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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. (from 15th century Vulgar Latin: mediatio, de mediare) – Equivalent in French: médiation; Spanish: mediación; German: Vermittlung; Italian: mediazione; Portuguese: mediaço.

Mediation is the translation of the French médiation, which has the same general museum meaning as ‘interpretation’. Mediation is defined as an action aimed at reconciling parties or bringing them to agreement. In the context of the museum, it is the mediation between the museum public and what the museum gives its public to see; intercession, intermediate, mediator. Etymologically we find in mediation the root med, meaning ‘middle’, a root which can be found in many languages besides English (Spanish medio, German mitte) and which reminds us that mediation is connected with the idea of being in the median position, that of a third element which places itself between two distant poles and acts as an intermediary. While this position characterises the legal aspects of mediation, where someone negotiates in order to reconcile adversaries and reach a modus vivendi, it also points to the meaning that this concept takes in the cultural and scientific fie ld of museology. Here too mediation is an in-between, filling a space that it will try to reduce, creating a connection or even acceptance.

c961c5c84942213bde38a2dae6ccd302_MWVTpjWC_lW. Strempler, no title

1. The notion of mediation works on several levels: on the philosophical level it served Hegel and his disciples to describe the movement of history itself. Dialectics, the driving force of history, advances by successive mediations: a first situation (the thesis) must pass through the mediation of its opposite (antithesis) to progress to a new condition (synthesis) which retains something of each of the two preceding moments.

The general concept of mediation also leads us to think about the institution of culture itself as the transmission of that common heritage which unites the members of a community and in which they recognise themselves. In this sense of the word mediation, it is through the mediation of its culture that individuals perceive and understand the world and their own identity; several writers speak of symbolic mediation. Again in the cultural field, mediation acts to analyse the ‘making public’ of ideas and cultural products – their being taken care of by the media – and to describe their circulation in the whole social sphere. The cultural sphere is seen as a dynamic, nebulous area where products mix together and take over from one another. Here the reciprocal mediation of cultural products leads to the idea of intermediality, of the relationship between medias and the way in which one media – television or cinema for example – translates forms of production made in another media (a novel adapted for the cinema). These creations reach their targets by one or other of the various technical aids that make up their mediatisation. From this angle, analysis shows that many mediations are set in motion by complex chains of different agents to guarantee content in the cultural sphere and ensure that this content reaches a broad public.


2. In museology the term mediation has been in frequent use in France and in European French- speaking zones for more than a decade, when speaking of ‘cultural mediation’, or ‘scientific mediation’ and ‘mediator’. Essentially it refers to a whole range of actions carried out in a museal context in order to build bridges between that which is exhibited (seeing) and the meanings that these objects and sites may carry (knowledge). Mediation sometimes seeks to favour the sharing of experiences and social interactions between visitors, and the emergence of common references. This is an educational communication strategy, which mobilises diverse technologies around the collections exhibited to give visitors the means to better understand certain aspects of these and to share in their appropriation.

nandan-ghiya2Nandan Ghiya, no title

The term thus touches on the neighbouring museological concepts of communication and museum public relations, and especially interpretation, very much present in the Anglo-Saxon museum world and on North American sites where it overlaps to a great extent with the notion of mediation. Interpretation, like mediation, assumes a divergence, a distance that must be overcome between that which is immediately perceived and the underlying meanings of natural, cultural or historical phenomena. Like means of mediation, interpretation materialises in interpersonal human actions and in aids which enhance the straightforward display of exhibited objects to suggest their meaning and importance. Born in the context of American natural parks, the notion of interpretation has since expanded to mean the hermeneutic nature of the experience of visiting museums and sites. Thus it can be defined as a revelation and unveiling which leads visitors to understand, and then to appreciate, and finally to protect the heritage which it takes as its object.

sallyengland1Modern macramé pieces by Michigan-based artist Sally England.

In the end, mediation comprises a central notion in a philosophy which is hermeneutic and reflective (Paul Ricœur). It plays a fundamental role in each visitor’s quest for self- knowledge, a knowledge facilitated by the museum. When the viewer stands face to face with works produced by other humans it is through mediation that he or she can arrive at a special subjectivity which can inspire self-knowledge and understanding of one’s own human adventure. This approach makes the museum, the custodian of the evidence and signs of humanity, one of the best places for this inescapable mediation which, in offering contact with the world of cultural works, leads each person on the path of a greater understanding of self, and of reality as a whole.

Main image and for social networks: Bird’s Talk is a playful interpretation of a traditional wooden nest box (Pint it up, Bassily Kassab’s Blog)