The auxiliary resources of the museographic language

Just as other languages, the museographic language is not very explicit. The musical language is not explicit either, nor is the language of dance. Like all these languages, the museographic language requires the participation of the receiver in the construction of the message. This is not a disadvantage but rather the opposite, since languages that demand full participation and involvement of the receiver may be less precise but are more effective in many aspects of communication.

All non-explicit languages may occasionally require some small element of explanation. This is addressed by allowing another language to enter the scene, for a short time, subtly and without protagonism, a language that is characterized, above all, by its ability to be more concise.

For example, painters use a language other than the pictorial, such as the written language in the title of their paintings. Sometimes it may seem redundant (Children eating grapes and a melon. Murillo, 1645-1646), or extraordinarily suggestive (The young ladies of Avignon. Picasso, 1907). But it is always light, very brief and with an auxiliary role, since the focus is and must remain on the pictorial language.

To continue with the examples, in the cinematographic language it is common to use resources from other languages at an auxiliary level, such as written language. It would be the case of the receding opening scroll at the beginning of all Star Wars installments..

In the case of the museographic language, the most commonly used auxiliary resources correspond to the products of three other languages1.

• Graphic language: normally the label for a gallery or museographic element. In addition to written text, it may contain diagrams, photos or other graphic elements. In any case, its brevity is usually a key aspect, since its role must be reduced to that of a minimal and precise contextualization.

Audiovisual language: video or film. More recently also infographics and other high-tech digital resources of all kinds.

Oral language: most notably within the commented/guided/dynamic or even dramatized visit. Sometimes it goes together with elements of the scenic language.

Used in very moderate doses, like salt or pepper, and respecting the indisputable prominence of the museographic language in an exhibition, the products of the three mentioned languages can have an ideal effect as auxiliary resources, in the sense that they provide that lightning bolt of explanation that sometimes acts as a good catalyst for the less explicit languages.

It should also be noted that the auxiliary resources mentioned above are not strictly exclusive to the museographic experience. To cite a couple of examples: a good gastronomic experience can be complemented by some introductory, opportune and brief comments from the maitre; or a concise and brief printed leaflet distributed to the attendees can be an interesting support for the intellectual experience of attending a concert.

Sometimes all those resources related to the oral language used by explainers —typically in the context of a commented visit or similar— are identified with the concept of mediation2in the context of an exhibition or museum. Strictly speaking, all resources related to graphics or the audiovisual language could also be considered as a mediation too.

Unfortunately, the subtlety of the intellectual stimuli that characterize the museographic language is not always well understood, probably because in a first superficial approximation the capabilities of the museographic language may appear to be limited. This could be one of the reasons why it is often chosen to insert —sometimes even profusely— abundant products from other languages within an exhibition, with the well-intentioned purpose of making it unnecessarily explicit, and sometimes making it too obvious and flat, and paradoxically not very museum-like or even overwhelming3. In these cases it seems that the efficiency of the museographic language itself is not sufficiently trusted, probably due to a lack of in-depth knowledge of its processes and possibilities.

In this way, exhibitions are often approached —surprisingly— by oversizing auxiliary resources, and there are exhibition producers who seem convinced that the video of a phenomenon or the photo of an object are appropriate solutions in the context of an exhibition, despite the fact that hardly anyone would be satisfied with seeing a video of the Altamira Cave if they were able to enter the Altamira Cave. Fortunately, it did not occur to Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to do without his paintbrushes to make his aforementioned 1645 painting, and instead write an explanatory text of the scene from side to side on his white 145.6 cm × 103.6 cm canvas.

It must be taken into account that certain graphic products —such as paintings or certain photographs— should not be considered auxiliary resources based on other languages, since in these cases they play the role of objects and even phenomena in the exhibition environment. Something similar could be said in relation to objects and also to phenomena of certain projection devices and systems of audiovisual productions in some exhibitions.

In some cases, this erroneous abuse of auxiliary resources in exhibitions is due to a profound or even complete ignorance of the potential and resources of the museographic language. On other occasions, it comes from an intention to reduce an exhibition to something that can be made cheaply and quickly, that is attractive and that can be declared to be visitable. We must also take into consideration the determination of certain professionals of those auxiliary resources, who will sometimes do everything possible to convince their clients that a relevant exhibition is based on their products.

The overuse of salt and pepper thus ruins the stew of the museographic language. And it does so at least at the three levels mentioned above:

Graphic language: the exhibition reduces the visitor to a reader. The project becomes essentially a graphic product in large format, combining text, graphics and images—sometimes also with some videos—. In these cases, it is worth considering whether it is appropriate in the 21st century to ask visitors to walk around a room to read while standing up.

• Audiovisual/infographic language: the exhibition reduces the visitor to a user. In these cases, it is worth considering whether, instead of an exhibition, designing something like a good website would not be much cheaper and reach many more people. On the other hand, we must not forget the immense amount of resources of this type that visitors have at their fingertips today just through the smartphones they carry in their pockets, and that can make the face-to-face visit to an exhibition made in this way completely superfluous.

• Oral language: The exhibition reduces the visitor to a spectator. The speaker takes center stage. It is worth considering in these cases if it would not be better to organize a series of talks, a good play or even a program of performances by stand-up comedians, rather than an exhibition.

Now, following up on the previous example, it would be quite inappropriate to have diners listening to a twenty-minute dissertation from the maitre while they wait with their dishes on the table; or to be handed a one-hundred page document as a playbill when entering a concert…4

This book vindicates the museographic language with its own native ways to communicate. In the same way that not everything that is done up on a stage is theater, not everything that «fits» into an exhibition hall and can be «visited» in some way, will be appropriate to the intellectual, delicate, unique and captivating experience of the museographic language.

Next: The native resources of the museographic language.

Previous: The museographic language outside the museum environment.

  1. Note that all three cases can be mirrored in different digital technologies. On the other hand: these auxiliary resources can also appear when the museographic language is used outside the museum (see previous chapter). Also in those cases, it is common for certain aspects of the museographic language to be complemented with text labels or even explanatory video screens, for example
  2. Sometimes the concept of facilitation is used, which suggests that the exhibition poses communicative difficulties. Surprisingly, this is accepted and implicitly acknowledged
  3. In cases where you intend to convey a lot of information or be very explicit, concrete or concise, it is almost certain that other languages will be more appropriate than the museographic one, so that it is probably more efficient and effective to make a website, a book or a video than to make an exhibition
  4. …or that the famous opening scroll of the Star Wars saga lasted for half an hour…
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