Theory and Practice of Museum Communication


A review of Museum Communication: Learning, Interaction and Experience, by Jane Korsbæk Nielsen. 

Jane Korsbæk Nielsen’s dissertation is a journey into museum communication at both theoretical and practical level, and an account of its past, present and future development. According to the author, despite communication being “one of the primary functions of museums” and relating “closely to the other main functions of museum practice like collection, management and conservation” (p. 19), there has been very little research. The focus of the analysis throughout the dissertation is on museum exhibitions in terms of learning, interaction and interpretation. It is therefore important before embarking on this journey, to define what museum communication is. Jane Korsbæk Nielsen defines museum communication in her thesis introduction as “the articulation of understandings” (p. 12) and treats museum communication as “a process as well as a concept” (p. 12), which defines “the core of museum work, approaches and responsibilities” (p. 12). The dissertation consists of six chapters which follow different structures.

In Chapter 1, a detailed literature review is provided regarding museum communication and learning theories, in particular those of behaviourism, constructivism, and multiple intelligences. Specifically, it details the two main theoretical approaches to understanding communication, namely (i) the transmission approach “which views communication as an information process” (p. 21), transmitted from the expert to a passive, less knowledgeable receiver and (ii), the cultural approach which views communication as “a vast series of processes through which information and meaning are created and produced” (p. 23). A thorough account, with a focus on learning theories, of two exhibitions (the National Museum of Scotland’s Natural World Galleries, in Edinburgh, and the British Golf Museum in St Andrews, Scotland), follows the literature review, allowing the reader to identify the prevailing theory through actual museum examples of communication. To achieve the dissertation’s objectives, a qualitative approach is adopted. Jane Korsbæk Nielsen gives a voice to the museum itself; views and responses were collected through a questionnaire and interviews with directors and researchers. The discussion benefits from a discourse analysis of data drawn from the questionnaire that the author sent out to 50 British museums in spring/summer 2012.

Chapter 2 discusses museum communication by exploring how Modernism and Postmodernism have influenced ways of thinking and understanding communication, interpretation and interaction. Jane Korsbæk Nielsen brings into the discussion Foucault’s heterotopia (p. 92) and Lord’s definition of the problems of interpreting and representing the gap between concepts and things (p. 111).

Chapter 3 explores different theoretical exhibition settings, and thus ways of communicating, based on the most prominent exhibition theories and frames, and how these theories have informed new communication strategies and approaches in practice through examples from two case studies (Barley Hall in York and the Riverside Museum in Glasgow). The arguments are further reinforced with data from a questionnaire about the museums’ exhibition practices. Chapter 3, following the structure of Chapter 1, demonstrates how different exhibition theories have developed and can be applied to different exhibition approaches. Discussions in both chapters work in tandem allowing the reader to realise how learning theories and exhibition theories can be applied in museums in practice.

Chapter 4 is a discussion unfolding around current social and theoretical developments of museum communication, interaction and experience. This chapter introduces the concept of storytelling, which has mainly developed as a means of postmodern museum communication. Jane Korsbæk Nielsen argues that “communication is essentially at the heart of storytelling which makes it relevant to so many aspects of practical museum communication” (p. 195). Indeed, museums have always been involved in ‘telling stories’, which visitors in turn interpret in their own, very personal ways. As museums have embraced the potential offered by digital technologies, nowadays most of them use digital storytelling not only as “a digital extension of the traditional oral storytelling” (p. 197) but also as a means for enhancing the stories being told by combining different modes such as audio, text, interactive features. For these very specific affordances, the author considers that storytelling will continue to exist in the museum of the future.

Chapter 5 focuses on the museum of the future and how museums can create relevance and remain relevant in the years to come. Jane Korsbæk Nielsen argues that the objective of introducing Future Studies is not to predict the future but to start thinking about it (p. 215). She thus introduces the reader to the relevance theory by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (p. 208), which argues that “audiences will search for meaning in any given communicative situation, and when having found meaning that suits their expectations of relevance, will stop processing” (p. 208). Therefore, not only “what is communicated” is important but also “the intention (or wish) to communicate” (p. 209). The author draws inspiration from Richard Slaughter’s theory of The Transformative Cycle (2004) and suggests that museums should go through a T-cycle, a process which consists of four phases (p. 216-217) and lasts for a long period of time. By introducing Slaughter’s T-cycle, Jane Korsbæk Nielsen brings to the fore the levels and dimensions of ‘transformation’ and suggests ways through which museums can learn and seek inspiration from Slaughter’s work in order to prepare for future transformations. To support her arguments, the author revisits Historical Royal Palaces to examine how the work of futurologists can provide feedback into the museum’s practices (p. 221-225). The chapter then concludes with data derived from the questionnaire, reflecting how museums themselves look into future challenges (p. 227-235).

Chapter 6, which is also the last chapter, introduces a new museum communication model developed around the aforementioned theories, practices and issues. Jane Korsbæk Nielsen coins this model ‘The Transformative Museum’ (p. 238) which, according to her, “is not ‘just’ another museum model” (p. 243). Instead, it is a model that identifies several essential points of development regarding museum communication and discusses how these may develop in the future. This particular model addresses the need for museums to acknowledge and respond to past, present and future opportunities simultaneously in order for museums to remain relevant to their present and future audiences.

The postmodern museum is a participatory space, an arena for multiple voices, interpretations and experiences and this is acknowledged in Jane Korsbæk Nielsen’s findings, model and suggestions for future inquiry. Of utmost importance is the author’s suggestion to view transformation as “a central process of the concept of understandings and therefore (as the word itself states) never stationary” (p. 238). What lies at the heart of Jane Korsbæk Nielsen’s dissertation is an acknowledgment of the dynamics and potential embedded in viewing the museum as transformative by embracing flexibility, and allowing museums to transform by looking into their past, present and future. Jane Korsbæk Nielsen’s thesis is a comprehensive guide for museums that wish to learn from their past and are ready to take up the transformative challenge.

Dimitra Christidou
Researcher and Project Manager
The Nordic Centre of Heritage Learning and Creativity

Primary Sources 
Literature review
Case studies

Dissertation Information
University of St Andrews, UK. 2014. 345 pp. Primary Advisor: Dr Ulrike Weiss.

Image: Animals on the move in the Animal World Gallery, National Museums Scotland (Photo: Jane K Nielsen, June 2012).

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