality:

Objects and phenomena, its native assets: in an exhibition it is possible to enjoy the powerful communicative effect of direct contact with reality itself, which can be perceived with special proximity and intensity through several of the senses, sometimes even through all of them simultaneously.

For an archaeologist, the bone of a Neanderthal human is part of daily life. However, in the context of a museum, that same bone becomes a fragment of reality that many people would never be able to access, because Neanderthal bones are not exactly abundant in their daily life experience. One way of understanding an exhibition, therefore, is to identify it with an environment in which work has been done to condense different aspects of reality that are not very accessible1, to turn them into a powerful communication resource that is accessible to all. However, it will not always be necessary for whatever is exhibited to be rare or singular, it should mostly bear a communicative claim.

As we speak of reality, we also speak of what makes it up: Space and Time. When we talk about space, we talk about what occupies a certain space: Objects. When we talk about time, we also talk about what spans time: Phenomena. Thus, real and tangible objects and phenomena, with their different meanings, are the native assets of the museographic language, those that characterize it, that give it its uniqueness and that give it its dimension of a necessary language. In the context of the exhibition, objects are real and phenomena really happen: together they articulate the museographic language.

To accept the existence of the museographic language is to accept that an object such as a Neanderthal bone has a singular and alternative communicative capacity to other things such as the photo of the Neanderthal bone, a video of the Neanderthal bone, the written description of the Neanderthal bone, a drawing of the Neanderthal bone, a digital augmented reality representation of the Neanderthal bone…

And the above could be rewritten like this…

To accept the existence of the museographic language is to accept that a phenomenon such as the emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis has a unique and alternative communicative capacity to other things such as the photo of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, the video of the exit of a butterfly from its chrysalis, the written description of the exit of a butterfly from its chrysalis, the drawing of the exit of a butterfly from its chrysalis, a digital augmented reality representation of the exit of a butterfly from its chrysalis…

The social experience: another fundamental aspect of the museographic language is that it takes place in the context of a socially shared experience, which ultimately is still another consequence of its intense connection with reality. The museographic language is not very explicit, it is not concise, nor does it have the capacity to convey a lot of data —we will discuss this later— so that to be properly fulfilled, it will require a co-construction of the message with its recipients –the visitors— who will use conversation to be able to develop certain aspects of the intellectual experience of the museographic language. This is so essential that it can be said that the conversation between the members of the different types of visiting groups is actually a fundamental resource of the communicative capacity of the museographic language2.

One of the most relevant contributions of Jorge Wagensberg —which became widely known in the science museum sector— had to do with expanding the concept of interactivity, a characteristic asset of science museums from the 70s of the 20th century. The idea of interactivity had been reduced in the context of these museums to the point of being identified with the mere fact of touching3. Wagensberg enriched the concept by describing three levels of interactivity that represented different levels of involvement of the visitor with the elements of the museum. He spoke of hands on or basic manual action, but he also defied minds on and hearts on, further layers of interactivity in the museum understood as a complex process and much broader than just manipulating, thus appealing to a bidirectional intellectual and also deeply emotional relationship of the visitor with museum elements.

It should be noted that, although Wagensberg developed the concept of interactivity as a prevailing notion in science museums at the end of the last century, he would also be one of the museum professionals who would most actively strive since the mid-1990s to include objects in science museums as a complement to phenomena, thus contributing precisely to supersede the dated concept of the interactive science museum.

It is easy to understand that the three levels of interactivity described by Jorge Wagensberg for museums could, however, be applicable to the processes of any other language —particularly minds on and hearts on— so that, once again, it is revealed that the museographic language is a full-fledged language. Pere Viladot refers to this idea in an article using the example of reading a book, a communicative act in which these three levels of engagement can actually be identified: hands on, minds on and hearts on. In this same article, Viladot makes an important contribution to the so-called Wagensberg’s triple interactivity in a two-fold sense. On the one hand, he adds one more element to the triad: talk on, which gives explicit relevance to the role of conversation between members of the visiting group in the museographic experience. On the other hand, he redimensions the rationale, adapting it not only to the typical interactivity of the science museum from the end of the last century, but also to the museographic language in its broadest sense. In this way, Viladot outlines a characteristic feature of the communicative channels of the museographic language, with a special focus on a museum with an educational intentionality (a transformative museum).

It is not at all exclusive to the museographic language that the receiver of the message acts as a necessary co-constructor of it —in fact, it is something that happens to a greater or lesser extent in all languages—. Other languages, such as the musical language, also share this characteristic, since the audience participates in the construction of the message it receives, so that what is transmitted is intimately personalized and completed by the receiver in each case (other examples are the japanese haiku, or the koan of zen buddhism).

