The Art of Manipulation

In essence, what museum professionals are practicing is the art of manipulation–we manipulate what they see, how they see it, what context we put it in, where we place things, how we place things, what they read, if an exhibit is conducive to interacting socially, what they can buy, what they can eat, and, I believe most importantly we manipulate objects to show people what we think is important about them.

Manipulation is neither good nor bad–although it has a more popular negative connotation to it, it’s like the worlds that Falk & Dierking point out in The Museum Experience; “Education” and “Entertainment” all have connotations to them that we usually adhere to. The book and its authors argue that museum professionals and visitors should widen their interpretation of those words.

However, the book actively promotes the manipulation of visitors to better enjoy their museum experience by giving them, in essence, what they want. While one could argue whether or not this is good or bad, I have to wonder whether or not museum professionals are actively aware to their own experiences, whether it be personal, social, or physical when they are designing content for visitors. Is designing museums for a specific response out of visitors a good thing? Is this manipulation or molding of visitors something that museum professionals should fight? Or, should we be learning the art of manipulation to better suit the visitor and museum’s need?

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About Audrey Wolfe

Audrey Wolfe is a second year Master's Candidate at the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Originally from Ohio, she has worked at Warther's Museum (Dover, OH), Early American Life Magazine (Cleveland, OH), and as Site Director at Fort Laurens (Bolivar, OH). She last worked for the New York State Historical Association as their Development Associate.
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2 Responses to The Art of Manipulation

  1. Ginny R says:

    The thought that museum professionals “manipulate” visitors makes me cringe, partially because I see the term as having a definitively negative connotation. Museums should be places for interaction between people, ideas, society, communities and culture. If anything, communities (rather than individuals) should manipulate museums. Museum professionals (for better or worse) shape the narrative/history that objects embody and are involved in the selection process for determining what goes into an exhibition, etc. “Manipulating” the public and soliciting responses is problematic. Visitors, as a result of personal context, inevitably see exhibitions through the lens of their own experiences. They pick and choose what they see, read, buy and eat. The best and most effective exhibitions and institutions do not “tell” but “teach.” We need to be more aware of our audiences (including potential and unserved audiences) and rather than trying to manipulate them, do everything in our power to make museum environments more conducive to learning and their overall comfort.

  2. gretchensorin says:

    The idea that manipulation is neither good not bad is an interesting one. Don’t we allow ourselves to be manipulated by suspending disbelief as we participate in theatrical performances or first person interpretation? Where does free choice learning come in? How do we create spaces for free choice learning while communicating the information we hope to present, and at the same time offering opportunities for exploring multiple perspectives.

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