Issues in Museum Interpretation


Laura Martin and Richard Toon
Arizona State University



This course will examine issues of "interpretation" at three levels: Metatheoretical, in which we look at interpretations of museums; interpretation by museums themselves; and, visitors' interpretations. The course will invite students to reflect on their experiences, join in class exercises, read from a wide literature, and participate in research of their own.

Guests who are museum professionals will join us for conversation about the topics we cover. Students will prepare an annotated bibliography, a report on their field observations, and a final paper.


I. Course Overview

The first session provides an overview of the theoretical approach taken in the course, a guide to the required and recommended literature, and a summary of what is expected of students. The overview will also introduce the issues to be considered in the weeks that follow.

Introductory readings:

  • Alexander, E.P. (1959). The museum: A living book of history. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  • Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (1992). The museum experience. Washington, D.C: Whalesback Books. Chapter 1.
  • Gallagher, P. (1998). Captivate and educate Urban land, 57, 2, p. 55ff.
  • Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1992). Museums and the shaping of knowledge. London: Leicester University Press. Chapters 1 & 2.
  • Roberts, L. (1997). From knowledge to narrative. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian. Introduction.


II. Contested Realms

The authority of museums to create interpretations is challenged today as never before by both the visiting public and museum professionals. This session will examine museums as "contested realms" and look at the changes in culture and society that such contests reflect. Examples will come from Art, History, and Anthropology exhibits in particular, but students are encouraged to find their own examples.


  • Ames, M. M. (1992). Cannibal tours and glass boxes: The anthropology of museums, Vancouver, BC, University of British Columbia.
  • Gaither, E.B. (1992). "Hey That's Mine ": Thoughts on Pluralism and American Museums, in Karp. I, etal., (eds.) Museums and communities: The politics of public culture, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. Pages 56-64.
  • MacDonald S., and Fyfe, G. (1996). Theorizing museums: Representing identity and diversity in a changing world. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Part Two: Difference and Identities.
  • Toon, R. (1997, April ). The old glory controversy: Public symbols in public discourse. Paper presented at the Eastern Sociological Society Meetings, Baltimore, MD.
  • Wallace, M. (1996). The battle of the Enola Gay, In, Mickey Mouse history and other essays on American memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Pages 269-318.


III. Informal Learning and Controlling Interpretation

Museums are sites of informal learning in which museum professionals create specific types of often highly structured experience, using a variety of mediating techniques. This session examines the notion of informal learning and the issues faced in museum design.


  • Falk, J. (1997). Testing a museum exhibition design assumption: The effect of explicit labelling of exhibit clusters on visitor concept development. Science Education, 81(6), 679-687.
  • Mc Manus, P.M. (1991). Making sense of exhibits, in Kavanaugh, G. Museum languages: Objects and text. London: Leicester University Press. Pp. 35-46.
  • Screven, C. (1976). Exhibit evaluation: A goal-referenced approach. Curator, 19(4), 271-289.


IV. Creating or Unpackaging Ideas

As institutions of interpretation, museums both create (reify) and examine (through tools of interpretation) the ideas and objects they select and present. This session considers how museums consciously and unconsciously create an interpretive framework for experience.


  • Berger, J. (1977). Ways of seeing. London: Pelican. Duncan, C. (1995). Civilizing rituals: Inside public art museums. New York: Routledge. Chapter 1, Pages 7-20.
  • Moore, K. (1997). Museums and popular culture, London: Leicester University Press. Chapter 6.
  • Roberts, L. (1997). From knowledge to narrative. Smithsonian. Chapters 1 & 2.


V. Mediating the museum experience

There are debates in the museum community and museum literature about the roles museums have, and ought to have, in mediating experience. In this session we examine arguments that have been made for and against the interpretative -- some would argue, necessarily interpretative -- role of museums. This issue raises a number of interesting subquestions:Are museums more than illustrated books? Are museums about ideas or objects? Do objects have meaning sui generis? What is authenticity?


  • Alpers, S. (1991). The museum as a way of seeing.' In, I. Karp & S.D. Lavine (Eds.). Exhibiting cultures: The poetics and politics of museum display. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press.
  • Baudrillard, J. (1996). Marginal objects: Antiques' and marginal system: Collecting' In, The system of objects. London: Verso.
  • Pearce, S. (1992) Museums, objects, and collections: A cultural study. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
  • Roberts, L. (1997). From knowledge to narrative. Smithsonian. Chapter 3.
  • Weil, S.E. (1990). The proper business of the museum: Ideas or things? In Rethinking the museum and other mediatations. Washington DC: Smithsonian. pages 43-56

VI. Team Visit 1: A Museum You've Never Been To


  • To analyze a museum's messages and way(s) it is illustrated and manifest through collections, exhibit design, etc. Particular attention should be paid to the ways an exhibit or museum as a whole may have "hidden contradictions." For example, does the museum's building reinforce or undermine the general message? Do exhibit design techniques help or hinder the understanding of content? Does the exhibit have a clear message? Can museums show animals, plants, history, or anything else in an authentic setting?

VII. Locating Learning

This session will consider how learning in museums was understood in the past and offer an alternative view based on sociocultural theory. The models of mind that learning theories embody will be examined. We will consider how museums structure learning environments and how informal learning maybe understood.


  • Allen, S. (1997). Using scientific inquiry activities in exhibit explanations. Science Education, 81(6), pages 715-734.
  • Durbin, G, (Ed.) (1996). Developing museum exhibits for lifelong learning. Norwich, GB: Section II.
  • Schauble, L. and Bartlett, K. (1997). Constructing a science gallery for children and families: The role of research in an innovative design process. Science Education, 81(6), 781-793.


