Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb 1992)

The language of exhibitions

The communication function of museums includes a wide range of activities. The main activities are exhibitions, publications, educational programmes and events. Core of museum communication is the exhibition. The exhibition is a museological artefact par excellence. In their The museum experience John Falk and Lynn Dierking have proposed to analyse museum communication, i.e. the museum experience, from the visitor's perspective (Falk & Dierking 1992). Their 'Interactive Experience Model' is based on the interaction among three (visitor-constructed) contexts: personal context, social context and physical context. The personal context incorporates a variety of experiences and knowledge of the individual visitor. It includes the visitor's interest, motivations, and concerns. Every visitor's perspective is strongly influenced by social context. Most people visit museums in a group, and those who visit alone invariably come into contact with other visitors and museum staff. The physical context includes the architecture and 'feel' of the building, as well as the exhibits contained within. The following analysis (as part of the 'Reinwardt Academy Museum Analysis Model') focuses on the physical context, i.e. the structural identity of the exhibition, as expression of the intentions of the maker, or, in other words, the ontological character and structure (Swiecimski 1987). hereas the 'Interactive Experience Model' intends to map out the exhibition as perceived object, the 'Museum Analysis Model' studies exhibitions as conceived objects.

Museum materials

An exhibition arises from the interaction between 'idea' (conceptual identity) and 'matter'. In this case 'matter' means exhibition 'hardware' as well as exhibition 'software'. The term 'software' refers to primary museum material (usually named 'museum objects') as well as secondary museum material (images, writings and sound recordings) (Cameron 1968; Tsuruta 1984); the term 'hardware' refers to the space and supportive structures like panels and showcases.

Different authors have used different subdivisions and alternative terminology especially concerning secondary museum material. Cameron (1968) distinguishes images (divided into reproductions and expressions), writings (divided into signalling, identification and interpretation), and sound recordings. A similar distinction is made by Rivière (in Desvallées 1989: 283-284). Tkac (1986) is more precise. Focusing on exhibits in a strict sense (i.e. excluding signalling and non-visual media) he mentions iconicum (copy), texticum (text), exacticum (graph) and symbolicum (abstract symbol).

Materialised 'dreamlands'

As manifestation of a concept, an exhibition is a materialised 'dreamland' in which 'objects' play a key role (Prince 1985). This 'dreamland' is the result of a process of selection and manipulation of the information emitted by museum items. During this process the curator consciously or unconsciously encodes the museum objects with messages. This does not remove the information contained within the object, but the selection and manipulation intends to offer the visitor a strictly guided choice. In this respect Eisner and Dobbs (1988) distinguish between implicit and explicit 'dreamlands'. Especially among art museums the view is expressed that museums ought to be 'sacred groves', quiet places for the cognoscente to enjoy profound objects without interventions, assistance, and above all, discursive language. The interpretative role of museums is alleged to be minimal (implicit). However, some museums emphasise their educational role. To be educational the presentation has to be completed with additional materials. In this way an explicit 'dreamland' is created.

In general, an exhibition creates an almost totally closed information-communication system (Maroevic 1983); it destroys ambiguity (Dagognet 1984). Like the church or the temple of the past, the museum plays an unique ideological role (Duncan & Wallach 1978). By means of a careful selection of objects, placed in a well designed context, the museum transforms ideology in the abstract into living belief. In the sphere of art The Fountain, the urinal placed in a museum context by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 - signed and all - is often regarded as conclusive evidence how signification is largely determined by context. The visitor has no choice than to accept the judgements and interpretations that constitute the 'dreamland' (s)he is visiting, because there is always the museum as a medium that defines the meaning of the object. Showing early medieval sculpture from churches under the same lighting conditions as, for example, Greek sculpture and the Urinoir does not do justice to the intentions and technical achievements of the makers. The working of relief and colour in the original context(s) is completely different (Hasse 1982).

Three realities

This special situation can be described as the basic paradox of the museological situation: the object which, in its present reality, is considered as authentic evidence of a former reality, is, in museological terms, not the same object as it was in that other reality. The actual physical and conceptual context 'creates in the presented object features which are novel to it and which have purely phenomenal (and at the same time, ephemeral) character' (Swiecimski 1987). Therefore, as Swiecimski points out, in accordance with the concept of 'museological object', the object as exhibit cannot be identified with the physical thing (the so-called constant features) only. What counts is its 'appearance' conditioned by the context ('objective') and the act of perception ('subjective') [note1]

A similar approach is reflected in Martin Schärer's distinction between 'wirkliche Realität', 'erdachte Realität' and 'persönliche Realität' (Schärer 1991). The first dimension refers to the primary context, the second refers to the exhibition context in which the object is shown, and the third dimension refers to the museum visitor. In fact this distinction boils down to the basic triad in communication: sender, message/medium, receiver. In this interaction meaning is produced. Meaning is produced in the material practice of reasoning in the present, which is, of course, in no way identical with the past.

The language of exhibitions

The first to work out a systematic approach to exhibitions as communication system was Duncan Cameron. His article, published in 1968, heralded a growing literature on museum semiotics. Cameron uses language as metaphor comparing museum objects (i.e. primary museum material) with nouns, the relationships between objects with verbs, and the supplementary media (i.e. secondary museum material) together with the design of the object environment with adjectives and adverbs (Cameron 1971).