The simultaneity of time and the coexistence in space with the receiver: enjoying a movie or reading a book —for example— are communicative experiences that take place above all at the individual level, even though they may be shared aftr the communicational act4. In addition, books or fims evoke spaces, people and situations that are spatially and/or temporarily alien to the reader or viewer.

In exhibitions, the receiver’s communicational experience occurs in the same time and space as the elements of the exhibition, physically sharing with them a time and a space, and based on group conversation between members of the visiting social group. Again, this is contact with reality in its purest form. In-person presence is, therefore, a necessary condition for the museographic experience.

It is characteristic of the museographic language that the co-construction of the message by the receiver occurs while coexisting with the elements of the exhibition in the same place, and simultaneously at the same time, all in a group context structured by a conversation.

 Using different languages, there are countless ways in which to explain that the African elephant is one of the largest animals on the planet, which is why it consumes a large amount of food every day. The museographic language can explain it, for example, by exhibiting two objects: an imposing elephant molar tooth —the size of a melon— together with a bundle of more than one hundred kilos of grass, roots and other vegetables.

Using different languages, there are infinite ways in which to explain how exhaustive the body care of the ancient Egyptians was, especially in the case of the wealthy classes. The museographic language can explain it, for example, by resorting to a phenomenon: having the visitor see their own face reflected in a mirror whose surface is burnished bronze, like those used in that ancient civilization.

In the two previous cases, little more is needed to fully experience the unique and fascinating intellectual experience that the museographic language provides and that can be called the museographic experience: just a brief display label with a few lines of text and a conversation with fellow visitors. Not much more. In a good exhibition it will almost never be necessary to add photos, videos, spoken explanations or, in general, an excessive help from other languages. Their use may be based on good explanatory intentions, but they can often become overwhelming and intellectually overmediated, and often they could come from underestimating the capabilities of the visitors. The addition of products from other more explicit languages does not only dazzle the visitor, who may miss the subtlety of the effect of the museographic language, but it also distorts and vulgarizes the exhibition and turns it into a flt, irrelevant and redundant product with the type of experience communication that other languages can already offer in other areas —especially nowadays in the midst of the Internet era—.

When using the museographic language, it will also almost always be necessary to overcome the frequent and devastating notion that it is not understood in this way and needs to be explained, and instead trust the complex, subtle, abstract but intensely effective channels of a well-used museographic language, with its objects, its phenomena and its conversation between the members of the visiting group. Despite appearances, explaining or understanding something has never had such a sophisticated, diverse and rich meaning as when the marvelous and unique capabilities of the museographic language are allowed to flow freely.

Thus, it goes without saying that the incorporation of technological resources to the exhibitions such as audio guides or, more recently, 3D viewers, Augmented Reality or another elements of digital technology, will have to be tackled with great caution, since the efficiency of the museographic language is based on the intellectual effect of the real and tangible: what is and really happens, right there and next to the visitors. It also hinges on the fact that the communicational experience is shared, so that visitors are never isolated from their capacity for mutual conversation in situ

Context of the museographic language:

Real objects (occupying space) and real phenomena (occupying time), bearers of various attributed meanings, intensely interrelate with each other in the exhibition, creating an enveloping, immersive, fascinating and profoundly real environment. Visitors, in turn, making use of all their senses, relate to the objects and real phenomena that surround them within the framework of the exhibition, and in turn also relate to each other—as further elements that make up reality—and they do this above all through conversation. All this occurs in a context of coexistence in space and simultaneity in time with the real elements that make up the exhibition, as well as full sensory perception of them.

The reader may perhaps think that this scheme would also fi well with a mother and son on the beach, looking together at an ancient coin that they have just found in the sand while diving. Indeed: the communicational experience of the museographic language is very similar to this type of situations, although the professionals of the museographic language work towards the full optimization of the communicative processes inherent to them, also with a purpose of universal accessibility.

Next: Museums and the museographic language.

Previous: A language called museographic language.

  1. This «poor accessibility» may be due to the fact that these aspects of reality are physically scarce, or because there is a lack of training or attention necessary to identify their importance.
  2. This does not mean that an exhibition cannot be visited alone, but only that it is in a group context that a richer and fuller use of the communicative assets of the museographic language will be enjoyed.
  3. “Forbidden not to touch” became a popular slogan that sometimes implied a somewhat snobbish criticism of the classic collection based science museum.
  4. The experience of the cinematographic language is probably more likely to be shared during the communicational act. Especially in the case of fims viewed on TV, which can be enjoyed in a domestic environment with family and friends.
Scroll to Top