Transmission metaphors in museums

Embodied in the language we use are all sorts of ideas and assumptions: some of which we are aware, others we are not. A paper in the latest Curator journal (Ntzani, 2015) explores how the “transmission” metaphors that are frequently applied to communications influences the way we conceptualise museums:

“[T]ransmission metaphors make communication seem like an easy or automatic process between active speakers and passive listeners. This presupposition has long haunted museum communication practices” (Ntzani, 2015, p. 63).

Drawing upon the work of Michael Reddy, Ntzani describes two main transmission metaphors: that of the conduit; and that of the container.

Some literal museum conduit - a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)

Some literal museum conduit – a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)

The two metaphors are distinct and often incompatible. Conduits are invisible and passive transmitters of information, whereas containers call attention to themselves in the way they hold information and impose a shape onto it.

Ntzani argues that the container metaphor is often implicit in the way we discuss museum objects, exhibits and indeed museum buildings.

 . . . transmission metaphors make us think of museum objects either as containers of intrinsic cultural information, or as conduits of information that are transmitted from museum curators to museum visitors. The first proposition sees museum objects as sealed containers of cultural values that speak for themselveswhile the second proposition sees museum objects as conduits of messages, the signs of a language museums employ to build their narratives.” (Ntzani, 2015, p.65, my emphasis)

That section in particular made me think about the language of objects issue I was grappling with last year. Could the container and conduit metaphors help explain differences in the way different curators conceptualise the object and its communicative role? The former positions the object as being imbued with inherent meaning. The latter renders the object as a mere tool for an interpretive storyline: it says nothing in particular until it’s placed into a wider narrative.

“When museums are discussed as educational institutions, attention falls on the transmission of messages; in this case conduit metaphors take the lead. When discussed as architectural spaces . . . container metaphors are more frequently used.” (Ntzani, 2015, pp.67-68)

The museum itself can be conceptualised as a series of nested containers, analogous to Russian dolls: an exhibit is nested inside an exhibition, which is nested inside a museum that itself is nested within a particular social or geographical context.

Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers - like Russian Dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)

Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers – like Russian nesting dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)

Extending the concept further, Ntzani points out that it is only the outside of each doll that is adorned – the interior is a plain, neutral container for the doll within. In museum buildings, there can be a tension between those who wish to have statement architecture that draws attention to iself, versus those wanting a discreet container that will fade into the background. The conflict between conduit and container may be a new way of conceptualising some of these debates about the role of museums.

Ntzani, D. (2015). Under the Spell of Metaphors: Investigating the Effects of Conduit and Container Metaphors on Museum Experience. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(1), 59–76. doi:10.1111/cura.12098


Routes around the paywall

One of the huge benefits of being a graduate student (or otherwise in possession of a university library log-in) is access to published research that otherwise is locked behind paywalls. Paywalls for academic journals are EXPENSIVE – per-article costs around the US$30 mark are not uncommon. Given that even a relatively narrow search of the academic literature can yield dozens of articles, the cost soon gets prohibitive and many museum professionals are effectively locked out from accessing these papers.

Museum staff without academic affiliations can find themselves locked out of valuable research

Museum staff without academic affiliations can find themselves locked out of valuable research (Image source: sharynmorrow on Flickr – Creative Commons)

There is a lot of discussion about open access in academic circles, which I won’t repeat here besides to say I’ve made the decision to make my PhD thesis open-access once my degree is conferred (weeks, if not days away – I promise!). Once it’s available, I’ll post a link.

But this post is not about the open access debate per se. Rather, I wanted to share ways that you *can* get access to original research, or at least decent summaries that extend beyond what the abstract tells you, without having to fork out the big bucks: essentially “Facebook for academics”, this site allows researchers to upload versions of their papers (often pre-prints that are not subject to publisher copyright) as well as conference papers that may not be easy to get hold of elsewhere. You can follow subjects, groups and researchers of interest, and while you need to set up a profile first, I don’t think you need a current link to an academic institution – putting down your alma mater would probably suffice.