The first specific reference to the semiotic nature of the museum phenomenon is found in an article written by Hodge & Souza (1979). During the 1980s the semiotic approach to museum work became a dominant feature in publications of French museologists, followed by the staff of the Department of Museum Studies at Leicester (such as Susan Pearce) and individuals like Ivo Maroevic (Zagreb), Martin Schärer (Vevey), and others. The approach chosen here, follows from the concept of the exhibition as museological artefact.

For one part, the actual functional identity of the object as exhibit (i.e. the 'signified' of 'referent' of the object as sign) is strongly dependent on the exhibition as context. In other words, the actual functional identity of the object is a function of the conceptual identity of the exhibition. This conceptual identity is reflected in purpose, structure, style, and technique. Purpose relates to the functional identity of the exhibition; structure, style and technique relate to its structural identity. Structure (= strategy in Hall 1987: 25) involves the organisation of the material; style refers to the general atmosphere in which the communication process takes place; the term technique comprises the practical technique of information transfer. [note 2]


The purpose of one of the functions of a museums is (or at least should be) derived from the general aims and policy of the institute. As to the purpose of an exhibition the most obvious orientation is the external orientation [note 3]. This external orientation follows the views concerning the social role of the institute. On this point the Dutch sociologist Jan Vaessen distinguishes between four principles: the traditionalist, the autonomistic, the responsive and the avant-garde principle (Vaessen 1979 and 1986). Following the traditionalist principle the museum finds raison d'être by making an appeal to traditional values. The museum considers itself an institute pre-eminently called upon to preserve and to keep alive traditional values and to pass these on to future generations. This approach has a long tradition. In fact it is the paradigmatic construct of the Classicist museum as formulated by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Whereas universities were to celebrate Truth ("das Wahre"), museums were supposed to focus on Beauty ("das Schöne"). From Truth and Beauty arises Good ("das Gute").

The autonomistic museum makes an appeal to professionalism and expertise. A certain ivory tower attitude is characteristic. No need it felt to legitimise its existence; education plays a minor role. The responsive museum presents itself as an institution which reacts and anticipates needs of society. Key concepts are emancipation, equity and participation. The avant-garde museum adopts a missionary attitude. The leading principle is experimental and renewal.

Although Vaessen developed this model for art museums, a similar variety of ideas can be found among other museums as well. In the ICOM circles an outspoken preference is found for the responsive principle. The museum must interpret the cultural needs of the community as a whole and the members of the community individually, and as a consequence contribute to the promotion of public awareness and social progress.

Within this general frame work each museum will define its aims, and in connection with these aims the purpose of the exhibitions will be established. Though extremely important, we will not further discuss the purpose of exhibitions, but - following the methodological approach chosen - rather focus on the physical aspects.


Structure involves the organisation of the exhibition material, in particular the primary museum material. On this aspect, Hall (1987: 25) mentions two basic approaches: the taxonometric and the thematic approach. According to the taxonometric approach, material is displayed by classification alone. This classification is based on instrumental rationality. It consists of objects organised according to their similarity and their 'genetic' relationship to each other (Burcaw 1975: 121). Verhaar & Meeter (1988: 5) make the basic distinction between object-oriented and concept-oriented exhibitions, the former defined as exhibitions in which the objects constitute the central elements, the latter defined as exhibitions in which attention is focused primarily on the 'story' and in which objects play a subordinate role. Their wording suggests a similarity with Hall's distinction between two strategies, but as their approach combines structure and style, their distinction appears to be less precise.

Hall's taxonometric strategy agrees more or less with Burcaw's systematic display type (Burcaw 1975) and the approach, which has been called 'objective' by Shanks & Tilley (1987) [note 4]. As opposite approach Shanks & Tilley mention the anti-rationalism of aestheticized objectivity (aesthetic display). However, a pure aesthetic display form is seldom found. Usually aestheticized objectivity is found as style (see below) within the context of an objective display. In more general terms the aesthetic display strategy as meant by Shanks & Tilley is one possibility in a range of possible approaches that can be called anti-rationalistic or subjective. This approach is based on individual decisions rather than formalised rational principles.

Hall confronts the taxonometric approach with the thematic one. The thematic approach involves telling a story. The visitor is guided to make connections and to follow the development of the thesis as it evolves in the exhibition. This might be realised through a simple linear approach, following a book- or film-like sequentiality or through a mosaic type of presentation consisting of many separate displays offering random information from which the visitor is expected to pursue his/her own route. This type is described by Shanks & Tilley as 'narrative display' (also in Swiecimski 1987: 212).

In addition they distinguish a type of display based on spatial and functional interrelationships, which they refer to as 'situational display'. This agrees with Burcaw's ecological display type (Burcaw 1975) [note 5]. Ecological organisation requires that the objects be in an areal and living relationship to each other. This exhibition type is considered a style rather than a strategy by Hall. However, as the ecological approach involves a distinct use of objects based on scientific knowledge which is different from the knowledge involved in the other approaches, the situational type of display should be considered as separate strategy.

Combining the typologies provided by Hall, Burcaw and Shanks & Tilley, and using their terminology, following distinction between three basic display types is used to describe the different approaches in museum exhibitions and the role of objects as data carriers: subjective, systematic, ecological, and narrative. [note 6]


Besides different approaches as to structure, there are also different approaches as to style [note 7]. Style relates to the effects sought. As Miles (in Miles et al. 1982) has pointed out, all exhibitions by their very nature invariably have some educational content as they almost always try to tell visitors things that they are unlikely to have known before. However, the method used may aim at different effects. In this respect Arpin (1992: 45-46) distinguishes between contemplative, cognitive and affective exhibitions.

