The Concept of “Relevance” for Museums & Heritage Sites

What’s relevant in relevance? Some thoughts on the concept of relevance for museums and heritage sites

I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that discussions around the future of cultural organisations more often than not raise the issue of “relevance.” Popular use of the term appears to suggest a concern with sustaining and increasing audiences especially from hard to reach and non-visiting members of the public. But how much do we really understand “relevance” as a concept? And are we at risk of casually using the term in our discussions about the twentieth century museum or heritage site, without really understanding its meaning and significance? This short discussion is a starting point. It seeks to open up these issues to debate, and asks whether it aids to our understanding of “relevance” in a museum and heritage context to consider some of the intricacies of the concept from the perspectives of communication theory, logic, and pragmatics. There isn’t space here for a comprehensive exploration of the concept of relevance; nor is there space to consider ways of making museums and heritage sites relevant in detail. Rather this piece is a chance to step back and appreciate the usage and characteristics of the term from other angles, before applying it to a specific museum/heritage context.

Examples of where “relevance” has been applied to museums and other arts organisations in the media are numerous (see for example, Viscardi (2011),  Wallis (2012) and Bell (2013)). Within the museum sector, the UK Museums Association’s recent vision for the future of museums, Museums Change Lives’, talks about museums becoming ‘…more relevant to their audiences and communities’ (2013:3). This implies that relevance is necessary in order for a social contribution to be successful. Likewise, in the politics and policy landscape, Huw Lewis (2012) – the Welsh Government’s Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage – links the idea of increased relevance as a way for the heritage sector to address social inequalities. Relevance in the arts sector also appears as an issue in blog posts, as a subject of sometimes more critical comment and discussion (see, amongst others, Jennifer (2010) and Visser (2011)). Museum director Nina Simon (2009), for example, in her blog Museum 2.0, asks an important question: once work has been done to understand the needs of visitors and increase a museum’s responsiveness, how will these organisations know if they are actually relevant enough?  Overall, although I don’t get a sense that the term is being misused in the museum and heritage sector per se, I am also not convinced that we have yet sufficiently unpicked the concept of relevance. The blog posts mentioned above particularly seem to support this claim.

The OED (2009) definition of “relevance” refers to “Bearing on or connected with the matter in hand; closely relating to the subject or point at issue; pertinent to a specified thing.” Gorayska and Lindsey also point out that the etymology of ‘relevant’ is from the Latin meaning ‘raise-up,’ ‘relieve,’ ‘help’ and offer ‘assistance’ (1993:311).  When we think about museums and heritage sites, do we recognise these definitions as capturing the sense of what is commonly meant by “relevance?” At first glance they seem quite abstracted from our context, but maybe if we humanise the OED definition a little by replacing parts of the definition with “the visitor” we get something more meaningful for our purposes. The definition of “relevance” would then become: “Bearing on or connected with the visitor; closely relating to the visitor; pertinent to the visitor.”  In relation to the etymology of “relevant,” I think we can also see connections here, particularly in Huw Lewis’ use of the term: a sense that by becoming relevant museums can “assist,” “help” and offer “relief” from social inequalities.

During my research into how “relevance” has been used in other disciplines, I have come across the work of linguists and cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson (see 1986, 1987), which I introduce here to make the point that “relevance” has multiple interpretations. Sperber and Wilson, in their own words, sought to …define relevance as a useful theoretical concept” ( need citation? 1986: 119) that is a useful concept within the field of pragmatics (a subfield of linguistics and semiotics) aside from its everyday context. In brief, Sperber and Wilson (1987) consider the technical definition of the concept ‘relevance’ and suggest that it is a basic feature of human cognition, relating to how we infer meaning from each other’s communications. For Sperber and Wilson, “relevance” is concerned with the idea that essential characteristics of our verbal and non-verbal communications with one another are the “expression and recognition of intentions” (Wilson & Sperber 2002:250). By way of illustration, albeit vastly oversimplified, take the following question: “Would you like a cup of coffee?”  Reply: “Caffeine keeps me awake.” The respondent doesn’t answer the question directly, but infers a negative answer through relevant linguistic “clues.” On the surface Sperber and Wilson’s research doesn’t seem to relate to what museums and heritage sites are concerned with. However, we can, perhaps, take something useful from it. Relevance, using this theory, diminishes for the receiver of the communication relative to the greater the processing effort required to make sense of an utterance (Wilson & Sperber, 2002). It is not a huge step to say this is also true of the way museums and heritage sites communicate with their visitors. If a disproportionate amount of effort is required by a visitor to process the intended meaning of a communication, it seems logical that the relevance for that visitor may reduce.

