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Why I Want Less Thinking In Museums

Ladies and Gentlemen, I wonder if I might have your attention, please.  Arriving here, on my second trip to Buyukada and the Museum of Marco Polo, I bring important news.  This news may worry some of you, although I feel others of you will have suspected it for some time.  If you are alarmed then please try to remain calm;  and try not to fear too greatly for your professional identity.

What then is my startling discovery?  With a somewhat heavy heart, Ladies and Gentlemen, I can reveal that museums are not encyclopaedias.  Nor are they text books.  Furthermore, my detailed investigations have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that museums are neither television documentaries nor classrooms.  For these things are all places of the word. Books, documentaries and classrooms burst with words:  words to be read;  words to be heard;  words, words and words.

In sharp contrast, museums burst with things:  natural things;  things made by people; specimens, artefacts and objects. In museums people look at things; they sense that they come from different places and ages;  if they are lucky then they might touch or smell them, too.  Mmmm, breathe in deeply and smell Ai Wei Wei’s ton of tea.  Quick, touch it too, while no one is looking.

Sometimes we museum professionals talk about people ‘reading an object’. Well, that might be true for art historians, archaeologists or social historians – those people with great knowledge of things.  But most visitors simply look. This might lead to a sense of wonder, or to an interest being piqued.  If they are with someone else it might lead to a quick conversation. And one of those might lead a visitor to read a label.

If it’s a good label it will lead the visitor quickly back to the artefact, specimen or object, perhaps by drawing attention to a visible feature that could otherwise be missed.

If it’s a bad label it will draw the visitor’s attention away from the object, perhaps by discussing an aspect of history or science that the object illustrates. In this case, the visitor is dragged from the world of things into the world of words.  This risks sending the visitor on a hard-work label-reading and learning marathon, when they could instead be mindfully engaging with things on a stimulating stroll.

Two tendencies have led museums to overvalue reading and undervalue looking, to overvalue education and undervalue experience, to overvalue understanding and undervalue feeling.

One is what I call the Triumph of Social History.  With the best of intentions, social history curators have used collections to tell stories about other people’s lives.  The contexts of objects:  the histories of their use, their socio-political meanings and especially the people associated with the objects, have tended to be given primacy.  The objects often served as illustrations to words.  Perhaps it would be better the other way around, with the words serving as supporting cast to the objects.  This social history, contextual, people-rich approach appeared in other disciplines:  archaeology, art history, science, ethnography.  Of course I am not arguing for people to be hidden from museum displays but I am suggesting that in a museum (as opposed to books, documentaries or classrooms) things should lead words.

The other tendency that unintentionally turned museums wordy is the growth of interest in museum learning.  Now museums are great places to learn lots of things.  You inevitably learn about textures, surfaces and sizes.  You learn about the diversity of nature and of humanity.  And you learn that many things are similar, even though they may come from very different times and places.  You learn all this without reading many words – although a few words, carefully chosen, can often help point you in a fruitful direction.

Museums can also stimulate people’s interest in new areas, new subjects, new times and new places. This sometimes leads people, later, to read a book or attend a classroom. But many museums have made the error of trying to provide that book or classroom in their galleries, often on the wall, drawing attention away from the things.

Museum learning sometimes makes the mistake that museums should be about cognitive, factual learning.  But museums are much better at affective, impressionistic learning,

something Nick Winterbotham told us more than a decade ago in a keynote address to the Museums Association Conference (sadly unavailable online).

Museums can be brilliant at motivating people to want to learn, and at changing perceptions of a subject.  However, museums are not good places to learn facts and figures or kings and queens. Visitors are often standing, rather uncomfortable, distracted and getting tired.  Evaluation of museums and gallery displays reveals that little is learnt by most visitors.  Typically most visitors miss most displays’ key messages.  Most visitors even remain blissfully unaware of a gallery’s carefully chosen main themes.

What about Inspiring Learning for All? I hear you cry.  Don’t get me started, but in a nutshell ILFA incorporates such a wide definition of learning that finding the museum’s toilets without falling over your shoelaces can be categorised as learning.

And finally, we need to remember that most people don’t come to a museum in order to learn.  Colleen Dilenschneider told delegates at Museum Next in Indianapolis that the main things that people rate visiting cultural organisations for are:  to ‘spend time with family and friends’ and to ‘see or interact with the exhibits or performance’.  Learning comes fourth, beneath ‘interacting with staff/volunteers/performers.  She’s written more about audience antipathy to education here.

So, good people of Marco Polo, in designing your galleries focus on the objects, the social interactions.  Use words to briefly set the scene, but use words primarily to gently encourage more looking and interacting.  Do that, and the learning will take care of itself, largely outside the gallery.