Comparable is Swiecimski's distinction between three cognitive 'styles': the typological framing, the perceptual isolation, and the morphological reduction [note 8]. The first approach emphasises the object as representative of a type. As such it suppresses the individuality of the object. It has the nature of being 'objective' or at least 'intersubjectively verifiable'. The second and third approaches attempt to reduce the influence of the context to a minimum by emphasising the object's individuality on the level of its structural identity [note 9]. These two approaches reflect Rivière's principle of aesthetic exhibits described as 'la neutralisation de l'environnement' (in Desvallées 1989: 362).

Burcaw (1975) and Hall (1987) give alternative typologies. Burcaw mentions aesthetic or entertaining, factual and conceptual exhibitions, while Hall distinguishes between evocative, aesthetic, and didactic displays. Burcaw and Hall agree on the aesthetic type of display in which each object is shown in a way to emphasise its aesthetic qualities. Supporting texts and display mechanisms complement but are subordinate. As separate display type it is also mentioned by Gluzinski (1981), Shanks & Tilley (1987), Verhaar & Meeter (1988), and Rivière (in Desvallées 1989).

The didactic exhibition aims primarily at the impartion of knowledge, using some model of learning (Gluzinski 1981, Verhaar & Meeter 1988). It is the same type of exhibition which Arpin refers to as cognitive. Burcaw's factual and conceptual exhibitions seem to be two forms of this didactic type. Factual exhibits focus on conveying information, conceptual exhibits present ideas. Some authors use a twofold division of didactic vs. aesthetic (Gluzinski, Verhaar & Meeter) or didactic vs. 'emotive' (Belcher 1991). Arpin and Hall, however, divide emotive into aesthetic (= affective) and evocative (= contemplative). In both cases the intention of the exhibition is to have an effect on the emotions of the viewer. In an evocative exhibition an atmosphere of an era, a country, a particular art style, or a scene is created in a theatrical way.

Following Arpin and Hall, and using the latter's terminology, distinction is made between three basic exhibition 'styles': aesthetic, evocative, didactic. [note 10]


Finally, distinction can be made as to technique of communication. Hall, focusing on the degree of inter-action, distinguishes between interactive and passive displays. Miles elaborated a more precise typology of display techniques ('modes of use') based on the number of physical states an exhibit can take, and the mechanism by which a change of state is brought about (Miles et al. 1982: 81). The main distinction is between static exhibits (those which do not change state) and dynamic exhibits (which change in order to illustrate two or more different states). The latter type comprises automaton dynamic exhibits (those which run continuously, e.g. a film loop), operand dynamic exhibits (those which can be activated by the visitor), and interactive dynamic exhibits (those which involve the visitor in some sort of dialogue). A further subdivision of the interactive mode involves tutorial and simulation modes. The difference between these is that in the simulation mode the outcome is open-ended, whereas in the tutorial mode it is predetermined to a considerable extent. [note 11]

Diverging policies

All dreamlands are not the same. Art, science and historical exhibitions have distinct formal characteristics, connected with different attitudes towards individual objects. Each museum type is characterised by its own permutation of structure, style, and technique. Whereas, for example, for art historians each object is unique and has to be continuously re-examined with fresh eyes, zoologists deal with material that has for them a generic rather than a specific significance. There are, however, some general trends. In this respect there seems to exist two diverging tendencies resulting from a change in museum policy.

According to Cannon-Brookes the traditional 'arm's length relationship' between the museum and its users echoes the pastoral role of the priest (compare Vaessen's traditionalist principle). New museum policies seem to favour the pedagogical role of the schoolteacher or perhaps the commercial role of the merchant (Vaessen's responsive principle) (Cannon-Brookes 1990). The art collections have as yet remained the most resistant, whilst more and more natural history specimens and technological artifacts disappear into store to be replaced by manufactured didactic displays incorporating a minimum of original specimens and a maximum of interactive audiovisuals (educational design). Science centres show this development in extreme.

Typology of structures

The four aspects of the conceptual identity of an exhibition needs further elaboration, especially to systematise the confusing diversity of terms and concepts. As an example how the model presented here can be used to analyse some tendencies in the museum field, we will focus on the aspect of structure.

Pre- en proto-systematic exhibit(ion)s

Early museums were based on a hermetic and metaphoric image of the world which assumed that every object was coded with a larger, more universal significance (Findlen 1989: 67). Applied to the passion for collecting, hermeticism postulated that the museum would be a visually coded presentation of occult knowledge. The world itself was a tangled web of meanings; it remained only for the collector to penetrate its layers through the comparative, taxonomic, and ultimately encyclopaedic nature of his project. On the other hand, the natural philosopher arranged his collection according to the metaphoric relationships of objects, thus re-creating cosmic schemes.

The dominant principle underlying museum exhibitions in the late 18th and early 19th century was to show as much objects as possible in vast cased displays intended to permit maximum access with minimum supervision. Some kind of organisational model was imposed on large collections so that inter-relationships between objects and groups of objects could be perceived to be rational, and the visitors could find their way around the collections in order to use them. Apart from this organisational model the guidance offered by the museum was reserved. The visitors were expected to chose for themselves which items to study.

