Audience Centered Museums: The Unmitigated Expereince

Both in the readings for class and in my interview, I came across the phrase “unmitigated experience” in relation to one of the ways that visitors can take in a museum. To me an “unmitigated experience” is an experience where the museum does not tell the visitor any information, but instead lets him/her view the objects, and decide for himself/herself what the meaning behind them is. I have two problems, or rather questions related to this: Can a museum experience ever truly be unmitigated? Then secondly, Should a museum experience be completely unmitigated.

First, if a museum is the one creating the exhibit and laying out the placement of objects, isn’t the experience already mitigated?   The museum is influencing not only what the visitors are seeing but also the context in which they are seeing it.   A pair of scissors in the garden can create a completely different narrative than a pair of scissors in a sewing room.   Unless objects are just placed in glass cases around the room, visitors interpretations of their meanings are always going to be influenced by what they see and the context they see the object within.   If you throw in labels the question gets even more confusing, which leads to my second question.

Should museum offer completely unmitigated experiences?   If museums are educational institutions that are trusted for being very factual, do they have a responsibility to try and prevent people from misinterpreting what they see? There are plenty of objects that a person can see and have no idea what they are used for, so in turn draw a incorrect assumption about what they are and what their purpose was.   As educational institutions do museums have the responsibility to make sure this does not happen, if at all possible.

Both of these questions, especially the last one, got me thinking very hard, and I came to the conclusion that maybe a person drawing a wrong conclusion is not the end of the world, but in fact represents something good.  I had a few reasons for this conclusion.  While taking to the museum professional I was interviewing, she said that one of the main educational goals of her museum was to get people thinking critically about the world around them. This makes sense to me, people should question what they see.  Thus, by letting people observe objects without labels, museums are forcing people to think critically about what they see and draw a conclusion.   Furthermore, she said something that really stuck home with me.  She said that in the end its about sparking interest. Its about getting people interested in what they see so they want to learn more.   That resonated with me strongly. If an unmitigated experience challenges people, gets them thinking, asking questions, and looking for answers, I think that has a stronger and better impact on the person and society than simply presenting facts. By inspiring people to think and learn on their own, we as museum people are sending people out into the world with skills that are continually useful and applicable in all circumstances.

The truth is important and people trust museums to give them that, but maybe even more important is teaching people how to be critical thinkers and analyze the world around themselves.

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One Response to Audience Centered Museums: The Unmitigated Expereince

  1. Jeffrey Smith says:

    I would have to disagree with the concept of an “unmitigated experience” as presented.

    First and foremost it is not acceptable at all for the client to draw their own erroneous conclusions on an object, display or anything else contained within the institution. This violates the basic premise of the museum as an educational institution. The museum isn’t doing anything to educate, it is simply displaying stuff. If anything, it is a de-evolution of the museum back to the old “Cabinet of Curiosities”. Let’s throw the objects behind some glass and save a ton of time, money and effort in exhibition design. A prime example is to have a bed on display. Let’s say that bed is from the 17th or 18th century. It’s a short bed. 99.999999% of the clients are going to have the take-away of “People were shorter back then.” Not cool. Nicht coolness. Ne Cool Pas.

    Secondly, with no form of interpretation, how is there any engagement with the client? No voice-over, you just lost your auditory learners. No labels, there go the visual learners. No buttons to push or such, you just lost the kinethetics. There is no form of dialogue with the client. No interaction. Why should a client care about anything on display? This leads to the next point.

    Third, if your clients don’t know what they are looking at, it will reinforce the museum stereotype of elitism and public perception of “I’m not smart enough to go there.” Bad things happen then. Bad, bad things. Things such as reduced attendance, which leads to reduced funding. Then again, the institution will be saving money because it will have slashed its design budget so that might ended up balancing out, but I digress.

    The unmitigated experience is a favorite course of action for art museums. Specifically, modern art museums where one is supposed to “experience” the artwork and draw one’s own conclusions. Where putting anything on a label beyond Artist’s name, title and date goes beyond good taste. This exemplifies point three. For what it’s worth, this irks me to no end. Tell me a little about what I’m seeing. Give me some background on the artist. Point me in a direction of how this artifact ties in with another artifact on display. Otherwise I’m going to walk away thinking “I paid how much to come in and look at a paint splatter and spackle on some canvas? I wonder if I can get my money back?”. The same applies to a history museum if they follow the road of unmitigated experience. “I came to so-and-so’s house to see where they slept. Well, I saw a bunch of bedrooms. I’m guessing one of them belonged to so-and-so. What a rip-off.”

    While an interesting experiment, I don’t believe that it is a good idea for everyday practice.

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