Types of objects and phenomena

A classification of the two assets of the museographic language (real objects and real phenomena) is proposed below, based on three criteria: their availability (unique or common), their structural complexity (single-layer and multilayer) and their physical location (contextualized or exempt).

Unique or common.

Certain objects or phenomena [The Rosetta Stone, as an example of an object; or the long echo of the Hamilton Mausoleum in Scotland, as an example of a phenomenon] are unique as such and within their category, and for this reason they are especially valuable, attractive and may even be protected. When they are used in the museographic language, they show a high degree of representativeness of themselves and in some cases they are especially revered. It could be said that the uniqueness of an object or a phenomenon is an attribute that gives an object or a phenomenon special relevance1

Other types of objects or phenomena are not unique, in the sense that there are other objects or phenomena that are very similar to them and completely equivalent museographycally, with all the meaning and communicative capacity in the context of an exhibition. In a science museum environment, this would be the case of a coprolite or a nautilus shell (objects), or a thin layer of water freezing into a multitude of sharp crystals (phenomenon). In these cases, their importance is based on their contribution in the context of a typical narrative process of the museographic language, and not so much on what they are themselves.

The Hamilton Mausoleum in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, is known for its long echo.. Photo credits.

Single-layer or multi-layer.

Objects and phenomena can have different levels of sensory perception. A Paleolithic hand axe can be said to be a single-layer object from a museographic point of view, in the sense that its external appearance or outer shell will normally serve any communicative purpose related to that object. However, a tablet is a multi-layered object in the context of the museum, since it offers many possible planes of spatial perception depending on the intended communicative purposes; in fact its external appearance is probably one of the least significant layers  of what a tablet really is and does. It goes without saying that the museum display case, as a traditional element of the museum or exhibition, should ideally be used only with single-layer objects, since multi-layer objects —irrespective of whether they are artifacts or models from the museographic point of view— should be exhibited considering other means than such display cases, or at least skillfully disassembled or physically opened, thus allowing an adequate or progressive spatial approximation to each communicative objective2

Violin (multi-layer object) exhibited in a «deconstructed» way in the Physics and Music exhibition at CosmoCaixa (Barcelona, Spain). Photo: author.

Although perhaps it is not so intuitive, layers of sensory perception can also be identified in phenomena, although it would be related to their evolution in time rather than in space. The Renaissance painting technique called sfumato could be identified as a case of single-layer phenomenon, in the sense that, as a manifestation related to human visual perception, it is invariable once it manifests itself. However, the creation of soap bubbles and soap films in a science museum space would be a case of a multi-layer phenomenon, since the experimental dialogue around soap bubbles and soap films can go into an infinite number of possible phenomenological trajectories that progress over time in different ways.3

Contextualized or exempt.

Both the objects and the phenomena that have been selected to be part of an exhibition or museum have somehow been extracted —and in a certain sense also decontextualized— from their original environments, in order to make them physically accessible to the visitor in an purposefully curated exhibition4. But objects and phenomena can be kept in their original spaces, so that it is the visitor who goes to them, as happens, for example, in the case of archaeological parks, certain buildings or historic towns, or natural parks5.

The Tarragona (Spain) archaeological walk. Photo credits.

From the point of view of the museographic language, there is no qualitative difference between those scenarios, other than space requirements. Everything that is said for the exhibition as the native product of the museographic language can apply to the visitor oriented interpretation of a pre-existing space in which there were already objects and phenomena of interest (artifacts and demonstrations, above all)6. The only difference is that in the first case, an environment tailored to pre-existing communicative objectives is created to fulfil them through the resources of the museographic language —the exhibition—, while in the second case, a pre-existing space is analyzed based on identifying those communicative objectives that it can fulfil using the resources of the museographic language that are already present in that space. It is easy to understand that this consideration opens the doors, once again, to the use of the museographic language in any context in which there are real objects and phenomena that are made available to communicate a message7

Corporate museums —private museums dedicated to communicate the activity of a company— base their relevance precisely on the potential of contextualized objects and phenomena: so, the effort to create a museum or exhibition dedicated to the world of wine may not be justified if it is possible to visit the facilities of an existing expert winery that offers a good museographic interpretation of its crops, facilities, procedures and assets.

A case of corporate museum, related to beer production.Photo credits.

Next: The resources of the museographic language one by one.

Previous: The native resources of the museographic language.

  1. And also carries economic or touristic implications.
  2. Deconstructed is sometimes said.
  3. For example: the beautiful iridescences of color of soap films depend on the thickness of the film, which decreases as the seconds go by due to gravity or evaporation. Initially, a relatively thick, fresh soap fim is colorless or blue-green. As it loses matter —on its way to burst— it begins to acquire magenta tones, yellow and finally black, when the fim is already very thin and is about to pop.
  4. And sometimes also to protect and preserve them, as is one of the traditional functions of the museum.
  5. Not to be confused with certain museums or exhibitions deliberately created outdoors,
    typically of contemporary art.
  6. See the next section dedicated to the resources of the museographic language.
  7. The concept of musealizing would refer to this articulation of a communicative product from pre-existing objects and phenomena in a given space, identifying them as resources of the museographic language.
Scroll to Top