At the eve of the origin of the archetypical museum Alois Hirt formulated three principles to organise collections: according to subject, according to period or style, and according to size. In his proposal for a new museum in Berlin, he suggested to arrange classical sculpture according to subject, whereas paintings were to be arranged chronologically according to period and style and within periods according to size12. The arrangement of classical sculpture according to subject was chosen in Rome at the Villa Albani (about 1760) and the Museo Pio-Clementino (opened in 1772). The hybrid structure as proposed by Hirt was not accepted when the Alte Museum was arranged. The Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III stated that the arrangement of works should be "von der Willkür einer Einzelnen und von der zufälligen Persönlichkeit seines jeweiligen Vorgesetzten unabhängig".

Systematic exhibit(ion)s

Systematic exhibits and exhibitions are based on three options: taxonomy (typology), chronology, and geography. And the end of the 18th century a systematic (largely chronological) strategy was introduced in art museums (Meijers 1991). Following Winckelmann works of art were organised cyclically according to periods of rise, flourishing and decline. From the beginning of the 19th century taxonomical and chronological exhibitions are organised linearly. Such design accent determinism and/or progression. Events or cultures seem to follow inevitably upon one another. Visitors walk through a history that appears to have no 'roads not taken' (Rabinowitz 1991: 38). The visitor was expected to 'celebrate progress' (Horne in Boylan ed. 1992: 69). Objects stand solitary, isolated from their social contexts, but firmly fit in a rigid linearly structure [note13]. Their meaning lies in their abstract objectivity. As such, the objects are formally equivalent (Shanks & Tilley 1987: 69-70). There is no role for ambiguity, for the unexpected.

Following the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Francois Dagonet - and with him Bernard Deloche - explain that in this way museums are instruments of the capitalist bourgeoisie (Dagognet 1984, Deloche 1985, also Horne in Boylan ed. 1992). As has been discussed, many authors consider the alienation of objects from their original context as main dilemma of museum work. The so-called 'museum revolutions' are (partly) attempts to bring objects alive, to re-actualise them in a respectful way.

In the course of the 19th century the massive growth of the collections prompted the introduction of the bi-partite museum model, i.e. the divisioning of the collections into a display collection and a reserve collection [note 14]. This division did involve selection and thus re-enforced the organisational structure of the presentation. Following this line of development, the museum exhibition presented a scientific system illustrated by well selected specimen, rather than a number of objects arranged according to some scientific principle [note 15]. In addition museums started to organise temporary exhibitions.

The introduction of the bi-partite museum model and the temporary exhibition idea liberated museums from the necessity to combine scientific and scholarly needs and educational aims (Parr 1963, Jahn 1979). Scientific and scholarly needs were satisfied through well-organised reserve collections. The exhibition became increasingly a means of communication with a less informed visitor. Nevertheless, until the 1950s in most museums the organisational principle (structure) remained scientific (taxonomic, typological), while its function (purpose) was primarily educational. The style, however, was mainly aesthetic. In art museums the tiered hanging (double, triple-tiered, or even quadruple tiered hanging) was increasingly replaced by a 'single line' hanging in a neutral environment [note 16]. This new approach in exhibition style is called 'style hôpital' or 'style clinique' by Bazin (1976) [note 17].

The most recent attempt to combine educational purpose and taxonometric strategy is the development of the tri-partite museum model, i.e. the divisioning of the collections into three parts: exhibition, storage and the so-called open storage or visible storage (Ames 1985).

New structures

In connection with the educational function of the museum, a new strategy was introduced in exhibition design: the 'idea approach'. The idea exhibit emphasises concepts rather than objects, hence also concept exhibition (Peart 1984) or conceptual exhibit (Rabinowitz 1991) or concept oriented exhibition (Verhaar & Meeter 1988). Although the terms idea- and concept-exhibition are widely used, their precise meaning is not clear. This is mainly due to the different meanings of the terms. Does it refer to the conceptual identity of the object or that of the exhibition as a whole? Besides, 'even' taxonometric exhibitions are expressions of certain concepts. The term 'thematic' seems to be a good alternative as it refers to the concept of the exhibition rather than the idea(s) behind the object(s). Thematic exhibitions involve a considerable shift in perspective as to the role of the object . Their introduction is connected with a shift from 'visualising a collection of objects' to the discourse concerning social and scientific themes (Gluzinski 1986, Sola 1987, and Lachapelle in Côté ed. 1992). The new strategy prompted Rivière to distinguish between 'musée-objet' (elsewhere 'musée-collection') and 'musée-discours' (or 'musée-programme') (Desvallées 1989: 350).

This shift in perspective involves a critical analysis of the degree in which the object as such is able to convey messages. The object has a 'beschrankte Aussage-wert' and its 'informatorische Defizit' should be compensated by additional methods (i.e. secondary museum material) (Schleussner 1984: 47).

In the extreme form the idea approach may result in a textbook type of presentation primarily based on secondary museum material. In this respect Peart (1984: 222) distinguishes between concrete exhibits (three-dimensional, with objects) and abstract exhibits (two-dimensional, lacking objects) [note 18]. The subordinate role of primary museum material in conceptual exhibitions is illustrated by Tkac's typology of 'authenticum'. He subdivides primary museum material into 'illustrative authenticum', 'document authenticum' and 'complementary authenticum', emphasising the fact that the museum objects are no longer used in an unequivocal way (Tkac 1986a). As Swiecimski has pointed out, this development involved a shift from subject matter discipline to museology, since the exhibition design no longer followed directly from the organisational principles given by the subject matter discipline [note 19].