VIII. Programming and Exhibition

Museum literature tends to neglect the role of programming, as if the sole activity is the visitor-exhibit encounter. This session considers the nature of museum programming and to what extent it extends, augments, or even replaces what is traditionally understood to be the "core" museum experience.


  • Ambrose, T. & Paine C. (1993) Museum basics. London: Routledge. Pages 49-50.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Hermanson, K. (1997). Instrinsic motivation in museums: Why does one want to learn? In J. H. Falk & L. D. Dierking (Eds.). Public institutions for personal learning: Establishing a research agenda. Washington: AAM. Pages 67-77.
  • Roberts, L. (1997). From knowledge to narrative. Washington DC: Smithsonian. Chapter 4.


IX. Exploring the Primary Interpreter?

During the previous sessions we have been concerned principally with issues of how museum professionals (so far undefined) construct interpretation for the casual visitor and the media they use to do so. One major conduit for museum interpretation is the non-museum interpreter. They include professionals and non-professionals. A list might include the academic guest curator, the professional consultant designer, the volunteer, and many others. In this session we consider the various actors who construct museum interpretation and those who subsequently reinterpret for museum visitors.


  • Hooper-Greenhill, Chapters 7 & 8. Bauman, R. & Sawin, P., The politics of participation in folklife festivals, In, I. Karp & S.D. Lavine (Eds.). Exhibiting cultures: The poetics and politics of museum display. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press. Pages 288-314.


X. Visit II


  • The aim is to find similar content for your first visit in a different contexts and see what differences you find. For example is the experience of Art objects changed by encountering them in a fine art museum or an airport? Is Western History altered by being found at Rawhide compared to the Phoenix History Museum. There are many ways to experience a different context: an "immersion" experience vs under-glass exhibits, in a visitors' center, a hotel, or a road-side attraction. Students should also visit at least one web-based "virtual" museum and take a tour.


XI. Dealing with Expectations

How do museum goers know a museum is for them before they arrive? And how much does this pre-knowledge affect the experience? In this session we will consider the broad array of marketing efforts (logos, ads, tag lines, etc.) that museums attempt to place before potential audiences. We will also consider the socially shared understandings found in society that shape the meaning of the museum experience in a post-modern world.


  • Falk, J.H., Moussouri, T., & Coulson., D. (1998) The effect of visitors' agendas on museum learning, Curator, 41, 2, 107-120.
  • Harvey, D. (1990). The condition of postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Chapter 4.
  • Hood, M. (1983, April) Staying away: Why people choose not to visit museums. Museum News, 50-57.
  • Michelin or Blue guide, Beadeker, L.A. Guide to Museums
  • Hotel guides, brochures


XII. Visit III


  • Students will take part in a data collection exercise in which a questionnaire, devised as part of the IMLS project, will be administered to museum visitors at several partner sites.


XIII. Studying the Visitor

This session will examine the various techniques that are used to understand the visitors' interests, motivation, learning, enjoyment, etc., and the difficulties inherent in seeing the museum experience "from the visitor's point of view." Particular emphasis will be placed on considering what the museum needs to know about the visitor in both the planning and implementation stages of exhibition and programming.


  • Bitgood, S., Serrel, B., & Thompson, D. The impact of informal education on visitors to museums. In V. Crane, H. Nicholson, M. Chen, & S. Bitgood. (Eds.). (1994). Informal science learning: What research says about television, science museums, and community-based projects. Ephrate, PA: Science Press.
  • Lawrence, G. (1991). Rats, street gangs and culture in museums. In G. Kavenagh (ed.). Museum languages: Objects and text. London: Leicester University Press.
  • McManus, P.M. (1993). Memories as indicators of the impact of museum visits. Museum managemment and curatorship, 12, 367-380.


XIV. Visitors' Stories

Visitor's ethnicity, gender, age, class, and expertise, to mention just a few issues, deeply affect the ways in which museums are experienced. This session examines the importance of personal narrative and how museums attempt to deal with diversity and pluralism.


  • Gable, E. Maintaining boundaries, or mainstreaming' black history in a white museum. In MacDonald S., and Fyfe, G. (1996). Theorizing museums: Representing identity and diversity in a changing world. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Porter, G. (1996). Seeing through solidity: A feminist perspective on museums. In S. Macdonald & G. Fyfe (Eds.). Riegel, H. Into the heart of irony: Ethnographic exhibitions and the politics of difference. In S. Macdonald & G. Fyfe (Eds.).
  • Roberts, L. (1997). From knowledge to narrative. Washington DC: Smithsonian. Chapter 5.


XV. Conclusions and Reports

Other Suggested Readings:

  • Bennett, T. (1995). The birth of the museum: History, theory, politics. London: Routledge. Bicknell, S. & Farmelo, G. (Eds.) (1993). Museum visitor studies in the 90's. London: Science Museum.
  • Blais, A. (Ed.). (1995). Text in the exhibition medium. Quebec: La Societe des Musees Quebecois.
  • Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archeology of the human sciences. New York: Random House.
  • Glaser, J.R. (1994). Gender Perspectives: Essays on women in museums. Washington: Smithsonian. Linenthal, E. T. (1995). Preserving memory: The struggles to create America's Holocaust Museum. New York: Viking Press.
  • Orvell, M. (1989). The real thing: Imitation and authenticity in American culture 1880-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Journals: Curator, International Journal of Museum Management & Curatorship, Journal of Museum Education, Museum, Museums Journal, Museum News, Visitor Behavior.