In the context of the museographic language, the object is a perceptible element of the reality that is –it occupies space–, constituting itself as one of its classic assets. A meaning that they sustain by themselves is attributed to certain tangible and present objects, such as trophies, rarities, curiosities, relics, or many others. As commented in the earlier example regarding the Neanderthal bone, these objects do not necessarily have to be exceptional1but above all they are semiophores —bearers of meaning— in the sense already found in Krzysztof Pomian’s work.
Two types of objects in the museum filed are described below: the artifact and the model.
In the context of the museographic language, an artifact is a real object that communicates a message related to its own essence, that is, it literally represents itself (it can be said that it is presented rather than represented). The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum is an artifact, but so is Al-Khazneh in Petra, Jordan. In the latter case, the artifact is huge, so much so that it is enterable, but it is a complex museographic artifact after all.
The museographic capabilities of the artifact lie in a series of assets of emotional nature that challenge the visitor at a deep and even magical intellectual level2. It can be hard to explain why almost everyone would prefer to see a real Xian terracotta soldier in an exhibition, rather than an exact replica, even without any special knowledge of archeology and not being able to tell the original from the copy. In the same vein, would you calmly try on a hat that was commonly used by a serial killer? Certain artifacts can carry intense meanings and this makes them profoundly communicative. The contemporary museum relates, collects, condenses and optimizes real and tangible artifacts that are not always easily accessible, in order to place them at the service of such communicational and educational purposes in the broadest sense.
Types of artifacts:
The following classification is suggested for museum artifacts according to their origin:
• Artifacts related to nature.
→ to non-living nature: for example, a geode.
→ to living nature: for example, a turtle egg. The human being as a particular case of living nature could be a category on its own.
• Artifacts related to human activity.
→ Artisanal: manufactured mostly manually and with a pragmatic purpose, such as a rug from the Alpujarra (Andalusia, Spain).
→ Historical: characterized by having its origin in the past and being preserved, like a Roman coin.
→ Artistical: manufactured to create beauty for various aesthetic purposes, like a porcelain figure.
→ Technological: manufactured with a pragmatic purpose although by industrial procedures, just like the engine of a washing machine.
It is easy to understand that one single museum artifact, as an element that is part of reality, could share various aspects of the previous classification to different degrees and in a non-univocal correspondence, since reality rarely adheres strictly to classifications. A Stradivarius violin, for example, could at the same time be artisanal, historical, artistic and technological, and even related to living nature, depending on the perspective. Something similar could be said of the two types of artifacts related to nature—non-living and living —as would be the case of a fossil trilobite. In fact, it is unusual to find museum artifacts that strictly fall into only one of the categories of this classification, precisely due to the intense relationship of the artifacts with reality.
Strictly speaking, zoological parks, aquariums and botanical gardens —explicitly identified as museum spaces by ICOM3— could be considered as places based on living nature artifacts as a resource of the museographic language, exhibiting a collection of singular and delicate artifacts, whose real presence is so extreme that they are alive, emphasizing an intense phenomenological aspect in a harmonious object-phenomenon connection.4
The artifact is the traditional resource of the classical museum. Since collections often accumulate artifacts of considerable antiquity, museums are frequently associated with concepts and messages related to the past, in a retrospective communicative context.
However, nothing prevents this kind of artifacts —perhaps together with other contemporary artifacts— from being made available for the communication of messages of the present or even the future, with a complementary prospective purpose, for which the museographic language can also be used. Thus, the term collection should not only be associated with historical artifacts, but could perfectly well also be extrapolated to contemporary artifacts, even if they are not artworks.
From the point of view of the museographic language, a model is a real object that does not represent itself but another object or concept in a more or less metaphorical way. The development of a model will always involve some kind of mediation, even when the result is a tangible object. As said earlier, all languages have the capacity to be used in a literal sense or in a metaphorical sense. The museographic language also has this capacity, demonstrating once again that it is a full-fledged language.