The tendency to abstract exhibitions, in which the authentic object plays a subordinate, illustrative role is criticised by many authors from different backgrounds (Schueler 1983). One of the arguments is that these types of exhibitions are not 'museum specific'. Such exhibitions could easily be replaced by less expensive media, like books and television. On the other hand, abstract exhibitions lend themselves particularly for a wide range of themes that cannot be visualised through object-oriented exhibitions [note 20].

The idea approach has developed along two different lines, typified by the narrative and the ecological display type, the latter being a few decades older that the former. The twentieth century saw the perfection of both types of exhibitions through increased sophistication in educational design (in case of narrative displays) and experience design (in case of ecological displays). Educational design tends to emphasise the didactic approach in display style, while experience design focuses on the evocative approach.

Narrative exhibitions

Narrative exhibitions usually have a story line as organising principle. In order to move away from systematic arrangements a book-like pattern was introduced. One of the first to develop this approach was George Brown Goode (see, for example, Brown Goode 1891). More recently important textbooks are published by Jürgen Rohmeder (1977) and Roger Miles (1982). The 'perfection' of the narrative exhibition eventually lead to a serious operation overload at the cost of the content. A shift from primary museum material to secondary museum material is followed by a shift from explanation (how to understand) towards instruction (how to use).

The linear, sequential type of story line has been criticised many times. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan advocated non-lineal communication in museums already in 1967. 'In order to create involvement, you have to take out story line. That was the great discovery of Edgar Allan Poe. In his poetry and stories he discovered that if he pulled out the connections he could get much higher involvement. The reader becomes co-producer, co-creator' (McLuhan 1968). In a similar way McLuhan suggested to make exhibitions without story line and without labels, to obtain a high degree of participation of the visitor. Instead of linear, sequential story lines he emphasises simultaneity (combined with multi-sensory exposure). In this respect ecological exhibitions are the answer to narrative exhibitions.

Some authors, however, focus on the alleged danger of reducing original artifacts to bit-parts in some larger theatre of meaning (Swade in Wright 1991: 21). Especially in art museums narrative strategies are controversial (Salomons 1991). When a certain motive has lead to pictorial traditions a narrative approach might be justified, but when a contemporary issue is discussed on the basis of historical paintings the works of art tend to be used in a reductionist and anachronistic way.

Ecological exhibitions

Ecological exhibitions have a high degree of concreteness and a low degree of abstraction. Such exhibitions are referred to as immersion setting (Chadbourne 1991: 42) or primary-experience exhibit (Peart 1984). They function as time-machines, taking the visitor to another world. While a narrative display is a lecture, a ecological one is a way of storytelling, comparable to the 'docudrama'. The landscape immersion approach has come to dominate recent zoo exhibitions (Bitgood, Ellingsen & Patterson 1990). Major zoos are installing these naturalistic exhibits at a fervent pace. This type of naturalism is often characterised by efforts made to remove or obscure 'contradictory' elements, i.e. anything that would detract from the image or experience of actually being in the wilderness. The animals usually remain separated from the public by invisible barriers, but sometimes there are no barriers at all. A parallel exhibit perspective has been taken place in other types of museums. Natural history museums are simulating all kinds of habitats in a naturalistic manner (walk-through diorama). Science museums are creating exhibits that simulate the experience of travelling in outer space, circulating through the human heart, and other such experiences.

One of the newest techniques, introduced in the late 1980s, is virtual reality (Brill 1994; Pimentel & Teixeira 1993). This technique provides a full sensory immersive experience of virtual, but dynamic and responsive landscapes. Immersion means that one or more of a user's sensors (eyes and ears generally) are isolated from the surrounding environment (by means of a Head Mounted Display device) and fed only information coming from the computer.

Speaking of the structural identity of artefact sets in exhibitions Schuck-Wersig & Wersig (1982) distinguish between 'Ensemble' and 'Konfiguration'. The term ensemble refers to period rooms and other artefact sets which (re)construct an original structural and functional connection. The term configuration refers to intentionally combined artifacts to express an idea. Klein & Wüsthoff-Schäfer (1990) propose a threefold division: reconstructing artefact sets, decorative artefact sets, and symbolising artefact sets. Their third group comprises all configurations of artifacts and other media created to communicate an idea or point of view in exhibitions. Decorative artefact sets are used in exhibitions to create a certain atmosphere.

Period rooms

Historic villages, historic houses and period rooms are ensembles in terms of Schuck-Wersig & Wersig and reconstructing artefact sets in terms of Klein & Wüsthoff-Schäfer. They stand between naturally accumulated artefact sets (primary context) and artificially accumulated sets (museological context). As such they form a complex, and rather heterogeneous, group.

Fleming (1972) was the first to propose a classification of period rooms. His classification is based on two considerations: the degree to which historical authenticity is the predominant concern and whether the concern for authenticity relates primarily to historical, artistic or utilitarian considerations. With regard to authenticity distinction is made between period rooms and period settings [note 21]. The period room (= 'Ensemble', reconstructing artefact set) recreates the totality of a room and all its contents as it was actually furnished and used by its original occupant, or as it is likely to have been equipped and lived in at the time. In a period setting (= 'Konfiguration', decorative or symbolising artefact set) only the architectural and decorative features of floors, ceilings, walls, fireplaces, and other permanent fixtures are true to the prototype of an authentic interior, while the space between the walls is being used as a showroom for contemporary examples of furniture and other products of the decorative arts [note 22]. Besides period rooms and period settings a third category may be distinguished: the composite room. To this last category belong the interiors of some of the great eclectic houses built in the United States during the beginning of this century, like Villa Vizcaya (now the Dade County Art Museum, Miami) and San Simeon (one of the houses of William Randolph Hearst in California). The interiors are more or less designed and furnished according to a chronological scenario, but composed of a sometimes bizarre hotchpotch of artifacts with a diverse provenance (Fitch 1982).

