Why have I written this manual

This little book is born from the conclusions I reached listening to readers of my previous book from the beginning of 2019 El museo de ciencia transformador (ISBN: 978-84-09-07652-9). , whom I take the opportunity to thank for their support and enthusiasm. Their comments confirmed that the concept of museographic language —dealt with in a chapter of that book in a general and rather theoretical way— was probably what aroused the most interest. For this reason, this handbook is fundamentally dedicated to a deeper exploration of the museographic language, developing, outlining and qualifying the concepts outlined in 2019, in order to facilitate their practical use in the museographic profession.

Without the intention of becoming a cookbook or a playbook, this handbook tries to provide some basic references for the profession of museology, in which there are few widely shared or appropriately standardized conceptual bases that facilitate the development of professional activity with full efficiency. Also, this handbook is deliberately short, as I have always believed that short books can be more usable and somewhat more appealing. I think that if a book takes a lot of time to read —or looks like it will— it’s less likely to be read. In addition, this book does not attempt to be exhaustive regarding theoretical developments.

To write this book, I have been inspired—in substance as well as style— by five titles that have been very influential for me, and to which I could add many others. It also serves as a very humble personal tribute to them.

CosmoCaixa: The Total Museum, by Jorge Wagensberg et al. (2006): Being very young and beginning my professional journey in the museum sector, I was very lucky to be able to work close to Jorge Wagensberg (1948-2018), one of the most innovative museologists of the last decades. I personally consider him an influential teacher from whom I learned, among many other things, that an exhibition was actually the communicational product of an exciting language: the museographic language. This book, published after he created his masterpiece museum work (CosmoCaixa, in Barcelona, Spain), is a good summary of his extensive contributions to museology worldwide.

Although it’s true that in many other aspects science museums are frankly in a disadvantage compared to other types of museums, it is also true that in the development of the museographic language they have surely come a long way. Since the middle of the last century, museums —and not only science museums— explicitly assumed a social commitment in favor of education. Thus, they went from being ends in themselves —as they had been until then— to being means of communication at the service of different messages to be disseminated, within the framework of educational purposes that placed the visitor at the center of their operations, incorporating several characteristics of non-profit organizations. In this way, museums became organizations capable of communicating using their own language: the museographic language.

In those years names such as Jorge Wagensberg, Asger Høeg or Frank Oppenheimer were regularly cited as the geniuses of contemporary museology in the science museum sector, since they were some of the few existing professionals capable of «speaking» that magical museographic language. Certainly the founders of almost all disciplines —and museums understood as means of communication were something new— tend to be exceptional figures, but fortunately over time the necessary training resources are generated so that conventional people can also become professionals in those fields [if it were not so, we would still be depending on more great «Christiaans Barnards» to be born in order to have a heart transplant]. Many years later, I think that it is no longer necessary to be a genius, or to have special intuition or particular aptitudes to handle the museographic language, since it is –or should– already possible to learn how to do it. This handbook aims to contribute precisely to that.

Soap-bubbles and the forces which mould them, Charles V. Boys (1890): this little book represents the delicious popular science books by authors such as Yakov Perelman, José Estalella, Salvador Maluquer and many others. They are usually books as small as they are wonderful, full of wisdom and delicacy, a testimony to the authors’ broad and transversal vision and training, and their infinite curiosity; to their love for the disciplines they master and passionately want to make accessible and bring to everyone.

Somos Educación. Enseñar y aprender en los museos y centros de ciencia: una propuesta de modelo didáctico, by Josep Bonil et al. (2012): an essential text in which the concept of the Transformative Museum is shaped and which made me understand the importance of the educational commitment of museums with society. Thanks to it, I understood the immense potential of museums as educational organizations, especially with regard to their ability to educate, through the evident use of the museographic language, on a level comparable to that of schools, as part of the diverse ecosystem of educators in contemporary society. I admit that, like so many other professionals, I came to the world of museums initially attracted by the aesthetic and formal aspects of exhibitions. But when one reads books like this one, one definitely falls in love with the capacity for social transformation of the museographic language, so that everything else appears subject to the possibility of helping to educate.

La gestión de las organizaciones no lucrativas, Alfred Vernis et al. (1998): another of those books that are as small as they are intense. My interest in museum management led me to train in aspects of management of non-profit organizations, a subject that ESADE was beginning to be interested in during those years. Knowing the capabilities of the non-profit sector and its governance systems based on efficiency and socially transformative aims was an enormously enriching experience for me in relation to my work in museums. Personally, I think that a contemporary museum with an educational and transformative purpose can be identified with non-profit organizations in many aspects of its management . With this and other similar books, I also understood that social impact assessment is only part of a basic and largely pending aspect of the management of museums and exhibitions: strategic planning. In fact, social impact assessment of the exhibitions was one of the first tasks. I worked on as a museum professional, as this was an aspect that particularly interested Jorge Wagensberg. When one knows the possibilities of evaluating the impact of an exhibition, it makes little sense to dedicate resources to any project that does not have an associated evaluation plan to analyze results.

