The Human Element: Museums and the Possibilites for Social Growth

In their influential text, The Museum Experience, John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking seek “to understand museums from a visitor’s perspective” (p. 1).  They define museum encounters through their Interactive Experience Model, which they divide into three contexts: personal, social, and physical.  This model is used to demonstrate how each context interacts to create the visitor’s experience.

My reading of The Museum Experience followed on the heels of studying the role of museums and museum professionals in educating the public.  Excellence and Equity, a report from the American Association of Museums states that “The commitment to education as central to museum’s public service must be clearly expressed in every museum’s mission and pivotal to every museum’s activities” (p. 5).  Ideally people do leave museums with new knowledge and greater perspective.  More often than not that knowledge comes from the “interactivity” of the experience.  Furthermore, the most important and memorable “interactions” that most visitors experience at a museums are social.  Fath Ruffins, Curator of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History, said in my interview with her that “Sometimes social interaction is almost as important or often more important than what you are actually seeing.”  In other words, in many cases the social dynamic of an experience overrides both the personal and physical context.

There is no doubt that humans are social creatures.  People like to feel connected to other people.  We want to be in the loop or part of the excitement.  The growing popularity and use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs attests to this need for connectivity.  Here is a niche where I feel that museums can greatly help themselves.  Now more than ever there is a need for museums to bring people together and promote dialogue on important issues.  It is the time for museums to capitalize on the social connectivity of our world through new avenues of programming that appeal to a living, breathing discussion of history.  The Museum Experience and Excellence and Equity were both written in 1992.  In the almost two decades since then much progress has been made in this direction, but if museums wish to establish even greater relevance and meaning to local and global communities, this next decade will encompass more change than the previous two combined.

To test the dominance of this social context, conduct this brief experiment.  The next time you are at a museum with a group find part of an exhibition that you know particularly well.  And then begin talking about it to the people in your group.  Speak with conviction and enthusiasm.  Then look and see how many other people around the museum start paying attention.  More than likely people will respond to you, either through verbal or non-verbal actions.  When discussing a similar experience of mine with Fath Ruffins, she responded that people listened to me “because [I] was speaking with authority.  People want to interact and are often drawn towards social experiences.”  Museums can add as many physically appealing elements as they wish such as computers, video, interactive displays, but more often than not a person will be more drawn to interact with another person than an object or display.  That is why I truly feel the key to interactivity and education rests in the social context of museums.  The next time museum professionals debate how to engage the public, I believe it would be useful for them to look at ways to speak to their audience in a more social way.  I have a hunch that people will listen.

Texts utilized in this post:

-John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, The Museum Experience (Washington, D.C.: Whalesback Books, 1992).

-Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (American Association of Museums, 1992).

Thanks also to Fath Ruffins for her time and insight


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