Period settings and composite rooms are always museological artifacts, in terms of Ford secondary collections (Ford 1984). A period room may either be an authentic artefact set (in terms of Ford a primary collection) or a reconstruction [note 23]. As reconstruction a period room is a museological artefact, and therefore by definition not authentic. However, the application of the concept of authenticity provides some difficulties. A period room may be considered original as to the composition while at the same time it may be a reconstruction as to the arrangement. On the other hand the room itself may be authentic, while the furnishing is reconstructed.

As to the (museological) idea behind (historical) period rooms Fleming distinguishes between historical, artistic and utilitarian period rooms (Fleming 1972). This is an improvement of Parr's distinction between historically representative, sociological and aesthetic period rooms (Parr 1963). Fleming's historical period room embraces Parr's historically representative and sociological period rooms. Parr's distinction is not very clear. The first type he describes as comprising representative examples to illustrate the actual taste of a period and its level of household technology. Since both taste and technology find their full expression only in the homes of the prosperous, historically representative period rooms represent the household of the comfortably well-to-do. The term sociological period room is applied for examples of actual living conditions rather than taste. The illustrations in Parr's article suggest that sociological period rooms concern the lower social classes only. Fleming's approach is more straightforward, a historical period room resembles as closely as possible an actual room as it once appeared. This may be the actual room of an historical person as it appeared at some moment of his/her life (biographical historical period room). It may be an actual room at the moment of some important historical event (moment historical period room), or it may represent the way of life of a region, class, ethnic group or religious sect (era and area historical period room).

Fleming suggests that his concept of artistic period room equals Parr's concept of aesthetic period room. However Parr does not make clear to what extent an aesthetic period room is distinct from a historically representative period room. The main cause of the ambivalence of the term is that Parr fails to distinguish between taste and style. By retrospective aesthetic selections, based on our own taste, the artificial character of period rooms is, perhaps unwillingly, re-enforced. This is probably what Parr refers to as aesthetic period room. Fleming's concept of artistic period room refers to the period room as document, providing us with an example of a certain style of interior decoration. Such rooms can be found in museums of applied art. It would perhaps be better to use the term stylistic period room for this type of artefact set.

The third group of period rooms comprises utilitarian period rooms. Described by Fleming as a period room (or period setting) with a range of utensils, tools, weapons, or merchandise appropriate to some historical operation, profession, or activity, like kitchen, craft shop, country store, schoolroom, army post barrack and trading post.

As exhibits period rooms can be considered as objects sensu lato. As such ecological displays are subject to the same phenomenon of alienation as individual objects. The period room is a static instant, a disconnected moment. This disconnected temporality and discontinuity with the present creates the mystery. The transparency of the period room is an illusion. The arrested temporality of the period room proposes that meaning is instantaneous, located in the disconnected moment, that visible facts convey the truth. The certainty of the existence, the facticity, the reality of the artifacts confirm this proposal. However, the period room is not a facsimile but a 'simulacrum', an exact copy of an original which never existed (Shanks & Tilley 1987: 79). The past is transformed into its own image, an image which is axiological rather than ontological.

There is a strong tendency in museums to sculpture 'by our selections and arrangement (...) a period room to look beautiful in our eyes, when the manner in which the original owner would have kept it might not have pleased us at all' (Parr 1963: 330), in other words: to improve the aesthetic qualities from our modern point of view. Parr emphasises the need of research : 'If he (the curator) has done his research right, the truly representative historical period rooms he has created will be of lasting validity, because his choice will be based upon demonstrable facts. But his retrospective aesthetic selections, being a matter of opinion, may be quickly superseded' (Parr 1963: 331).

In his plea for the use of furnishing plans in historic restoration, Giguere seems to be less strict: 'any reconstructed setting tends to have a rather cold atmosphere. (...) the furniture by itself is not enough to suggest human presence. To compensate, certain details may be added to bring the surroundings to life. Objects may be arranged in such a way as to make the rooms appear inhabited, as though the occupants have only stepped out for a few minutes (...). Theoretically the possibilities are endless, the only limitation being the designer's imagination' (Giguere 1983: 29). Rivard gives special attention to the final finishing of reconstructed workshops (Rivard 1988). He describes the new exhibits in the Main State Museum where immense pains were taken to retain spontaneity in reconstructing workshops in order to create a more natural appearance. During the installation process the workshops were used once and the objects and spillings were left where they were laid down or fell. This painstaking detailing echoes the opinion of Fleming who considers a period room a curatorial publication. He points at the subjectivity by stating: 'At some point in the future, someone doubtless will write a study of the personal styles of various historic room decorators' (Fleming 1972: 42). In addition he quotes Rodeck's remark: 'the museologist may well pause to ask whether the resulting installations are authentic recreations of a past way of life, or merely projections of contemporary taste and ideas to earlier periods in history' (Fleming 1972: 40). In this respect Klein & Wüsthoff-Schäfer (1990) speak of 'Überinszenierung' as result of the 'Eigenhistorizität des Inszenators'.