Types of models:
For this classification, a criterion related to the purpose of the representation is used, considering that the museographic model can represent three things: another artifact, a concrete concept or an abstract concept.
• Replica. Which is subdivided into two categories:
→ Identical replica: represents an artifact that exists or existed, but always without attempting to replace or supplant its communication assets as an artifact. Such a model intends to display attributes of the artifact it represents, as for example, the high-quality reproduction of the Lady of Elche that is currently exhibited in the Archaeological and History Museum of Elche, Spain5
Identical replica models may include certain physical elements of the original artifacts, to a greater or lesser extent. This would be the case of an incomplete piece of Greek pottery that has been partially restored with resins; this is another example of the intense interdependence between the different resources of the museographic language, in this case between an artifact and a model.6
→ Non-identical replica: a huge part of museum work is based on making visible what is not humanly perceptible, either because it is too far away or too close, too small or too large. Thus, it can be said that the museographic language is often used to transport what is microscopic or macroscopic to a humanly viable level of perception that we call mesoscopic. Many nonidentical replicas are similar to identical replicas but involve re-scaling, which is the purpose of the mediation in such cases. This would be the case of an astronomical tellurium that represents the solar system, or that of a realistic model of a chloroplast.
But non-identical replica models are not always based on a change in scale. This type of models can involve changes in other aspects, such as color, texture or certain elements of the shape, according to different purposes of the mediation.
• Model of a concrete concept. Communicates a particular well-determined concept without trying to imitate reality in exact terms. It would be the case of representing a DNA chain with wooden marbles and interconnected thin wires. Or a house of cards illustrating the fragility and profound interdependence of the various economic agents in a society.
This category also includes models that represent fictional or fantasy concepts.
• Model of an abstract concept. It presents an abstract or complex concept in a way that is not always obvious or explicit, but in an open, possibilistic and flexible manner, deliberately leaving room for the visitor’s interpretation.
In this sense, a very important aspect to underline is that part of the artistic production —especially contemporary art— could be understood museographically as models of abstract concepts. It can be argued that certain contemporary artists use de facto the museographic language when they create or use tangible objects with the explicit purpose of being part of an exhibition, and also in order to share different messages, thoughts, perceptions, feelings or ideas. In this context, it could be said that artists use the resources native to the museographic language, most commonly the model of an abstract concept. The famous work Fontaine (1917) by Marcel Duchamp could be an example of the above. Fontaine is a tangible object, identified —or selected— by its author to become part of an exhibition, where it does not represent itself —a porcelain urinal—, but a complex idea, in this case questioning or reflecting on the concept of «art» itself. Therefore it can be considered to be a model of an abstract concept.
The famous work Fontaine (1917) by Marcel Duchamp could be an example of the above. Fontaine is a tangible object, identified —or selected— by its author to become part of an exhibition, where it does not represent itself —a porcelain urinal—, but a complex idea, in this case questioning or reflecting on the concept of «art» itself. Therefore it can be considered to be a model of an abstract concept.
Finally, just as in the case of the artifact, it should be noted that a model can incorporate aspects from the different types of this classification simultaneously and to a greater or lesser extent in the context of a non-univocal correspondence. It is rare to find models that respond exclusively or strictly to only one of these typologies.
It is important to be noted that in the museographic language the same object could act as a museographic artifact or as a museographic model, depending on whether it represents itself (is presented), or another object or concept.
In the context of the museographic language, the phenomenon is a perceptible manifestation of the reality that happens. Just as objects occupy space, it could be said that phenomena occupy time, both –space and time– being the basic elements of reality. As it was said earlier regarding objects, it could be stated that tangible and present phenomena can be attributed meanings and therefore they could be considered semiophores —bearers of meaning—, too.
The direct participation of visitors in different processes specifically designed to trigger a particular phenomenon, to develop it, or to be enjoyed through conversation —in an intellectual dialogue that offers important communicative and educational assets related to scientific experimentation— is what characterizes contemporary science museums and what contributed to these museums being originally called interactive museums. It is a name that does not seem very fortunate as it describes only part of the potential of the museographic language.