Relating research to practice: unlike, which covers all disciplines, this site is specific to museums and informal learning. It doesn’t reproduce original papers in its entirety, rather it includes useful summaries of key research articles that are searchable by topic. Another subject-specific portal and a great way of accessing evaluation reports and other “grey literature” that wouldn’t get published in academic journals anyway. If you’re doing an exhibition on a particular topic, it’s worth having a browse to see if there are any front end, formative or summative evaluation reports from another museum that has previously tackled the same topic. Also, don’t let the name put you off if you’re not in a science-based informal learning institution: there are also reports from art and history museums as well (albeit fewer in number).

In addition, every so often, on this blog I produce my own summaries of key research papers and books. I do this for two reasons: firstly, it gives me the impetus to properly read and get across what it says; and secondly it’s a way of giving research I find interesting/useful/important a wider audience past the paywall.

Are there any other similar resources that you have found useful?


Fear of criticism

Checking Twitter over breakfast this morning, I stumbled across a discussion about when and how to criticise another museum’s curatorial practice, and the impacts of doing so on one’s career. Although I’ve previously had discussions about how museums have a somewhat criticism-averse culture (more on that in a bit), I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of damaging career prospects before. I found this idea alarming, so I weighed in:

An excerpt from this morning's Twitter discussion

An excerpt from this morning’s Twitter discussion

Could being (constructively) critical really be damaging to the careers of emerging museum professionals? And if so, what does that say about how well the museum sector handles criticism?

Unlike other areas of creative endeavour such as literature or theatre, museum exhibitions are not routinely reviewed in the mainstream media (with the possible exception being art exhibitions). Even within the realm of industry publications, relatively few regularly publish exhibition reviews (the main exceptions I can think of are Museums Journal in the UK and AAM’s Exhibitionist magazine in the US). It means there is not a reviewing culture around exhibitions. Critique happens more informally, perhaps behind closed doors. I’ve found many museum professionals (myself included) have been reluctant to openly criticise another museum’s work. Likely reasons include:

  • We’re “too nice”: we appreciate how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting together an exhibition, and the compromises that get made along the way. We know all too well what it’s like to be on the other side, and how hard it is to get everything right. Consequently, when we see an exhibition that misses the mark, our instinct is to cut the developers some slack as we’re sure there’s a back story as to why things are the way they are.
  • It’s a tight-knit community: chances are, we know (or know of) someone who worked on that exhibition. It’s one thing to be critical about an exhibition in the abstract, it’s another thing entirely to feel like you’re criticising the work of a respected colleague.

Whatever the reason, the lack of a culture of giving criticism might make us even more fearful of receiving it. Rather than being philosophical, dusting ourselves off after a dud review, learning from it and moving on, criticism becomes something to dread. What if we get negative PR? A backlash from funders? Fear of criticism might be enough to stop ambitious projects from even getting off the drawing board.

In such a culture, people will make conservative choices because they fear being criticised, and existing practices will never be challenged or fully held up to the light.

As well as entrenching a sense of “we do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done”, it creates a perfect storm for emerging museum professionals – we want (need) to make our mark but also worry about the consequences. Unless you live in a large city, you can’t afford to burn any bridges: there will be few other employment options unless you’re in a position to move. It means we could end up silencing ourselves just when we’re starting to find our voice.






Launching “Project 50″

Happy New Year!

As 2014 drew to a close, I wrote a reflective piece about blogging practice, the ebbs and flows of creative energy, and what things might keep a blog sustainable in the long run. There must be something in the air as one of my blogging heroes, Nina Simon, has just put out a similarly reflective post about the changing culture of her blog over time.

Based on the experience of people I know who have undertaken blog-a-day projects, it seems that imposing a schedule on blogging, rather than leaving it to whenever the muse takes you, is a good way to give your blogging practice a shot in the arm. Thus, I’ve decided that 2015 will be the year of “Project 50″ on this blog – a goal of writing 50 posts before the year is out.