Usually it seems as if the authors of period rooms act according to the principle of cleanness. Period rooms are shown in a way the traditional male breadwinner likes to see it. It does not become clear who and how the housekeeping is organised. Even kitchens are usually deprived of activity.

In his essay on a series of visits to American wax museums Eco (1985) shows us where the 'American way of history' (Anderson 1984: 33) can lead to. The museum reality is a kind of hyperreality, it is more beautiful, more exciting, more true than reality outside the museum. Reality is 'designed' (Keller 1983). Fairy tales become realities, historical reality becomes a fairy tale. The past is 'sanitized' (Lowenthal in Lowenthal & Binney ed. 1981: 199). Alleged re-constructions are in fact new constructions: 'Inszenierte Geschichte' (Schleussner 1984: 50), 'fake-lore' (Anderson 1984: 22).

New museology

Modern technology has been introduced to perfect the narrative and ecological display types. Interactive dynamic exhibits have become an indispensable technique in didactic exhibitions, while audio-animatronics has been introduced in the field of evocative exhibitions. The perfection of these two approaches, however, has led to a development in exhibition design in opposite direction. This development is sometimes referred to as 'new museology'.

Characteristic of this approach is the introduction of political content into the displays. The public is shown how the past may be manipulated and misrepresented for present purposes. 'The reconstruction technique is an excellent tool to promote nostalgia, but it is not a basis for an understanding of the past' (Ruddel 1991). So, artifacts are broken from fixed chronological narrative and from their original contexts and reassembled with contemporary artifacts similarly decontextualized (Korff 1984; Shanks & Tilley 1987: 98). Exaggeration, irony, humour and absurdity are introduced as means of stripping the self-evident meaning of the artefact of its power [note 24]. In a similar way Horne speaks of the potentially liberating role of museum in the future through the diversification of more pluralistic approaches to knowledge (Horne in Boylan ed. 1992). Similar views are also expressed by Leering for (modern) art museums. In an article published in 1992 he repeated his views as art museum director expressed in the early 1970s (Leering 1992). An exhibition should activate the public to come to their own opinion and critical judgement. Necessary condition is the confrontation of different views. In this respect Leering supports the idea of 'guest curator'.

Exhibition design should emphasise authorship and changing perceptions of the artefactual past. In this approach ambiguity and uncertainty should play a role in museum exhibitions. 'Ambiguity might, in fact, be one of the few hopes for creating more open institutions, because if you operate and embrace ambiguity and ambivalence, you can ignore borders between one way of thinking and another' (Sims [note 25]). These words echo the pervading of a new kind of open-ended questioning in museums. Museums are supposed to make their methods clear. 'One of the tasks of experts in museums is to discover and record all the information carried and emitted by a museum item. The visitor, meanwhile, must make an effort in line with his sensibility to accept and be receptive, to develop within himself a sensitivity towards the message which at a given moment appears useful and important' (Maroevic 1983: 240). In other words: the cultural information has to be revealed rather than the scientific information.

Usually, the exhibition speaks out as 'a disembodied voice, responsible to no one and representing the views of no one identifiable individual' (Davis & Gibb 1988: 43). If we are to avoid this illusion, the name(s) of the person(s) responsible for the exhibition should be displayed at the beginning, along with a statement of way the subject was chosen (see also Horne in Boylan ed. 1992: 73; Leone 1983).

In its policy document of 1980 the Maritiem Museum at Rotterdam adopted the same approach: 'The museum must make its own interpretations transparent and make clear the subjectivity of them. The visitor must be offered the opportunity to confront his own, perhaps differing, conclusions with the museum's views. (..) To be able to pursue such a discussion, the visitor must be 'armed' with a certain quantity of basic knowledge. Only then is it possible for him to test the reliability of the structure of opinions and conclusions which forms the basis of each exhibition'. In a similar way Nevling (1983) proposes 'orientation centres' in museums on the model of visitor centres in nature parks. The basic assumption is that before critical thinking can be introduced in history museums, visitors need some understanding of the historian's craft. In addition they should understand the 'museologist's craft'. Demonstrating the historical research process, as well as the museological choices through exhibits emphasizing logic rather than objects and discoveries, enfranchises people with the means to see for themselves how pasts are composed, how their history has been shaped by the present to form, in fact, their own identity [note 26].

Paradoxically the innovating impetus is expected from aesthetics: '... we sometimes forget that it is an art we are producing ... the synthesis of the entire exhibit is a single, composite creative act - a work of conceptual art' (Rabinowitz 1991). This means a new approach to exhibition design. The new approach has been referred to as redemptive aesthetic by Shanks and Tilley: 'We must retain heterogeneity and difference, the fragmentary and discontinuous reality of the past as a means of overcoming the ideological effects of a reified object world, past and present' (Shanks & Tilley 1987: 97).


