On ambiguity and conflict

Further to my last post on a story in the February 06 issue of the Museums Australia mag… The same issue also contains a review of a book on visitor learning at museums, and there is some nice resonance between the two stories, as well as some dissonance.

According to Dr Janette Griffin’s review of Listening in on Museum Conversations by Gaea Leinhardt and Karen Knutson (2004), their research suggests that:

visitors want to know the stance of the museum, but at the same time they engage with conflict in ideas. [In addition,] visitors were “upset by ambiguity in signage but nonetheless engaged by it.” (p.160) However, if information was incomplete or hard to read, visitors became uncomfortable and disengaged.

An exhibition designed to be unsettlingAn exhibition designed to be unsettling.
Photo by Nikolaus.

The spaces a museum leaves for visitors to make their own meaning seem to be both welcome and unsettling. No doubt, as visitors, we are accustomed to museums giving us unequivocal answers, so equivocation can take people out of their comfort zone.

(Discontent would also occur when visitors perceive that a museum is blocking their engagement by withholding information, or by putting it in too small a font size, or on a label that is poorly placed or poorly lit. I can relate to that.)

But isn’t some element of discomfort intrinsic to the process of learning?

How would you respond to a glass-cased peach stone that is, according to the sign, ‘delicately carved with a minute neoclassical scene’ if, when you looked at it, even through a magnifying glass, all you could see was a small broken peach stone?

Personally, I would enjoy such a gentle bewilderment, especially in the context of a Museum of Jurassic Technology. But I cannot imagine this display in the National Museum of Australia. Well – not without an uproar ensuing.

But surely there is a place for ambiguity, indeed for uncertainty, in museum displays, even (or especially?) in national cultural institutions. And do we still need to even ask whether there is a place for contestation?* The research suggests that many visitors think so. Do you agree?


*On the issue of contestation, Fiona Cameron’s research into exhibitions as contested sites is exemplary. See her paper Transcending fear – engaging emotions and opinions – a case for museums in the 21st century published in the Open Museum Journal in September 2003.

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