Sourced via creativecupcakes on Flickr

Sourced via clevercupcakes on Flickr (creative commons)

I’ve chosen 50 as it’s a nice round number that is roughly equal to one post a week. I think this is achievable (I’m not ready to take on the daily blogging mantle just yet!), while still a significant step up from the output of previous years.

I see it as a chance for me to experiment with the blog, what I write about and how I write it (e.g. some posts might be quick hits, like the Center for the Future of Museum’s “Wordless Wednesday” posts, others will be more considered. I’m hoping it will motivate me to produce more summaries of key papers from the academic literature, as well as invite some guest bloggers to contribute as well. I’ll continue to keep the focus on museums and visitor experiences, but might take a broader definition of this from time to time.

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to subscribe to this blog (enter your email address in the subscribe box to the right of the home page of this blog, and make sure to check your junk mail folder if you don’t receive a confirmation email – otherwise you won’t be added to the list).

Let’s see what 2015 holds!


A reflection on blogging

A lot’s happened for me in 2014, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it looking at this blog. Things have been relatively quiet here of late!

Tumbleweed (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Tumbleweed (Source: Wikimedia commons)

This is reflected by site analytics for this blog, which among other things show that only two blog posts from this year were in the top 10 most-viewed pages. (FYI they were October’s piece on The Language of Objects and May’s piece on What do museum visitors think science is?). The most popular posts overall remain ones on visitor statistics and exhibition costs. Even though they are a few years old now, they are obviously topics of perennial interest.

Overall, I only posted 22 times this year compared to 33 posts in 2013. This didn’t have a dramatic effect on overall site traffic though, since most people seem to come to this blog via google searches rather than via links to new content or social media shares (Is this normal for a blog? I have no idea . . . )

Anyway, why so quiet this year?

One possible reason is content exhaustion: I started blogging in 2010, and while it took me a little while to find my voice, I probably felt like I had more to say in the early days – especially when I was first getting across the visitor studies literature in the early days of my PhD. Now, I find it harder and harder to find new things to write about (and am in awe of people like Nina Simon who has been able to punch out a post a week on Museum Two for years!). It makes me wonder whether there is a natural life cycle for most blogs, and this one may be coming to its end (I hope not, but I have to think about that possibility).

Another reason is that my writerly efforts have definitely been focused elsewhere this year: I wrote up my PhD thesis, submitted it for both internal and external examination, made changes as appropriate along the way and am now waiting for the final changes to be signed off by the Grad School, the last hurdle before they confer my degree. A lot of the time, if I wasn’t working on my thesis, I really wasn’t feeling much like doing any other writing!

Finally, just as there are only so many hours in the day, brain space is a finite quantity too. I’ve come to the (possibly late) realisation that “busyness” is not always best quantified in terms of hours worked, and might better be measured in terms of cognitive load. For instance, If I quantified my year purely in terms of hours spent at the desk, it wouldn’t seem all that bad. In fact I’ve been feeling quite guilty about how worn out I’ve been feeling given I hadn’t been working particularly long hours. But then again, other things have been going on – I’ve been making the transition from student to consultant, setting up the interactivate consultancy in June and rebuilding a client base. On the personal front, I got married in April, and even the simplest of weddings requires organisation, planning and thus brain space. We also had minor renovations happening for most of the year, and although we weren’t doing the actual work we still had to check on contractors, make design decisions, and lots of little things that also take up brain space.

I’m not 100% sure what 2015 will hold for me yet . . . but more on that in the New Year.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from fellow bloggers about how you manage the ebbs and flows of your ideas and creative capacity.


Holiday Performances

It’s that time of year where, in Australia at least, everything steps down a gear or two (or even three). Given that here the Christmas holidays coincide with the long school break, the usual Christmas / New Year wind-down segues into languid summer days, meaning that office life doesn’t seem to get back to usual pace until after Australia Day (January 26th). Indeed, many places (especially factories) shut down completely for at least two weeks at this time of year.

Anyway, this means that a fair proportion of Australians are on holidays right now. And we’re all having a great time, right??

