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Museums, galleries and heritage: sites of meaning-making and communication

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Rhiannon MasonORCiD


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Every aspect of a museum, gallery, or heritage site communicates. From the architectural style of the building or layout of a site, to the attendants at the entrance, the arrangement of the exhibits or artefacts, the colour of walls, and the positioning and content of labels and text panels; all these things and more are engaged in a communicative process with the visitor. Yet, what is being communicated will depend on many factors; some of this communication will be implicit, some explicit, some intended, some unintended. At the same time visitors are participating in and contributing to this meaning-making process in many different ways. In recognition of the complex nature of the communication process, museum studies theorists have developed some conceptual frameworks for its analysis. Less attention has been paid to communication theory within heritage or gallery contexts, although Freeman Tilden (1957) provides a useful introduction to heritage interpretation. However, this chapter will show that the general principles of communication-theory can equally be applied to all three fields. In heritage studies “interpretation” has often been discussed as something that should be done “for” or “to” visitors, whereas communication theory developed within museum studies has taken quite a different approach. An introduction to communication theory and its relationship to museums can be found in Eilean Hooper-Greenhill’s book, The Educational Role of the Museum (1994, 1999). This provides an overview of the development of communication theory and explains how theories and models originally devised for the study of mass communication – radio, television, and cinema – have been adapted for museums. The various models provide an extremely useful entrée into the topic of communication theory but focus predominantly on museums, permanent displays, and material culture at the expense of other historical resources such as oral histories, and intangible heritage. At the same time, some of the models over-simplify the number of variables at work in the communication process. In particular, they do not focus adequately on the importance of the contexts within which acts of communication occur, nor on the diversity of possible audience interactions with museums, galleries, and heritage sites. Some also predate many of the critiques of authorship, subjectivity, and meaning-construction presented by recent thinking in the field of critical and cultural theory, as well as issues of power and cultural politics explored in cultural studies (Milner and Browitt, 2002; Turner 2003; Jordan and Weedon, 1995). This chapter aims to bring together these different issues and ideas for students of communication theory, and to consider some of the challenges encountered by those wishing to work within museums, galleries, and heritage sites.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Mason R

Editor(s): Corsane, G

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Heritage, museums and galleries : an introductory reader

Year: 2005

Pages: 200-214

Edition: 1st

Publisher: Routledge

Place Published: London and New York

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9780415289467