Performance and Meaning Making in Museums


A review of Does “pointing at” in museum exhibitions make a point? A study of visitors’ performances in three museums for the use of reference as a means of initiating and prompting meaning making, by Dimitra Christidou.

Dr Christidou’s dissertation is concerned with the process of meaning making in museums; a process she considers primarily as a performative, social and collaborative action. The thesis aims to uncover the “complexities and patterns of performance unfolding naturally” at seven different exhibits, across three museums (p.19) and starts from the idea that, in order to achieve a shared meaning of an exhibition, museum visitors (must) play an active role in the process, through different sociocultural means. The thesis, indeed, stems from a sociocultural and multimodal perspective: it borrows the term ‘performance’ from theatre and uses, at the same time, Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective. Within this context, visitors’ encounters are understood as ‘active, distributed, social, situated, and mediated processes’ (p. 14), which are then outright performances in situ, allowing visitors to make and share the meaning of their visits. The main, leading research question looks at the ways visitor performances initiate, prompt, and lead to shared meaning-making. However, the thesis goes on to investigate a set of more detailed issues concerned with: the ways in which visitors make their personal interests public; the influence that the physical, personal, and sociocultural context has on meaning-making; the ways visitor performances address communicative functions; the kind of practices used by group members in order to share their performances and the impact that the use of group references may have on the museum experience and on the occurred performance.

While there is an extensive and well-known body of work on the diverse levels of learning in museums, the different performative processes of learning and joint meaning-making (according to a sociocultural perspective) have not been as widely researched. Therefore, Dr Christidou’s thesis offers enhanced and new insights into the different sociocultural behaviours that can be observed in museums. For the purpose of her study, she has chosen seven exhibits, across three main, London-based museums: The Welcome Trust, The Courtauld Museum and The Horniman Museum. These museums vary in terms of scope, collections, ‘user language’ (Bradburne, 2000), and activities and therefore present a good spread of cultural institutions where different performances can take place.

The thesis is structured around ten chapters. After providing, in the introduction, an overview of the main issues it tackles, Chapter 2 defines the use of the sociocultural theory of learning, particularly in relation to the museum experience. Following the explanation of the adopted theoretical basis, in Chapter 3 we are presented with the key concepts of the research, namely, telling, performance, joint attention and visitors’ common ground. Chapter 4 is the ‘contextual’ chapter, where the case studies are detailed, together with the seven exhibits and the reasons for choosing them (e.g. exhibits that allowed visitors to approach them from different distances; challenging and popular exhibits; physical space around the exhibits for good quality video and audio footage; health and safety). In Chapter 5, the methodological framework, based around ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, is described and justified. The actual research methods used to carry out the study: the data collections and coding; the limitations/challenges (e.g. the use of video equipment in a public space and the reaction to it on behalf of the public) and ethics (e.g. participants’ anonymity) of the study are also presented. Chapters 6, 7 and 8 analyse the dynamics of visitors’ encounters at the specific exhibits across the three museums. Here, Dr Christidou not only highlights the importance of the visitors’ identifying hooks for museum/gallery exhibits but also the fact that identification precedes interpretation and allows visitors’ meaning-making to develop further. In Chapter 9, the findings of the research are examined in order to answer the initial research questions. Additionally, the categories of performance (identified in the different exhibits) are presented and discussed and the influence of each museum/cultural setting in the shaping of visitors’ performances is also explored. Finally, Chapter 10, as the concluding chapter, summarises the key findings of the study and acknowledges its academic contribution.

The thesis aims to consider the complexities and patterns of performance taking place in museums and indeed, through her research, Dr Christidou identifies three major performances (attracting an audience; telling and tagging, and animating the exhibit) and two additional visitor dynamics (arriving second and seeing through another person’s eyes). These can, more or less inadvertently, happen in front of any museum or gallery exhibit and within any group of visitors. Throughout the thesis, the multimodal, social nature of the museum experience of joint meaning-making is explored and both verbal and nonverbal visitors’ behaviours are considered equal contributors in facilitating thought and interaction during the performances. The shared connections between these different visitor actions (in relation to meaning-making) in front specific exhibits and within specific institutions are hence the focus of this work, which certainly offers a fresh insight into museum visitors’ performances and will be, without a doubt, of great interest to scholars in museum and visitor studies and beyond.

Dr Anna Catalani
School of Architecture
University of Lincoln, UK

Primary Sources
Fieldwork (audio-visual data) across three museums.

Dissertation Information
University College London, 2012, pp. 390. Primary Advisors: Theano Moussouri and Jeremy Tanner.

Image: Image by author.

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