Museums can be very diverse these days. There is not always a consensus over what this institution is or should be. However, the ICOM (International Council of Museums), the most prestigious international organisation in the field of museums and their professionals, sets them within the following framework: “...a permanent institution in the service of society and of its development whose priority activity is not a commercial one, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment”. Other definitions stress the need for museums to have their own income, in order to face the progressive decrease in state subsidies.
1. What is a museum?
Origin and establishment of the word: from the ancient Greece, museums as institutions were founded upon collections belonging to monarchs, the church, the nobles or private collectors. Modern museums have opened these and other collections to a wider audience, essentially by means of permanent and temporary exhibitions or complementary events. The word ‘museum’ comes from the Greek mouseion, from which the Latin word museum and the several lexical variations in national languages came.
Types of museums: the main types of museums are art museums; human sciences museums (historical, archaeological, anthropological, etc.); natural sciences museums; science and techniques museums; ecomuseums and, in recent times, virtual museums. Ecomuseums, a project suggested by the French Georges Henri Rivière, are physically set on the site where the objects or activities they show their visitors are. Art centres are on a class of their own, rewriting the rules of art dissemination themselves.
Museology is the specialised knowledge on museums. The new museology is its most recent version, based namely on the ideas of ‘ecomuseum’ and ‘art centre’.
2. What are museums’ main aims and activities?
Showcasing: the founding aim of museums is to publicise works, objects and human or natural activities. This aim was possible from the 18th century onwards, through nationalisation of the cultural heritage (collections, etc.) that belonged to the dominating classes of the Ancien Régime.
Museums have several exhibition communication strategies, not only as for its objects, but also as far as the texts and hypertexts that are written and inscribed in them are concerned, as well as the events that enliven them. Of all the information grids made available by the museum team, the signs with the works’ explanatory texts, catalogues, posters, etc, are the most striking ones. More and more interactive activities and negotiations, either using classical media or multimedia, take place within this communicative space of the museum.
Preserving heritage: museums must also collect, organise, protect and recuperate their collection, thus preserving collective memory and enabling visitors to develop a kind of cultural citizenship.
Research: many museums do research, either using their staff or external collaborators. This reflection may be fundamental or large-scale (the study of collections, archaeological diggings, etc.), or applied to the preparation of specific temporary exhibitions (the study of an artist, questionnaires to visitors).
Cultural animation and informal education: the city or the rural environment organise the cultural spaces in which museums are inserted in an indelible way. As a consequence, museums collaborate more and more with urban or rural inhabitants in several active ways in order to develop new ways of reading science, technique and art, i.e., new scientific, technological and artistic literacies, especially visual literacy, through temporary exhibitions, guided tours, conferences, workshops and multiple festive events, for instance.
If you go back to some of sociologist Howard Becker’s (1982) concepts and apply them to the issue of art museums, for instance, you will find that their audience does not consume art works and their meanings in an abstract way; they rather rebuild them within concrete art worlds.
Art worlds are socio-cultural networks in which several gatekeepers (artists, curators, critics, auctioneers or collectors, for instance), select and regulate the course of the artistic activities and the path taken by the works of art up to their public presentation and fruition by museum visitors. In these art worlds, both in our global world as in Portugal, cultural politics, artist identity (Conde, 2000) and even museum organisation (Santos, 2005) significantly influence museum frequentation.
On the knowledge receiving end, museum audiences have specific sociodemographic traits and develop specific carreiras comunicativas during their trips to museums, especially as they relate the works and the museum space to their own frequentation of the city, their job, family or school. Families, pupils and teachers, individual or group visitors who wish to pursue a continuous, lifelong training, and tourists are among the several publics.
Several studies have aimed to explain the composition, interests and aspirations of museum audiences (Bourdieu, 19569, Wright, 2000). These days, especially as far as communication is concerned, museums are a powerful mass medium, whose audience is an ‘active audience’, which reproduces mass media and cultural institutions yet also transforms them (Stuart Hall, 1973).
4. What are ‘museability’ and ‘musealisation’?
The notion of museability includes the contextual, economical, socio-cultural and political conditions of musealisation within a given society (Andrade, 2003). Musealisation means the set of strategies for presenting works, as well as scientific, technological and artistic activities, to a non-specialist audience by the museum’s professionals.
Culture, leisure and information industries are also increasingly being used as vehicles for public communication of science, technologies and the arts, as well as for their informal learning in museums, in recent times through multimedia products and the internet (“Muséologie et nouvelles Technologies”, 2001). Nevertheless, a non-neglectable illiteracy rate, either visual or related to other mass media, remains among European citizens and at a global level; for instance, in this post-colonial era, regarding works from other cultures (Hooper-Greenhill, 1999), in articulation with interactive manipulation of preciously unseen interfaces, such as mobile phones and Personal Digital Assistants - PDAs (Andrade, 2004). The aim is to exclude info-exclusion, to promote cyberliteracy and therefore contribute to full cultural citizenship.
5. What is public communication of knowledge in museums?
Public communication of art, or science and technologies, involves producing, disseminating, consuming and understanding these means of knowledge in public or semi-public contexts such as in museums. This process assumes that knowledge is a social communicative process which requires, besides its producers, mediators and consumers (as well as the ‘gatekeepers' which operate within the art worlds’ networks), an 'active audience'. These phenomena occur especially in local/national museums or in world-class museums, within the context of the new order of global communication (Golding, 1997). Finally, through new experiences and new kinds of literacy mobilised by knowledge within cyberspace and cyber time, multiple virtual communities interact with each other through a deconstructive multimodal reading, the meanings of which are increasingly more plural and previously unseen (Unsworth, 2001:10).
ANDRADE, Pedro et al, 2003, “Os públicos da museabilidade da Ciência,” Atalaia/Intermundos (12/13), pp.62-91.
ANDRADE, Pedro, 2004, “E-art in digital museums measured by Interdimensional Networking Method”, In Fróis, J.; Andrade, P.; Marques, F., IAEA 2004, XVIII Congress, Gulbenkian, Lisboa.
BECKER, Howard, 1982, Art Worlds, Berkeley, Univ. of California Press.
BOURDIEU, Pierre; DARBEL Alain (1969) L’ Amour de l’ Art: les musées d’art européens et leur public, Paris, Minuit.
CONDE, Idalina; PINHEIRO, João, 2000, "Portugal: Feminisation Trends. Profiling the Future", in Pyramid or Pillars – unveiling status of women in arts and media professions in Europe, ERICarts.
GOLDING, Peter, 1997, Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Globalization, Communication and the New International Order, London, Sage.
HALL, Stuart, 1973, Encoding/Decoding in the Television Discourse, CCCS, Birmingham.
“Muséologie et nouvelles Technologies”, La lettre de l’OCIM, (78), vol. 23, 2001.