But sometimes our holidays are not what they’re cracked up to be. Via Twitter I came across London’s most miserable visitors, ostensibly a humourous poke at some ill-informed TripAdvisor reviews of London attractions. Quotes include: “Just a collection of pictures!” (National Portrait Gallery) and “The museum’s collection seems to have little to do with Victoria and Albert” (the V&A).

On one level, it’s easy to file these comments under “Well what did you expect?” and mutter something about (with apologies to my US readers) “dumb Americans”. But I want to take this to another level – assuming they are international tourists, why did these people spend the time and money travelling to London in the first place? What were they hoping to find, and where did these expectations come from?

Are these places idealised in the popular imagination to the extent that the reality cannot meet expectations (a variation of Paris syndrome)? Or has a theme park culture created expectations of visitor facilities and comfort that real-life heritage places cannot fulfil? Is there in fact a kernel of truth to some of these comments?

Perhaps it’s a bit of each. I’m also inclined to wonder whether some people travel to London (or Paris, or wherever) not because they want to, but because it’s what you’re supposed to do if you can afford it. It’s how you demonstrate that you’re cultured, worldly, sophisticated. It’s tourism as a Goffman-esque* performative act. And if you’re someone who would actually prefer the familiar comforts of home, it’s not surprising if you have a crappy time.

I’m sure this is something that’s been looked at in far more detail in the tourism literature, but this is a holiday blog post so I’m not going to go there this time. I’m more throwing it out there as some pre-Christmas food for thought. How much of your holiday will be what you really want to do, and how much will be performance of social expectations? Is there even a clear line between the two?

Merry Christmas and Happy 2015 everyone!

*Goffman, 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Although a product of its era in places, it’s still a read I’d recommend.


Visitor Observation: Privacy Issues

During my PhD I spent some time tracking and timing visitors to learn more about visitor behaviour in the exhibitions I was studying (more on the history and applications of visitor tracking here). Recently, I was asked about the privacy implications of doing such research. What steps do we need to take to ensure we’re a) staying on the right side of the law and b) respecting visitors’ rights to informed consent and ability to opt out of participating in research?

On the first part (i.e. The Law), I’ll tread carefully since I’m not a lawyer and it will vary in specifics from place to place anyway. However, in a general sense, museums will generally count as a “public place”, and people can reasonably expect to be seen in public places. Therefore if you’re just documenting visitors’ readily observable public behaviour, and nothing about them that may allow them to be identified as individuals, you’re probably in safe territory. However, it would be wise to check whether your museum is classed (in a legal sense) as a “public place” – for instance an entry charge may implicitly impose an expectation of some level of privacy on the part of paying guests.

So how about different approaches to informed consent?

The first consideration is cuing – do you tell visitors they’re going to be watched and/or listened to at the start of their visit? If so, then you are studying cued visitors – and gaining informed consent is relatively straightforward. When you approach potential participants, you explain the benefits and risks of participating, and they can decide whether they want to be part of it or not. The downside of cuing, of course, is that you’re probably no longer going to be documenting natural visitor behaviour – people tend to do different things when they know they are being watched.

Depending on what you’re studying, this may not be an issue – and, like contestants on Big Brother, visitors tend to forget they’re being watched or listened to after a while, even if they’re rigged up with audio recording equipment (Leinhardt & Knutson, 2004). Also, if you’re going to be tracking the same group of visitors over the course of a whole visit, which could mean following them for 2-3 hours, then you really do need to cue them first – otherwise, frankly, it just ends up getting creepy and weird for all concerned.

If you’re tracking visitors across a whole site, sooner or later they’re bound to notice you. Awkward. You’d be better off telling them first.

In contrast, tracking and timing uncued visitors through a single exhibition gallery can be done discreetly without visitors becoming aware they are being tracked (assuming you are not trying to hear what they are saying as well, meaning you can observe from a reasonable distance). It still takes a bit of practice, and is easier in some exhibitions than others. Even so, if someone approaches you and asks what you’re up to, the right thing to do is fess up, explain what you were doing, stop tracking that person and try again with a different visitor.

