Ana Doria Buchan is the Engagement Officer for the Creativity Department of the Western Australian Museum. She is also a dedicated Member of the AMaGA Western Australia Committee. We asked her to write about her experiences and thoughts on interpretation in museums. Here’s what she had to say.
I work for the Engagement team at the Western Australian Museum. No, we don’t organise engagement parties. Yes, I have been asked that question before. My team’s main goals are to attract as many different audiences as possible through the creation of innovative experiences and to deepen the connection between museum and community.
How do we do this? Museums today face many challenges, from lack of funding to competition – we compete with super exciting pastimes like video games and virtual reality. The world is changing, our audiences are changing, and we have to embrace change too. The traditional model of the museum experience as passive observation has been replaced with active engagement through new forms of interpretation.
But what does ‘good interpretation’ look like? When done well, it should inspire passion for the subject we are focusing on, as well as an interest beyond the walls of the museum.
The first thing to do is to PLAN.
We plan by asking questions that will help us direct our ideas. We already know that interpretation in museums is extremely important because it’s how we communicate with our visitors. Our collections need to be accessible and understood.
So, let’s concentrate on why we want to produce new interpretation. We need to decide what we want to achieve – is it to increase visitors’ understanding of collections? To encourage visits from a specific audience? Encourage interaction and engagement? Objectives are important, do not overlook this step.
Next we have to ascertain who we are interpreting for. We need to know our audience – our interpretation should reflect what the visitors want. And this is when we usually come across some problems. Recent studies have shown that a variety of information that Museum professionals find useful actually isn’t – from a visitors’ point of view. And vice-versa.
Topics most helpful to viewers
- Cultural and historical context (idea behind object)
- Technique and process (how it was made)
- Why the object is in the museum (artistic qualities)
- Use (meanings of the object)
- Artist’s own ideas (in the case of a work of art)
Matters least helpful to viewers
- Connoisseurship (making critical judgments in matters of art or taste)
- Specialised historical information
- Lengthy labels
Sounds familiar? I am sure every museum I have ever worked at is guilty of specialised information and lengthy labels…
After establishing what our audiences are interested in, it’s time to decide how we will interpret our collection. Remember to think about the message we want to convey. What do we want our visitors to learn and feel?
Once we have the answers to these questions, we can write our plan, which should be an active document – we should use it to guide our work and stay close to our objectives.
In an effort to face modern-day challenges and connect with visitors who feel bored, overwhelmed or confused, museum professionals are rethinking how they interpret and display their collections.
What is the biggest change? There is no more absolute authority! The aim these days is to provide context about the object – and then encourage people to respond to it in their own way.
Below are two examples of this new trend.
Detroit Institute of Arts
The Detroit Institute of Arts had an under-visited wing dedicated to decorative arts. They wanted to make it more welcoming, so they developed a spectacular high-tech projection; visitors sat around a virtual dining table and ‘participated’ in an 18th century French feast, with courses served on the same porcelain plates they saw in the display cases lining the room. This original way of interpreting their collection turned the ceramics room of the DIA into one of the most visited in the whole museum.
Western Australian Museum
The workshops for senior citizens at the WAM’s Discovery Zone was a good example of a project that allowed audiences to touch the objects and make their own work in response to what they saw. Each workshop was very hands-on and had a specific topic, from seashells to taxidermy. However, participants could direct the sessions towards their own interests. On a particular day the workshop could be more art-focused – participants were invited to draw the object if they wished to do so, while the following week our visitors could choose a more science-oriented approach and examine a variety of specimens from a biological point of view.