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1 Swiecimski uses the term 'Ansicht', a concept derived from phenomenological philosophy. The conditioning of the 'image' of the object by its context is a key concept in what he calls 'the notion of the exhibit' (Swiecimski 1987). In an unpublished manuscript 'The theory of the museum exhibition' Swiecimski introduced the concepts of total relativity and existential basis ('Seinsfundament'). "In the case of the exhibit, the 'existential basis' is constituted not only by the physical thing which is put on display, but by this thing taken together with its environment". >back<

2 In this respect Swiecimski (1979: 14) distinguishes between theoretical program (here: purpose and strategy) and design (here: style and technique). In an earlier publication (Swiecimski 1974: 12) distinction is made between designing program (comparable to strategy, partly style and technique), function (purpose), and stylistic shape (aesthetic style). Desvallées (1989) distinguishes between forme as concept (purpose, i.e. functional identity) and type as expression (structure, i.e. structural identity). In their critique of archaeological exhibitions Shanks & Tilley (1987) use the term aesthetic for the combination of strategy, style and technique. Rohmeder (1977: 48-49) uses the term strategy in a different way. What is described by him as 'didactic strategy' is referred to as style. His use of the term tactics agrees with technique. >back<

3 Internal orientation involves, for example, the influence of exhibition work on preservation (such as decisions what to collect, how to preserve) and on research (need for scientific data; exhibitions as experimental settings). >back<

4 = 'das systematisierende Grundsystem' (Gluzinski 1981: 32); 'présentation systématique' (Rivière, in Desvallées 1989). Using linguistic concepts to analyze museums ('the poetics of the museum') Bann applies the concept of metonymy to describe this strategy (Bann 1984, Chapter 4). >back<

5 = 'das kulturgeschichtliche Grundsystem' (Gluzinski 1981: 32); 'présentation écologique' (Rivière, in Desvallées 1989). This exhibition type relates to Bann's synecdochic strategy (Bann 1984). Lindquist mentions two models (i.e. strategies): typological (sequential) and contextual (Lindquist 1993). >back<

6 Apart from subjective, the same subdivision is given in Swiecimski 1987 and Rabinowitz 1991. >back<

7 These two dimensions are used in a three dimensional analyzing matrix in Hendon 1979 (fig. 7.1). The third dimension relates to the degree of interpretation (i.e. 'uninterpretive' vs. overinterpretive'). >back<

8 In an unpublished manuscript 'The theory of the museum exhibition'. The terminology used is not Swiecimski's. >back<

9 Swiecimski uses the terms 'construction' and 'internal core'. >back<

10 A similar threefold division is given by Shettel (1973) who speaks of exhibits which are intrinsically interesting (emotive), exhibits which have primarily an aesthetic appeal (aesthetic), and exhibits which appear to have an instructional or educational role to play (didactic). >back<

11 In the second edition of their work (1988) Miles et al. make a clearer distinction between medium and mode. The medium is defined as 'the vehicle that carries the information the designer wishes to communicate to the visitor'. The mode is defined as 'the way in which the medium is used' (p.78). >back<

12 Alois Hirt, Über die Errichtung eines Königlichen Museums der Antiken, und einer Königlichen Gemäldegalerie (Berlin 1798). See Lübbe 1980. >back<

13 "Could there not be some place where one could simply be in love with arts as with a woman, without always having to be reminded that after all she did descent from a hairy ape?" (Parr 1963: 30). >back<

14 According to Bazin (1967: 263) Goethe was the first to advocate this concept (in 1821). In 1853 the bi-partite model was also discussed by Charles Eastlake, director of the National Gallery, London. The bi-partite museum was introduced in the United States by Louis Agassiz in 1860 in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge. It was first applied in Europe by Möbius in 1884 in the Zoologisches Museum, Berlin (Möbius 1898). >back<

15 This principle was, for example, advocated by Georges Brown Goode in his The museums of the future. Report of the National Museum, 1888-89 (Washington 1891). >back<

16 As was already advocated by John Ruskin. >back<

17 Benoist (1971: 29) credits the Netherlands for this trend of 'purisme protestant integral'. >back<

18 Rivière uses the terms 'image concrète' and 'image abstraites' in a slightly different way (Desvallées 1989: 283-284). Concrete exhibits are models and casts ('images tridimensionelles') and photographs and maps ('images duodimensionelles'). Abstract exhibits are graphs and diagrams. >back<

19 J.Swiecimski, The theory of the museum exhibition (unpublished manuscript). >back<

20 A strong object-orientation in natural history museums has been mentioned as one of the main drawbacks in the introduction of topical issues like pollution and bio-engineering. See: Natuurbeschermingsraad, Natuur- en milieueducatie in musea (Utrecht 1990). See also, for example, Martin Schärer's account of an exhibition about hunger in the Alimentarium, Vevey (Schärer 1988). How to depict lack of food in a conventional way? >back<

21 This distinction is derived from Parr (1963: 335), who for his part credits Little. >back<

22 Alexander (1964: 273) uses the term 'artistic period room' as synonym to period setting. Hall (1987: 195) uses the term 'setting' for all types of room exhibits other than original rooms. Paatsch (1990: 69) uses the term 'Inszenierung' in a similar way. >back<

23 Hall (1987: 195) speaks of original room vs simulated room setting. Herbst & Levykin (1988: 221) mention 'Originalensemble' and 'Rekonstruktion'. Desvallées (1989: 335), following Rivière, uses the terms 'unité ecologique' and 'reconstitution synchronique'. >back<

24 Bann (1984: 91) speaks of the ironic museum 'in which we oscillate between the different varieties of imaginative projection that are required'. This approach has also been described as 'deconstructivism' which aim it is to liberate the 'Gefühlsinhalt' of the object. >back<

25 in a discussion on 'Context and commitment', published in Museum News 69, 1990, (5). >back<

26 Leone 1983. See also Reque 1978. Reque describes the project 'Reading museum exhibits' (Field Museum of Natural History) in which the idea of critical analysis of exhibitions is implemented. >back<