Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A suitcase of portable meaning

Lynda, thanks for inviting me to post here.

As I was writing my paper, After the Show: Making sense after the event, for the Museums Australia Conference 2007, I was ruminating on the many ways that metaphors help exhibition visitors to make sense of their visiting experience. The National Gallery of Australia exhibition, Egyptian Treasures from the Louvre: Journey to the Afterlife, used the metaphor of the journey in its title and structure. When we spoke to visitors while evaluating the exhibition, we found that they often referred to the concept of a journey when speaking about their experience of the exhibition.

This had me thinking about whether the journey metaphor might apply to any exhibition.

It also had me thinking about the power of metaphors in any kind of communication. Looking around, I could see that metaphors are recommended in various communication fields. For example, Brian Clark espouses the power of the metaphor in writing on his Copywriter blog.

Given that museum exhibitions aim for excellent communication, I suddenly see the potential for more exhibitions to be conceived and structured around a powerful metaphor that can be a convenient suitcase of portable meaning for visitors. Or a handle they can grasp when they get challenged or disoriented. (See, it's fun playing with metaphors.)

What is your experience? How useful are metaphors as shaping-points for exhibitions? What exhibitions have you seen or presented that used metaphors? What were some lost opportunities?

Gillian Savage, Environmetrics.


LyndaK said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post Gillian, and welcome to the blog!

I've been very interested in the ideas of narrative and museum exhibitions, and I think that there are many parallels with metaphor.

As i wrote in my thesis:

Museums are ideal places where stories can be told that encourage visitors to make their own meanings. Bedford (2001) noted that: "Stories are the most fundamental way we learn. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They teach without preaching, encouraging both personal reflection and public discussion. Stories inspire wonder and awe; they allow a listener to imagine another time and place, to find the universal in the particular, and to feel empathy for others. They preserve individual and collective memory and speak to both the adult and the child".

Bedford (2004) and Rounds (2002) considered that narrative was a powerful way that cultural and social history museums, in particular, engaged visitors, with Bedford even proposing that storytelling was the 'real work' of museums. Bedford argued that stories aided humans in defining their values and beliefs and allowed the listener to project their own thoughts, feelings and memories onto the story and "… make connections between museum artifacts and images and visitors’ lives and memories".

Roberts (1997) used the framework of narrative to explain the shifts in museum education theory over time, and suggested a narrative approach to educational practices as a way to enhance the ways visitors engaged with museums. McLean (2003) described the ways visitor experiences could be constructed in different types of learning environments, using the analogy of "the campfire, the cave and the well".

* Bedford, L. (2001). Storytelling: The Real Work of Museums. Curator, 44(1), 27-34.

* Bedford, L. (2004). Working in the Subjunctive Mood: Imagination and Museums. Curator, 47(1), 5-11.

* McLean, K. (2003). In the cave, Around the campfire, And at the well. Paper presented at the ICOM-CECA Annual Conference, Oaxaca.

* Roberts, L. (1997). From Knowledge to Narrative: Educators and the Changing Museum. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

* Rounds, J. (2002). Storytelling in science exhibits. Exhibitionist, 21(2), 40-43.

Gillian said...

I like to see narrative as just one of several approaches.

The Entry Point Approach identifies five entry points based on Gardiner's intelligences.

The five Entry Points that they find useful for museum exhibition development and evaluation are: Aesthetic, Narrative, Logical/Quantitative, Foundational
and Experiential.

Perhaps narrative and metaphor can be the major element of the interp, or perhaps they can frame the other elements. Beginning :: Middle :: End is certainly a powerful structure that helps almost anything.

Here's a reference for further detail...


Donna said...

I am an architect. In the design process It can be useful to use metaphor as central idea. When making design decisions you are able to evaluate the proposal against the metaphor/central idea. The better metaphor will work on many different levels and scales. A poor metaphor can be abandoned. The metaphor/central idea can also be used to assist in explaining the proposal to clients, builders etc.
There will always be many ideas and many ways to do something, but the metaphor can allow you to focus, test and engage.