Conectando conocimiento. Metodología Sapiens, Ferran Adrià & Auri Garcia (2021). My stay at elBullifoundation for three and a half months in 2020 in the context of elBulli1846, in close contact with Ferran Adrià and his entire team, allowed me to catch the spirit of that magical project. It is unlikely for anyone not to feel intensely seduced —probably for life— by how people work and think there. The passion for knowledge in the air of that place next to Cala Montjoi (Costa Brava, Spain), in addition to the possibility of contributing to different aspects of reflection on the Sapiens methodology, made me understand the importance of thoroughly comprehending —first of all— any object of study to whose development one intends to contribute; as well as of what is probably the highest possible aspiration in relation to any discipline: to open new paths. To a large extent, this handbook is also the result of this stimulus that I had the opportunity to experience in Roses (Girona, Spain), and that keeps my feelings strongly attached to this place.
I hope that this book is not only of interest to museums, since it is not strictly about museums but about the museographic language. I think it may be of interest to scholars and professionals in several areas of communication, in a global sense. When I speak of the museographic language I do not mean it as a metaphor or in a poetic way. I think that the museographic language is one more form of expression and has a series of resources that are as substantial and real as those used by other languages, constituting one more autonomous, necessary and sovereign fully fledged means of communication: this book therefore passionately vindicates this fascinating language.

The museographic language is really only in its infancy and still has a immense journey ahead of it, a journey that will even transcend museums themselves and see it incorporated as a common language available to all kinds of people or organizations, and that will serve for different purposes and to transmit all kinds of messages —as in fact is already beginning to happen in different spheres, although perhaps not in an explicit way yet—.

Sometimes I compare the current situation of the museographic language with that of cinematographic language at the end of the 19th century, when the Lumière brothers filmed those brief first films… the cradle of one of the most important languages that would manifest itself in the 20th century and that is still in full force! This is why I disagree when people often talk about the limited job prospects of professional dedication to museums: personally I am convinced that the museographic language offers and will offer a multitude of possibilities to people who are appropriately trained in its use and who are daring in a personal professional commitment, both in relation to known museums and in new contexts yet to be explored. This book wants to contribute, therefore, to place the museographic language at the level that its capabilities make it deserve. To this end, its basic aspects are broken down, under the conviction that every language allows and requires a detailed analysis of its generating components, which are not many in most cases.

Naturally, I also hope that this manual will be of interest to museums. If there is one thing this book is trying to avoid, it is to pontificate, but it does describe a way of approaching work in museums that ensures they are completely unique and necessary in contemporary society, aspiring to persuade museum professionals to fully immerse themselves in the exciting world of the museographic language. If the reader is of the opinion that just about anything related to culture and education can be done in a contemporary museum, then this handbook will probably not appeal to them. But if you are of the opinion that there are some things related to culture and education that only the contemporary museum can offer, then I think this text may be of interest to you.

There will be those who may think that what is stated in this manual is perhaps intended to limit the possibilities of museums. Nothing is further from my intention. In fact, what I seek is exactly the opposite: to contribute to expand the possibilities of museums, although from the knowledge and full identification of what is uniquely their own. The museum can and must cooperate with other media and languages in a context of blurred boundaries between disciplines,but this can only stem from a deep self-knowledge of its own resources based on the museographic language. This is the only way to find valid intermediate zones and interesting miscegenation.

It is also possible that it may look like I am proposing a personal vision or a particular theory of mine about how exhibitions and museums should work. It would be understandable, given the number of often arbitrary and know-it-all ideas that are often put forward for museums. However, I do not intend to give an opinion at all, but to objectively analyze and synthesize everything that characterizes and differentiates the best practices in the museographic language, in order to identify what is essential and characteristic to it. Therefore I intend to prevent contemporary museums from incurring in redundancies with other languages, something that could put them in a dangerous situation of social expendability.

Perhaps it has not been possible for me to prevent this text from revealing my personal passion and my professional orientation towards science museums, or my interest and enthusiasm for the educational capacities of the contemporary museum understood as an organization of social commitment. However, I would like to make it clear that, despite this, I firmly believe in the value of the museographic language in the context of all kinds of museums and organizations —not just science museums— and at the service of all kinds of communicative purposes, even without necessarily being educational purposes.

Lastly, and as I also explained in my previous book, this is not a finished book either, but rather aims —from a position of utmost modesty— to open paths and inspire new reflections and developments in relation to a language that is still in its infancy, despite appearances. Fleeing from any dogmatic attitude, this text wants precisely to be questioned and debated by its readers, and for this purpose a channel for feedback, continuous dialogue and reconsideration is always open by means of its own website.

I do not want to end without wholeheartedly thanking the people who have given me their impressions of this text and who, thereby, have contributed to give it its final form: Javier Hidalgo, Alfonso Peres, Javier Peteiro, Ana Salazar, Marta Soler, Erik Stengler, Pere Viladot and, of course, Ferran Adrià. They have only contributed positive aspects that the reader will find in this handbook.

Note for this English version: I would also like to thank especially Leticia P. Castellanos, Manuel Gándara, Francisca Hernández, José Javier Muniáin, Massimo Negri, Montserrat Pedreira and Guido Ramellini, for their valuable contributions and reviews of the Spanish version of the book; many of which I have been able to incorporate in this English version. And of course, a huge thank again you to its translator, Erik Stengler: without his collaboration and enthusiasm, this English version would surely not exist.

Guillermo Fernández

Next: A language called museographic language.

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