Gorayska and Lindsay (1993) explore the various characteristics of “relevance” with a broader, more everyday usage. Their theories are still within the discipline of pragmatics but, although they don’t refer specifically to museums, their perspective may be applied with more immediacy to museum and heritage contexts.  They consider that relevance is always in relation to something else. For example, it is pointless to ask for the absolute relevance of an item or institution. A museum does not have an absolute relevance. Rather, the more appropriate question is how relevant is the museum in relation to a particular individual or audience group (ibid). It is important to keep in mind that relevance is a relational concept.

There are further presuppositions to be aware of, the relevance of something depends on what a person is trying to achieve, in other words their end goal. If something has a function in helping to achieve a goal then it becomes relevant. A goal also implies that a plan or strategy exists to achieve this goal. To illustrate this, an episode of the American sitcom Friends comes to mind, in which Joey takes a date to an art gallery. The art gallery becomes relevant to Joey (normally a non-visitor) because he hopes it will help impress his date. Of course the opposite happens, but this example shows how we must anticipate that museum visitors may come with specific goals in mind. This will come as little surprise to many (see, for example, Falk 2009).

The problem for museums and heritage sites is that when it comes to relevance, what is relevant to one visitor may not be relevant to another. It is, in fact, not possible, in practical terms, to be relevant to all people all of the time. This is due to a number of different factors. Firstly individuals don’t pursue the same goals and don’t unanimously share the same model of the world. Therefore, depending on our prior knowledge and experiences, we may not be aware that a particular ‘thing’, a museum for example, is in fact relevant in helping us achieve our goals. In addition, the tools we use to assess relevance, what we could term our co-ordinates of ‘established relevance’ (1992: 308) will differ from person to person. According to Gorayska and Lindsay, these co-ordinates may contain ‘all kinds of false beliefs and casual knowledge gaps’ (ibid). If we agree with this viewpoint then it is no surprise that people wouldn’t necessarily be aware that a museum or heritage site could be relevant to them. Awareness is, I think, key in our understandings of relevance in the museum and heritage sector. Relevance ultimately appears to relate to our individual epistemological starting point(s). But how aware are we of this as individuals? And likewise how aware are we of the impact this starting point has on our processing of what is and isn’t relevant? I would argue not very! Perhaps a priority for museums and heritage sites when it comes to relevance, therefore, should be to focus on raising awareness of what they are, what they do and what they offer.

Anna Woodham
Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage
University of Birmingham, UK.

References Cited

Bell, F.W. 2013. Are Museums still relevant? CNN Travel, 22nd August 2013 [accessed 14.01.14].
Falk, J.H. 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, Left Coast Press.
Gorayska, B. & Lindsay, R. 1993. ‘The roots of relevance’, Journal of Pragmatics 19 (1993) 301-323.
Hooper-Greenhill, E. (ed.) 1994. The Educational Role of the Museum, Routledge.
Jennifer, 2010. ‘Sustainability challenge: museums struggle to maintain relevance, court diverse audiences, preserve integrity of mission’, Museoblogger, June 17th 2010. [accessed 12.01.14]
Lewis, H. 2012. ‘Museums can help address inequality’, Museums Journal, Issue 112/03: 16.
Museums Association, 2013. Museums Change Lives, the MA’s vision for the impact of Museums, Museums Association.
Oxford English Dictionary [online] 2009.
Simon, N. 2009. ‘Museums and Relevance: What I learnt from Michael Jackson’, Museum 2.0, 29th June 2009. [accessed 12.01.14]
Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. 1987. ‘Precis of Relevance: Communication and congnition’, Behaviour and Brain Sciences, 10: 695:754.
Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. 1986. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wallis Simons, J. 2012. Revealed: Britain’s number one museum for families, The Telegraph [online], 31st May 2012 [accessed 14.01.14]
Wilson, D. and Sperber, D. 2002. ‘Relevance Theory’, University College London, Working Papers on Linguistics, 14: 249-287. [accessed 16.01.14]
Viscardi, P. 2011. Natural History Collections – Why are they relevant? The Guardian.com, 12th April 2011 [accessed 14.01.14].
Visser, J. 2011. ‘A quest for relevance’, The Museum of the Future, Innovation and Participation in Culture, August 16th 2011. [accessed 12.01.14].

Image: Photograph by Phil Dragash.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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