Issues in Museum Interpretation


Laura Martin and Richard Toon
Arizona State University


This course will examine issues of "interpretation" at three levels: Metatheoretical, in which we look at interpretations of museums; interpretation by museums themselves; and, visitors' interpretations. The course will invite students to reflect on their experiences, join in class exercises, read from a wide literature, and participate in research of their own.

Guests who are museum professionals will join us for conversation about the topics we cover. Students will prepare an annotated bibliography, a report on their field observations, and a final paper.


I. Course Overview

The first session provides an overview of the theoretical approach taken in the course, a guide to the required and recommended literature, and a summary of what is expected of students. The overview will also introduce the issues to be considered in the weeks that follow.

Introductory readings:


II. Contested Realms

The authority of museums to create interpretations is challenged today as never before by both the visiting public and museum professionals. This session will examine museums as "contested realms" and look at the changes in culture and society that such contests reflect. Examples will come from Art, History, and Anthropology exhibits in particular, but students are encouraged to find their own examples.



III. Informal Learning and Controlling Interpretation

Museums are sites of informal learning in which museum professionals create specific types of often highly structured experience, using a variety of mediating techniques. This session examines the notion of informal learning and the issues faced in museum design.



IV. Creating or Unpackaging Ideas

As institutions of interpretation, museums both create (reify) and examine (through tools of interpretation) the ideas and objects they select and present. This session considers how museums consciously and unconsciously create an interpretive framework for experience.



V. Mediating the museum experience

There are debates in the museum community and museum literature about the roles museums have, and ought to have, in mediating experience. In this session we examine arguments that have been made for and against the interpretative -- some would argue, necessarily interpretative -- role of museums. This issue raises a number of interesting subquestions:Are museums more than illustrated books? Are museums about ideas or objects? Do objects have meaning sui generis? What is authenticity?


VI. Team Visit 1: A Museum You've Never Been To


VII. Locating Learning

This session will consider how learning in museums was understood in the past and offer an alternative view based on sociocultural theory. The models of mind that learning theories embody will be examined. We will consider how museums structure learning environments and how informal learning maybe understood.



VIII. Programming and Exhibition

Museum literature tends to neglect the role of programming, as if the sole activity is the visitor-exhibit encounter. This session considers the nature of museum programming and to what extent it extends, augments, or even replaces what is traditionally understood to be the "core" museum experience.



IX. Exploring the Primary Interpreter?

During the previous sessions we have been concerned principally with issues of how museum professionals (so far undefined) construct interpretation for the casual visitor and the media they use to do so. One major conduit for museum interpretation is the non-museum interpreter. They include professionals and non-professionals. A list might include the academic guest curator, the professional consultant designer, the volunteer, and many others. In this session we consider the various actors who construct museum interpretation and those who subsequently reinterpret for museum visitors.



X. Visit II



XI. Dealing with Expectations

How do museum goers know a museum is for them before they arrive? And how much does this pre-knowledge affect the experience? In this session we will consider the broad array of marketing efforts (logos, ads, tag lines, etc.) that museums attempt to place before potential audiences. We will also consider the socially shared understandings found in society that shape the meaning of the museum experience in a post-modern world.



XII. Visit III



XIII. Studying the Visitor

This session will examine the various techniques that are used to understand the visitors' interests, motivation, learning, enjoyment, etc., and the difficulties inherent in seeing the museum experience "from the visitor's point of view." Particular emphasis will be placed on considering what the museum needs to know about the visitor in both the planning and implementation stages of exhibition and programming.



XIV. Visitors' Stories

Visitor's ethnicity, gender, age, class, and expertise, to mention just a few issues, deeply affect the ways in which museums are experienced. This session examines the importance of personal narrative and how museums attempt to deal with diversity and pluralism.



XV. Conclusions and Reports

Other Suggested Readings: