Museums and the museographic language

Originally, the Object was the key element of museums. In medieval treasuries, in mannerist wunderkammers or in the studiolos of the Renaissance, objects were preserved largely due to their uniqueness and special meaning. Objects were a means of producing intellectual stimulation —surprise and delight, it was often said—.

Later, and especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, due to different reasons such as the looting of the aforementioned spaces, museums became highly regimented organizations with a great interest in protecting collections, and based their action not only in the exhibition, but also to a large extent in the conservation and cataloging of the objects they guard. The objects are then exhibited as elements with their own full meaning, worthy of being revered, and the collections largely become an end in themselves. Geopolitically, it is a manifestation of the influence of the colonization and ostentation of the western civilization.

The 20th century brings important changes. On the one hand, the museum already explicitly assumes a social educational function, focusing on the visitor as the fundamental axis of its activity, and identifying its collections as a resource to communicate and educate. This means that the objects return to being means—as they were initially— although perhaps not so much dedicated to the original function of surprising and delighting, but rather to an educational purpose in the broadest sense.

This does not mean that collections and heritage now lose value, but that their value is explicitly made available for an educational or at least a communicative purpose, which, together with the group of people who visit it, acquires the highest priority in the management of the museum: the museum thus goes from being a place, to being above all the realm of a social function. It is evident then that the museum, insofar as it becomes a unique means of communication, also uses a unique language: the museographic language1.All of this lays the foundation for the concept of the contemporary museum.

Heritage, today, should not be understood as a set of objects from the past to be preserved, but as a set of objects and phenomena from the past and also from the present to be preserved, all of them at the service of an educational function in the broadest sense.

However, while the classic collection museum did create an important corpus of knowledge related to conservation, cataloging and exhibition, the contemporary museum —which is characterized, remember, by its intention of being a means of communication and not so much an end in itself—, has not yet sufficiently developed its knowledge base in relation to this relatively new purpose. This is still in the development phase. This situation could explain why contemporary museums currently suffer from difficulties to operate efficiently, according to widely shared criteria, and to have clear and coherent strategic visions, although fortunately the vast majority of contemporary museums do have a more or less clear awareness of being means of communication.

The previous diagram proposes an interpretation of the development of the museographic language. It should be noted that the classic mission of museums as organizations dedicated to conservation comes after the initial use of objects as elements of intellectual inspiration (medieval treasures, wunderkammers, studiolos…). The museum preserves a series of objects due to the fact that they were originally selected for being meaningful, and therefore to be communicative and intellectually stimulating elements.

During the 19th century, the intention to conserve suffered a paroxysm and museums became an end rather than a means. However, during the 20th and 21th century, museums —already impregnated with a declared educational vocation and with the visitor at the center of their action— recovered the sense of means of communication (through the museographic language) originally held by the artifacts.

On the other hand, also during the 20th century, the other basic axis of the museographic language that complements the tangible object is fully incorporated: the tangible phenomenon with all its communicative power. This emerges first in the context of museums of science and technology, which is logical given that many phenomena have a special conceptual place in the experimental mechanisms of the scientific method.2

The Laboratorium Mechanicum that the Swedish industrialist Cristopher Polhem developed in Stockholm in 1697 is frequently mentioned as one of the first manifestations of the use of the phenomenon as a resource in the museographic language. It was a space dedicated to the study of mechanics and it was based on various artifacts that could be mechanically operated by visitors. Already in the 20th century, a determined commitment to the resource of the phenomenon came from the hand of the Nobel Prize winner Jean Perrin, whose project for the Palais de la Decouverte in Paris in 1937 was based on offering a series of tangible experiences that allowed visitors to put themselves in the shoes of real scientists working on their experiments.

At the end of the 1960s, the resource of the phenomenon developed as a key asset of the museographic language in science museums, particularly in projects such as the Ontario Science Center or the Exploratorium. The phenomenon played the more important role above the object, which seemed to be forgotten in this context. The concepts of interactive museum or science center were then popularized. These terms were intended to differentiate these museums —which offered fascinating phenomena— from traditional collection based science museums, which were then implicitly identified as an anachronistic or boring concept, or even as a superseded one, to the point that interactive museums were considered —in profound mistake— as a particular type or even as an evolved category of science museum.