In fact, it is not always necessary to create interactive elements to generate phenomena, nor is it strictly necessary that they must be physically manipulable in some way. Nor is this an exclusive resource of the science museum: the mere fact of being able to touch a medieval sword with one’s fingers immediately becomes a demonstration associated with the artifact (the phenomenon associated with the object).
The two types of phenomena in the museum filed are described below: the demonstration and the analogy. As was the case regarding the object, while the demonstration is a phenomenon that represents itself literally (here, too, it can be said that more than represented, it is presented), the analogy is a type of phenomenon that represents metaphorically another phenomenon or concept, so in the development of a museum an analogy will always involve some kind of mediation.
From the museographic point of view, a demonstration is a real phenomenon that is presented (represents itself) in the exhibition to communicate a message related to its own essence. The fact of witnessing7a real and perceptible phenomenon that happens or manifests itself, provides an incomparable intellectual asset and is communicatively very effective. Just as in the case of objects, the museographic capabilities of demonstrations also lie in a series of assets of emotional origin that question the visitor at a deep and even magical intellectual level. It can be complex to explain precisely why practically everyone prefers to listen to the rattle of the Giralda in Seville instead of one of the many videos that show it on the Internet8 Certain real phenomena can carry intense meanings and this makes them deeply communicative. As was the case for artifacts, the museum relates, collects, condenses and optimizes real demonstrations that are not always easily accessible, in order to put them at the service of such communication and educational purposes in the broadest sense.
For a NASA astrophysicist, touching the Hoba meteorite with his fingers, perceiving its particular texture, may not have a special intellectual impact, but for a fifteen-year-old schoolboy it can be an intensely stimulating experience. Offering this kind of assets through the museographic resource of the demonstration to those who do not have them within their reach, is one of the reasons why exhibitions and museums exist.
Types of demonstrations:
A classification is proposed below in parallel to the one previously used for the artifact, according to its origin:
• Demonstrations related to nature.
→ to non-living nature: the creation of a large soap bubble.
→ to living nature: witnessing the movements of a real ant carrying a huge piece of leaf that it has cut off. The human being as a particular case of living nature could be a category on its own.
The intense relationship between the phenomena of nature with the ways of the scientific method means that this kind of resource plays a major role in the science museum context. The same could be said about museum artifacts related to nature.
• Demonstrations related to human activity. Demonstrations are not only related to aspects of scientific knowledge, but can be associated with culture, society, history or human intelligence.
→ Artisanal: the touch of a Japanese silk kimono, or the sound of a hurdygurdy turning its handle.
→ Historical: characterized by evoking a phenomenon that has its origin in the past, and which has been preserved or is somehow brought to the present. Examples: the sound of a bell molten in the 11th century, or eating garum.9
→ Artistical: with various aesthetic purposes, such as the image of a kaleidoscope.
→ Technological: the smell of burning napalm.
Analogously to the case of artifacts, the demonstrations are usually of a mix of types, since reality does not commonly show great interest in sticking to classifications. Witnessing the fascinating fall flight of the maple seed would mean combining an artifact related to living nature (a winged seed), with a demonstration related to non-living nature (the aerodynamic spin). Witnessing a common pond skater swimming on the water surface of a pond, would be a demonstration related to living nature (its hydrophobic hair on the legs) combined with a demonstration related to non-living nature (the surface tension of fresh water and capillarity). In the case of the demonstrations related to the human being, looking through Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s first microscope is a demonstration that is technological, artistical, historical and artisanal at the same time.
In the context of the museographic language, we use the term analogy for a real phenomenon that does not represent itself but another phenomenon or concept in a more or less metaphorical way. Just as in the case of the model, the creation of the museographic analogies will involve some level of mediation. While the demonstration is a phenomenon that is presented literally, the analogy is a metaphorical representation to different degrees.