If you’re taking this uncued approach to visitor observation, you’re in a far greyer area with respect to informed consent. The usual approach is to post a sign at the entrance to the museum or the gallery informing visitors that observations are taking place, and giving them steps to take if they wish to opt out of being observed. In practice, this might be notices telling visitors which areas to avoid if they don’t want to be watched, or having a mechanism for visitors to opt-out by wearing a lapel sticker or wrist band (although chances are this won’t be necessary – it never came up in my research and my experience tallies with other researchers I’ve spoken to).

What about when you’re recording?

Things can get a little more complicated when you go beyond simple observation and field notes to audio or video recording visitor behaviour. It’s one thing to watch publicly observable behaviour, another to have that behaviour recorded, replayed, and deconstructed ad infinitum. This doesn’t mean it’s not done – audio recording at individual exhibits dates back to at least the 1980s and Paulette McManus’s landmark study of visitors evidently reading labels more than it might first appear (McManus, 1989). In that study, specific exhibits were hooked up to a radio microphone linked to a tape (tape!) recorder, and an observer unobtrusively watched the exhibit from a safe distance, making field notes to aid subsequent interpretation (Leinhardt and Knutson also emphasise how important observational data is to back up audio recordings, where there are frequently snippets that make little sense if you don’t have additional details about what was happening at the time). As far as I can tell, visitors were uncued in this study.

Audio recording of uncued visitors poses fewer difficulties than video recording, as people can’t (easily) be identified based on voice recordings alone. Things get tricker when you get to video, of course. My first exposure to video-based visitor research was seeing Christian Heath speak about his and Dirk vom Lehn’s work in V&A’s British Galleries in the early 00s (Heath and vom Lehn, 2004). In this case, although they specify that visitors explicitly consented to being part of the research, it’s not obvious whether this was done in advance, or after the fact by approaching visitors once they’d left the exhibit of interest (and then discarding the data of those who have refused to participate prior to analysis). This ex post facto approach is a way you can ensure both uncued visitor behaviour and informed consent, but as I have no direct experience of this, I don’t know how high the refusal rate is and how complicated it is to ensure data is discarded appropriately as required.

Irrespective of the type of informed consent, there is the issue of data storage. Gone are the days of tapes that could be kept under lock and key. You’ll need to have a data retention policy in place to ensure that anything that could potentially identify participants is kept secure, safe from those who have no need to access it . . . and from accidental syncing to your public Facebook feed.

Disclaimer: This is just general advice based on my own experience and what I can glean from some of the literature. Different parts of the world and different ethics committees may have different views, and the specifics of any given piece of research may make a difference as well.


Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. Leinhardt, G., & Knutson, K. (2004). Listening in on museum conversations. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
McManus, P. (1989). Oh, yes they do: How museum visitors read labels and interact with exhibit texts. Curator: The Museum Journal, 32(3), 174–189.



The language of objects

Objects may not be silent, but what difference does that make if you don’t speak their language?

I’ve been doing a bit more musing on some of the anecdotes Stephanie Weaver shared during her keynote at the recent Interpretation Australia conference (first instalment here). She mentioned the often-heard claim that objects “speak for themselves” (a view that appears especially prevalent in art circles), thus rendering interpretation irrelevant at best, interfering at worst. In response, one time she challenged some “speak for themselves-ists” with an image of a carburettor, similar to this one:

Did the object speak to them about what it was? Was it a particularly fine or noteworthy example? In the absence of any relevant mechanical or technical knowledge, Stephanie’s interlocutors were stumped. They accepted that this object was mute in the absence of interpretation (at least to them).

But Stephanie also told the story of the object that spoke to her immedately, profoundly, and so powerfully it moved her to tears – no interpretation required:

In this case, the painting was the trigger for an avalanche of meaning that lay within Stephanie’s own life experience. It was in the Musee d’Orsay, during a much-anticipated and long-awaited trip to Paris. The painting was beatifully presented in a gallery context. The content resonated with Stephanie’s childhood as a dance student. And of course there is an aesthetic appeal that needs no overt explanation*.