In some museum projects, the aim is to offer an experience of profound sensoriality and fascination, based on the fact that the intellectual experience offered by the exhibition is produced in a tangible and organoleptic context closely related to the relevant role of part or all of the senses. This kind of approach is most of all making indirect reference to the asset of the tangible phenomenon, which is part of the museographic language.

Ontario Science Centre. Toronto, Canadá. Photo credits.

In these interactive museums, the resource of the phenomenon is associated with the expression interactive exhibit, surely because in many cases the visitor physically participates in the process of unleashing or developing a specific tangible phenomenon in a device created for this purpose by the museum, with the intention of sparking an exploratory attitude. This offers a special attraction and a greater intellectual impact, due to the dialogue that is established between the visitors and the phenomenon through —once again— conversation as a catalyst.

 The term interactive exhibit, despite being deeply embedded in the sector, is unfortunate, since both the term exhibit and the term interactive can be imprecise, ambiguous and incomplete. Especially the word interactive, used in many other fields with different meanings, and which can suggest that perhaps an intervention or physical manipulation is always necessary to enjoy the communicative capacities of the phenomenon as one of the basic assets of the museographic language. In any case, these exhibits do correspond to devices capable of recreating a certain phenomenon in real time and space in the context of an exhibition (but I reiterate that this can be with or without the physical intervention of the visitor)3.

 Starting in the mid-1980s, it began to be understood that objects and phenomena are neither mutually exclusive, nor do they represent phases of an alleged evolution, nor should they be the protagonists of different types of dedicated museums. Rather, they are the two basic assets of the museographic language —based on tangibility—, equally valid and perfectly complementary to each other in the same museum or exhibition, once a communicative intention is fully accepted. It is to be hoped that this dynamic will spread definitively and that the conceptualization of an interactive museum as de facto opposed to a collection museum, will finally be overcome and be replaced by a holistic idea of a contemporary science museum. For this, it will surely be necessary to maintain a two-way strategy, according to which museums, that are focused on objects are complemented with phenomena, and museums that are focused on phenomena are complemented with objects 4

At this point, it would be time to talk about the irruption of the phenomenon in other museums that have mainly objects and that are not science museums (art museums, art galleries, history museums…). Introducing the assets of the phenomenon in these museums would be perfectly feasible with the necessary resources. But that has not yet happened fully, explicitly or consciously, although there are already several examples, especially in contemporary art museums. I fimly believe that this could very much be an exciting line of action for all museums —and not just science museums— in the coming years.

The contemporary museum —and not only the science museum—, already imbued by a communicative and educational vocation, should bet on the tangibility of both the object and the phenomenon, unapologetically cultivating the museographic language that goes with them. Museums today cannot limit themselves to create exhibitions based on different mixes of products from other languages: they must claim their own language and understand that, in the museum, it is not only about working on what is communicated, but also on how it is communicated, obviously making use of the unique and stimulating way of communicating of the museographic language.

An exhibition should not be reduced to a cool collage of products from different languages presented more or less successfully in a room, in the context of what could largely be considered just a project of interior design.

Exhibitions should, therefore, show a three-fold rigor: technical rigor, in the sense that the contents that are communicated must be fact-checked; a museographic rigor, ensuring that the exhibition is based on the museographic language; and an educational rigor, insofar as the exhibition aspires to relevant intellectual transformations in its beneficiaries.

Next: The museographic language outside the museum environment.

Previous: How the museographic language communicates.

  1. This is manifested with intensity in the context of the great universal exhibitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which the museographic language is revealed as a powerful means of communication. These exhibitions are often cited as precedents for contemporary science museums.
  2. In fact, many of the most important experiments in the history of science are based on reproducing natural phenomena under controlled conditions. This makes a good science experiment and a good science museum phenomenon much the same thing. There are several examples of the above, such as Charles Thomson Rees Wilson’s Cloud Chamber (1911).
  3. On occasions, the physical participation of the visitor could even become counterproductive, since it can cause the visitor’s attention to be directed towards the development of the manual skills necessary to execute the action itself, distracting from the perception of the phenomenon that is the true protagonist.
  4. …and always without forgetting that good exhibitions are largely characterized by the fact that objects and phenomena appear intimately connected and interrelated, to the point that it can be difficult to tell them apart.
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