The development of analogies is probably one of the most interesting aspects of the use of the museographic language, but it is also one that requires the most resources if one works with criteria of excellence.
Types of analogies:
Again, coherence is maintained with the classifiation used previously for the case of the model, using a criterion related to the purpose of the representation. Thus, the analogy can represent three things: a demonstration, a concrete concept and an abstract concept.
• Replication. It is subdivided into two categories:
→ Identical replication: this type of analogy aims to offer some elements of the particular demonstration it tries to emulate but always without trying to substitute or supplant its communication assets as a demonstration.10 This would be the case of an olfactive device that, in the context of an exhibition, offers visitors the same ambient scent of a Viking home, using current essences of smoke or certain stews of the type that were originally cooked in those houses.
As was the case with identical replicas, identical replication analogies may retain certain aspects of the demonstrations they are inspired by, to a greater or lesser extent. Take the case of the reproduction of a medieval English longbow made with contemporary materials. The reproduction, properly installed in an exhibition, allows visitors to test —using their own hands— the enormous tension of its string (which could be over 70 kg). This identical replication could include the natural horn tips that were used to attach the string to the ends of an actual medieval bow. This exemplifies once again the intense interdependence between resources of the museographic language, in this case between demonstration and analogy
Everything related to the world of smells has an ideal communication channel in the museographic language, since, at the moment, it would be very complicated to communicate it through the resources of other languages.
→ Non-identical replication: this type of the museographic analogy is a phenomenon similar to that of the previous one, although it incorporates a change in the conceptual perspective that is the purpose of the intended mediation. In the case of the museographic analogy, the aforementioned mesoscopic concept for museographic models could also be associated with other magnitudes such as duration, since certain phenomena can occur too quickly or too slowly for human perception. Probably one of the most interesting examples of a non-identical replication analogy is that of the so-called Terrella, created as an experiment by the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, who at the beginning of the 20th century was able to generate beautiful northern lights that are perfectly visible at the poles of a small magnetized sphere representing the Earth.
Another example of a non-identical replication analogy could be the famous Tornado, a common exhibit in science museums, created by Ned Kahn. In this analogy, the meteorological conditions that give rise to the phenomenon of a real tornado are reproduced, using an artificial mist, in addition to other resources.
• Analogy of a concrete concept. A phenomenon that communicates a particular well-defied concept in a deliberately symbolic way, although without trying to imitate reality exactly or emulate a demonstration. This would be the case of representing the properties of a gas with dozens of ping-pong balls bouncing haphazardly in a container, moved by an air flw, as is the case of the exhibit called The second law of thermodynamics, at CosmoCaixa (Barcelona, Spain).
• Analogy of an abstract concept. A phenomenon that suggests an abstract or complex idea or concept in a way that is not always obvious or explicit but in an open, possibilistic, flxible way that deliberately leaves room for the visitor’s interpretation. As in the case of the model of an abstract concept, part of contemporary artistic production could be understood as museographic analogies of abstract concepts. It can be argued that certain contemporary artists de facto use the museographic language when they create or use tangible phenomena with the explicit purpose of being part of an exhibition, and also in order to share or communicate different messages, thoughts, perceptions, feelings or ideas. In this context, it could be said that artists use the resources native to the museographic language, most commonly the analogy of an abstract concept. An example could be the mutable sculptures of the Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama, who uses ferrofluids to create complex changing forms, as a reflection on the ephemeral and variable nature of matter.
Just as in the case of objects, it should be noted that in the museographic language the same phenomenon can act as a demonstration or as an analogy, depending on whether it represents itself (is presented), or it represents another phenomenon or concept.
The classification made for the resources of the museopraphic language could be further developed for different specific cases, applying —according to the typologies described— a classification such as the UDC (Universal Decimal Classification). This would allow to determine to a very precise degree the type of each one of the artifacts, models, demonstrations and analogies.
However, it is important not to forget that in any case it is a classification, which, like the very reality on which it is inspired, cannot be subjected to a strict scheme, it will always allow for superimpositions and mixed spaces.