This made me think that the “objects are mute” vs “objects speak for themselves” debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.

Some communication transcends language: in another conference session, Pamela Harmon-Price described how a Japanese tour guide used timing, gesture and body language to convey considerable meaning, despite Pamela not understanding a word of what was said. Drawing analogy to objects, there may be some aspects of an object: form, colour, positioning, and so on, that can speak to us on some level.

But then there is the Tower of Babel of other languages any given object may speak. And of course the same object may speak multiple languages (the languages of technology, or art, or social history). And that is where interpretation can step in – conveying that meaning to those who don’t know enough of the language enough to understand it.

On a radio interview held with Stephanie, Pamela and John Pastorelli during the conference, they reflected on the fact that people outside the cultural sector tend to assume “interpretation” has something to do with languages. Perhaps on some level they’re right: it’s just that it’s intepreting the languages of objects and places rather than other people.

So next time you see an object that you think “speaks for itself” – ask yourself: can you only hear it because you already know the language?


*At least to people enculturated into a Western perspective of aesthetics. Although there are some aspects of aesthetics that may be ‘hard wired’, so to speak, yet others will be a product of the culture we live in, and we deem those as “universal” at our peril!


Your experience footprint is bigger than you think

It all started with a mysterious bear. . . 

But before I explain, first a little background: Last week I was at the Interpretation Australia national conference, Enriching the Visitor Experience, in Brisbane. The opening keynote was Experienceology‘s Stephanie Weaver. As the author of Creating Great Visitor Experiences, she had plenty to share about the role of interpretation and storytelling in crafting memorable and meaningful visitor experiences.

So back to the bear – Stephanie’s museum career started out at the Chicago Children’s Museum, which at the time was located in North Pier. Consistently in evaluation and focus groups, children kept on mentioning that “the bear” was one of their favourite exhibits. Good to know – except staff at the museum had no idea what exhibit the kids were talking about! There were no bears, teddy bears, pictures of bears, or anything remotely bear-related in the Museum. So what was this mysterious bear exhibit?

It turns out the solution wasn’t in the museum at all. As it happens, North Pier was at one end of an atrium mall, and this mall had a toy store. And across the atrium this toy store had strung up a large model of the “Ernest the balancing bear” child’s toy that cycled across and back on its tightrope. Although this display had nothing to do with the Museum – they didn’t manage it, they had no control over it – it was nonetheless perceived by visitors to be an integral part of the Children’s Museum experience. In fact, when exhibit staff proudly proclaimed the “bear mystery” finally solved, the Museum’s ticketing staff told them “oh yeah, we get all sorts of complaints when that bear isn’t working”.

Ernest the balancing bear (from

From this, Stephanie said she learned two important lessons about visitor experiences:

  1. The extent of the visitor experience as perceived by visitors – what I’ve called the “experience footprint” here – is much bigger than you might think, and may well include factors beyond your control (but which you still need to think about).
  2. Front-line staff often have a better idea of what’s happening on the exhibit floor than exhibition staff or management.

I’ll share a few more insights from this and other sessions over the coming days and weeks.


What if every label was tweet-sized?

I’ve just read Will Stanley’s article on Medium: Museum tours on Twitter. 

In it, he describes using Twitter to create virtual tours of selected galleries at London’s Science Museum. He describes the challenges of distilling an exhibition into a few dozen select tweets, while still retaining the curatorial voice. What’s essential? What can you leave out? This is often difficult enough with a 140-word exhibition label – let alone 140 characters!

It made me think – often I have to redraft a thought several times to make it tweetable. In the process you realise how many superfluous words and phrases you can live without. You find the core of idea you want to communicate, and that’s all there’s room for.

Makes me wonder – perhaps drafting exhibition labels as if they were tweets might be a useful exercise in becoming more (as Susan Cross would call it), “precise and concise”.