Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Countering prejudice: Activism and agency in the museum

Here's my notes from the talk by Dr Richard Sandell, Head of Museum Studies, Leicester University:

  • Looking at social effects of museums and how audiences engaged with particular public programs
  • Project: rethinking disability representation opened nine different interpretive projects across nine cultural institutions – wanted to challenge visitors' preconceptions about disability, gave examples of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where had four different points of view about works in collections that represented disability on some way; Imperial War Museum programs with secondary school students about disability representation and war
  • Context of project came from few trends:
    • growth in numbers of specialist museums, such as Lower East Side Tenement Museum who are using historic collections to frame debates around contemporary issues
    • widespread interest in diversity, cross-cultural understanding and inclusion, but growing claims that museums have role and are playing roles in these debates – are they really? Little evaluation of what they are doing and how they're doing it
    • what does the 'active audience' mean? We know that people come to museums with their own ideas, needs and interests
    • much of the work looking at examining prejudice is cognitively based – you are either prejudiced or not, compared to a discourse approach which acknowledges that prejudice is part of everyday life
  • Researched social agency of museums via Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art as case studies
  • Research methods – focussed on visitors, open-ended interviews, talking openly about what they liked and disliked and how they responded to exhibits, as well as investigating written comments in visitors' books and comments cards that became part of the exhibition themselves
  • Findings: drew on sociological studies of media about how people read different media forms. Used framework of confirmatory readings, oppositional reading and negotiated readings
  • Bulk of readings were confirmatory; negotiated reading focus on those groups (for example) that should be taken out; oppositional readings – identify message and say they disagree either directly or indirectly. Found that sometimes these were fluid within their responses
  • Other responses fell into categories of dynamic (moving their position as a result of what they'd seen in museum) and dialogic responses
  • Also found people felt museums were a trusted resource – drew on museum to help make sense of issues in their daily lives, see museums as "unconstructed" and not biased compared to other media. Visitors were more open to what they found in museums – didn't "read" it with the same filters that they do when "reading" other media (we found this in our work too – see this paper for some data)
  • "Museums frame, inform and enable the conversations which society has about difference"
  • Tensions, dilemmas, challenges:
    • Taking sides? St Mungos very transparent about their aim, but does that counteract the idea that museums are seen as impartial and not taking sides? Tension between helping people make meanings and being clear about the museum's moral position
    • Recasting cultural authority? Not telling people what to think, but to invite debate and their comments become part of the exhibit, tension between authority and inviting different views
    • Engaging with contentious and unresolved issues? What kinds of interpretive devices can we use with issues that are less clear-cut? Gave example of Insights online program at the Holocaust Museum that enables people to chat about issues
    • Moral leadership? His future research is looking at how far should museums go in leading debates about issues where there isn't consensus or an agreed moral stand within the museum
    • Museums and social responsibility – what responsibly do museums have in leading and heading us towards a just society??


Catherine said...

Thanks for the summary Lynda. I’m interested in the findings that some people at least did change their view as a result of visiting an exhibition. Previously I’d heard that in general exhibitions did not succeed in changing visitors’ minds, only backing up what they already believed. Was there any quantitative data on this?
Catherine Cooper, Australian Museum

LyndaK said...

Thanks for your comment Catherine. I'm surprised by the observation about exhibitions not changing visitors' minds. That's certainly not been my experience from the evaluations I have conducted here. One early paper Making a difference: what have we learned about visitor learning? summarises some of this work.

In my doctoral thesis I found many examples of visitors changing their views, not only about the content matter but also about how they see themselves and others. Chapter 7 of my thesis summarises these findings and lists the implications for museum practice.

One thing I will say though is that those exhibitions that deliberately set out to try and change points of view will be less successful than those who pose the questions and enable visitors to make up their own minds on an issue. Visitors will always make their own meanings from and follow their own pathways through exhitions, despite what we sometimes might hope for!

Richard Sandell said...

I would agree with Lynda on these issues. I found a lot of evidence to show that visitors changed the way they thinked and talked about different issues as a result of the exhibition they encountered. They question of how didactic or open the interpretation should be is one which appears to vex exhibition makers in lots of different institutions. My view is that it is possible to combine an approach which fairly clearly lends the museum's supports for a particular standpoint (in my research, a standpoint which challenges prejudice) but which nevertheless avoids telling people what to think and do - it opens up rather than closes off possibilites for mutual understanding and respect.

LyndaK said...

Catherine, in thinking further about the impact of museum exhibitions specifically, we do need to keep in mind the kinds of people who visit museums. In this blog post, Locals visiting museums, I wrote about Rob Hall's work who found that the kinds of people who visited museums were most strongly supportive of the statement "I am interested in abstract ideas". We know that museum visitors are more highly educated and affluent so perhaps they are more inclined to be open to new ideas and opinions? Perhaps the challenge is to expand our reach to under-served audiences in order to engage them with these big issues??