Rethinking the Museum Experience Seminar

On Monday I attended my first professional development seminar since starting Maternity Leave in February. It was a lunchtime seminar at the Immigration Museum Melbourne on the topic of ‘Rethinking the Museum Experience‘. I did have my, very obliging, 5 month old daughter in tow, so I wasn’t at my full capacity. Unfortunately I missed all of Andrea Witcomb‘s presentation while I was settling her.

Nonetheless, there were some interesting messages I took away from the seminar. Laurajane Smith and Philipp Schorch spoke about research they had conducted with visitors to the Immigration museum. Both looked at how the visitors engaged with the content in the museum, particularly in relation to emotional engagement and the role of identity in shaping their visit.

Learning v. Feeling

Laurajane spoke about how many visitors used education-related language when talking about the purpose and the result of their visit. Ie. They came to learn and left feeling informed. This is an interesting phenomenon seen at many museums where some visitors strongly identify museums as places you go to learn rather than feel or experience. This is particularly true of school children, who often equate what they see as an enforced learning agenda with an assumption it will therefore be boring. Although I found this to be more often true at the more traditional static museums and less so at museums like Sovereign Hill.

Now one might argue that a school visit to a museum is about formal learning. But much work in museum education (particularly in social history museums) is about providing student-visitors with a different sort of learning experience. One that isn’t about delivering facts, but connecting with students’ emotions and identity in order for them to build their own connections and more meaningful understandings. Interestingly Philipp actually mentioned in the discussion that he believed students do not learn about ‘identity’ in schools, and I have to disagree. While they may not reach the level of understanding in academic discourse there are many aspects of the curriculum that look at a students own identity as well as the identity of others. In fact studies of identity formed a significant part of my Bachelor of Education, particularly due to lecturers such as Julie White and Trevor Hay.

Laurajane and Philipp both talked about the construction of empathy by visitors. They discussed how personal biographies in exhibitions allowed for the humanising of immigration and the storytelling nature of exhibits allowed visitors to relate it to their own experiences. Laurajane referred to the visitor as a performer that is actively making connections during their visit which allows them to have an authentic emotional experience. Philipp looked at how a variety of stories within one group of migrants gave visitors the opportunity to appreciate diversity within a group and thus encouraging are more empathetic view of the migration experience.

It was interesting for me to ponder this idea of creating emotional experiences for visitors. Initially I thought ‘yes emotional experiences are a good and common practise in museums’, but then I realised that this thought is based on my dominant area of museum work – creating experiences for students. True they are learning experiences, but they are active participatory experiences designed to engage students. Engagement is most often achieved through emotion. Other aspects of museum development – exhibition design, for example – does not have the same direct person-to-person contact with the visitor. The learning experience students have as part of a (good) education program is an interactive performance that connects to their emotions and identity. I think other areas of museum design can learn from this.

Converting the visitor?

During the discussion the topic came up of converting the visitor. Laurajane had noted that when a visitor feels that the pressure to form empathy is too strong they will shut-down from the message. Andrea then said ‘then we have a problem because we can’t convert those who aren’t already converted.’ After which the discussion continued that it was possible to engage those people if the message wasn’t too strong. However what I stopped to consider was: do we have to convert them? I’m not sure our role is to convert. Challenge perhaps. Provide new experiences and viewpoints, definitely. I think to talk in terms of converting the visitor creates a rigid task that we must achieve and measure. (It also brings up all sorts of questions of who we are trying to convert and to what… but I won’t go into that here.) The process of forming empathy for others is not a conversion that is likely to happen in one visit. It is a journey. Our role is to provide the the material, experiences, space and opportunities for this journey to occur. Do you agree?

But I also wonder, if we are trying to facilitate this journey, is the problem that the people creating the museum experiences are the converted? Are we creating experiences that resonate with us, that fit with our identity?

There were many other aspects to the presentations and ensuing discussion, but these were some of the points that stood out for me.

Edited to add:
Rhiannon Hiles (@RhiannonHiles) of Beamish suggested: the strength of the open air museum is the ability to pitch emotive engagement at different levels. I agree and I think that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy working in and visiting open-air museums. I believe that one of the reasons there are opportunities fir emotive engagement in open-air museums is because they are places with rich museum theatre. But museum theatre can (and does) exist in all types of museums. I think it is something more museums can embrace. Museum theatre can provide engaging experiences where visitors become active participants, challenged to make new meanings.

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