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Reference: André Desvallées and François Mairesse (Eds.). Key Concepts of Museology. 2010. Available in 9 languages from http://icom.museum/professional-standards/key-concepts-of-museology/


n. – Equivalent in French: communication; Spanish: comunicación; German: Kommunikation; Italian: communicazione, Portuguese: communicaçāo.

Communication (C) is the action of conveying information between one or several emitters (E) and one or several receivers (R) through a channel (the ECR model, Lasswell 1948). The concept is so general that it is not limited to human processes of bearing information of a semantic nature, but is also encountered in relation to machines and to animals or social life (Wiener 1949). The term has two usual connotations which can be found to different degrees in museums, according to whether the phenomenon is reciprocal (E↔C↔R) or not (E→C→R). In the first case the communication is called interactive, while in the second it is unilateral and spread out in time. When communication is unilateral and operates in time, and not just in space, it is called transmission (Debray, 2000).

tumblr_nk2acxG7jD1qaruxco4_1280Crystallized books”, by Alexis Arnold

In the museum context communication emerges both as the presentation of the results of research undertaken into the collections (catalogues, articles, conferences, exhibitions) and as the provision of information about the objects in the collections (the permanent exhibition and the information connected with it). This interpretation sees the exhibition both as an integral part of the research process and as an element in a more general communication system including for example, scientific publications. This is the rationale which prevailed in the PRC (Preservation–Research–Communication) system proposed by the Reinwardt Academie in Amsterdam, which includes under communication the functions of exhibition, publication, and education fulfilled by the museum.

2473902497394_oj2fwqbU_lSculpture by Nancy Dwyer

1. Application of the term ‘communication’ to museums is not obvious, in spite of the use made of it by ICOM in its definition of the museum until 2007. This definition states that a museum “acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” Until the second half of the 20th century the principle function of a museum was to preserve amassed cultural or natural treasures, and possibly to display these, without explicitly expressing any intention to commu- nicate, that is to convey a message or information to a receiving public. If in the 1990s, people were asking themselves whether the museum was really a medium (Davallon, 1992; Rasse, 1999) this was because the museum’s communication func- tion did not appear obvious to everyone. On the one hand, the idea of a museum message appeared only relatively late, with thematic exhibitions that were principally aimed at education; on the other hand, the receiving public remained a great unknown for a long time, and it is only quite recently that museum visitor studies and visitor surveys have developed. Seen from the perspective favoured in the ICOM definition of museums, museum communication would appear to be the sharing, with different publics, of the objects in the collection and the information resulting from research into them.

62415a670bd8513f7cd4ce686e9a6e4dCollage by Fred One Litch

2. We can define the specificity of communication as practised by museums in two points: (1) it is most often unilateral, that is, without the possibility of reply from the receiving public, whose extreme passivity was rightly emphasised by McLuhan and Parker (1969, 2008). This does not mean that the visitor is not personally involved (whether interactively or not) in this type of communication (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991); (2) it is not essentially verbal, nor can it really be compared with reading a text (Davallon, 1992), but it works through the sensory presentation of the objects exhibited: “The museum as a communication system, then, depends on the non-verbal language of the objects and observable phenomena. It is primarily a visual language, and at times an aural or tactile language. So intense is its communicative power that ethical responsibility in its use must be a primary concern of the museum worker” (Cameron, 1968).

377468438081_tjCJxJhm_lSculpture (detail) by Lucileee

3. More generally speaking, communication gradually became the driving force of museum operations towards the end of the 20th century. This means that museums communicate in a specific way (using their own methods), but also by using all other communication techniques, possibly at the risk of investing less in what is most central to their work. Many museums – the largest ones – have a public relations department, or a “public programmes department”, which develops activities aimed at communicating to and reaching various sectors of the public that are more or less targeted, and involving them through traditional or innovative activities (events, gatherings, publications, extramural activities, etc.), In this context the very large sums invested by museums in their internet sites are a significant part of the museum’s communication logic. Consequences include the many digital exhibitions or cyber-exhibitions (a field in which a museum may have genuine expertise), on-line catalogues, more or less sophisticated discussion forums, and forays into social networks (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.).

poster-youtubePoster You Tube, EVE’s archives

4. The discussion regarding the communication methods used by the museum raises the question of transmission. The chronic lack of interactivity in museum communication has led us to ask ourselves how we can make the visitor more active, while seeking his participation (McLuhan and Parker 1969, 2008). We could, of course, remove the labels or even the story line so that the public could build their own rationale as they move through the exhibition, but this would not make the communi- cation interactive. The only places where a degree of interactivity has been developed (such as the Palais de la Découverte, the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie in Paris, or the Exploratorium in San Francisco) seem closer to amusement parks that develop fun attractions. It appears nevertheless that the real task of the museum is closer to transmission, understood as unilateral communication over time so that each person can assimilate the cultural knowledge which confirms his humanity and places him in society.


Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse
And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology

Main image and for social networks: MAS_Context_COMMUNICATION