Despite this classifiation, it is worth insisting once again that, importantly, in a good exhibition the resources of the museographic language are intimately intertwined, just as in the real world. In fact, achieving this hybridization and interdependent connection between resources, constitutes one of the keys of an excellent development of the museographic language.
The so-called scenographies, for example, are a good example of the above. These are installations that, within an exhibition, emulate a space true to scale, creating an attractive, immersive, and intellectually and physically enveloping effect, which is especially stimulating as it offers a certain sense of transcendence to visitors. Scenographies can recreate spaces of all kinds, whether existing, historical or imaginary [a cave, an Andalusian patio, a Roman house, a family of gorillas eating in their habitat, Bilbo Baggins’s house…]. Models and real artifacts are often mixed in scenographies, and they usually have natural dimensions that make them even enterable. The sets can also have effects such as smells, sounds, lights, etc., in order to accentuate their similarity to what they represent, thus incorporating the museographic asset of the phenomenon, either as a demonstration or analogy11
The idea of surrounding or immersive (or sometimes even themed) frequently applied to certain museographic approaches, can be understood as the intellectual effect produced by scenographic spaces, which constitute an especially integrating application of various or even all the resources of the museographic language.
The metaphorical nature of the museographic model and the museographic analogy must always be taken into account, so as not to commit the mistake of using them with literal purposes.
Some museographic solutions based on models or analogies can cause a bad effect and even a certain chagrin in an exhibition. This would be the case of life-size reproductions of dinosaurs that move their mouths or limbs through mechanical procedures, while they utter different digitally recorded roars. Or the case of reproductions of historical warriors capable of gesturing with electromechanical hands and eyes while explaining the story of their lives based on an internal loudspeaker.
These cases disregard that the museographic model or the museographic analogy —as resources of the museographic language— cannot harbor the claim of substituting reality, but should represent objects, phenomena or concepts using tangible elements, always in a deliberately metaphorical way. Therefore, trying to substitute literal reality by mistakenly employing the resource of model or analogy, which are metaphorical in nature, can easily lead to an unpleasantly shabby result.
The following double-entry table (see next page) shows the resources that are native to the museographic language, and it does so by relating its fundamental assets to the intended communicative purpose. Using the terminology of linguistics, it is possible to state that what we called assets of the museographic language (tangible objects and phenomena) could be identified as the signs of the museographic language. This parallelism opens an exciting path in the study of what could be called the grammar of the museographic language (particularly its syntax and morphology).
Next: How to use this language.
Previous: Types of objects and phenomena.
- By the way: it is important not to confuse heritage with exceptional
- In relation to certain objects, Walter Benjamin refers to their aura as something intangible that makes them unique.
- International Council of Museums.
- For example, an imposing shark swimming in a large aquarium: its physical existence (as an object) is harmonically cohesive with the majestic rhythmic movement of its tail that propels it (a phenomenon).
- By the way and without specific references: in the context of an exhibition one should never play with ambiguity to pass identical replica models as artifacts. The model has many functions in the museographic language, but none of them is to supplant the communicative capacities of the artifacts.
- Another example of this intimate relationship between the artifact and the model could be identified in the dinosaur skeletons that are mounted to recreate the original shape of the animal. Although the authentic bones of the dinosaur are artifacts, the metallic structure that keeps them together corresponds to a model applied to these bones.
- Note the implication of this word: to enjoy something that you are witnessing.
- Once again: Internet resources, far from replacing the real, tangible and in-person presence demonstrations, have precisely the effect of sparking interest in them.
- A fish sauce from Ancient Rome.
- In the same way that was commented for the identical replica model and also without making specific references: in the context of an exhibition one should never play with ambiguity to pass, more or less explicitly, identical replications as demonstrations. Analogies have many functions in the museographic language, but none of them is to supplant the capabilities of demonstrations.
- The diorama could be considered a similar device, although, unlike scenography, it would not necessarily be enterable.