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Resource: Milo Varoevic, University of Zagreb

On the other side of the communication pyramidal structure, at the other apex of opposed pyramids, lies the recipient of the message. In the case of the communication by museum exhibition, this is the visitor, or, to use a collective noun, the public, the audience. It is to the public that the museum message is directed, and thus it is impossible to talk of a museum exhibition without considering the phenomenon of the public. As we have already mentioned, the communication process is directed from the sender to the receiver, with the proviso that the recipient has to show some prior interest and through his or her expressed scope and level of expectation to be capable of affecting the shaping of the museum exhibition. For this reason, every good exhibition structures its message at the several levels of the assumed capacities of the visitors in order to be able to respond to the expected demands. As a rule this is not hermetic, rather it stimulates openness and imagination in the visitors, endeavouring to stir up their interest, so that the visitors should go out from the exhibition pleased, taking with them a certain quantum of new knowledge, without feeling any direct didactic pressure.

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Put in a theoretical vocabulary, a good museum exhibition should encourage and direct the constitution of the object of the message so that in the complex communication process information or a set of items of information should be formed as close as possible to the intended message of the exhibition. The authors will endeavour as much as possible to reduce anticipated interference in the communication channels and facilitate a better through-flow and acceptance of the messages.


Here it is worthwhile recalling some Venn diagrams presented quite a long time ago (Miles, 1988:86) in which there is a differentiation of several types of audience, in order to take in all the complexity of this other apex of the communicational model. The broadest circle covers the potential public, which we can draw into the exhibition by a certain advertising apparatus, and for which the broadest and most elementary level of the exhibition is meant. Within this circle is the narrower circle of the actual audience or public; we know that an exhibition of this kind is suitable for it, and that it will find something for itself at it. The broadest level of the exhibition should be aimed at it. The narrowest circle is made up of the target public, at which we have aimed the professional subtlitles and most delicate and most specialist part of the exhibition. The layer of the message for this public is the deepest, and requires the greatest knowledge of the exhibition material. Since the actual public is that level to which the greatest attention should be devoted, because it is both interested and also very highly layered, the second Venn diagram deals with circles within the field of the actual public. Within it, Miles distinguishes the receptive public, which without difficulty will be able to accept and respond to the exhibition message transmitted, and the hit public, which will be totally satisfied with what it has seen, and which will consider that the exhibition was meant precisely for it. This diagram is just one of the vivid models leading to the conclusion that a public is not a compact organism that will accept museum messages in some homogenous manner; it is also one of the key elements in the creation of a good exhibition.


For this reason, an exhibition has to communicate with visitors at three levels at least. The first is the individual, which is to say that the visitor has to be able to respond to the exhibition message and go round the exhibition him or her self, without the aid of guide or catalogue, with as much influence from museographic aids as he chooses himself. The second level is the group level, where the individual goes round the exhibition as part of a group, and tries to take in the offered message with the help of a guide. He combines what he sees with what the guide draws his attention to, and supplements his knowledge in consultation with members of the group, taking over part of the manner of thinking of the group he belongs too The third level is the orientational, where the individual or the group has the exhibition explained bit by bit, the purpose being to combine the exhibition with the acquisition of new knowledge or habits.

aef23c11025709b583092c45f88c174aBut does it float?


A museum exhibition is a product of someone’s (an expert’s) will and desire. The impact of the given time of museal definiteness of the very museum objects taking part in the exhibition process. The superadded new values are the result of the influence of the context on the individual museum object, whether it is real, created by coexistence of objects in a given ambiance and visualized with the assistance of museum aids or virtual, the consequence of the social climate or circumstances in which the exhibition and its communication with the public goes on. In brief, a museum exhibition is a kind of imaginary reality of the past created with real museum items in the present, in the context and in interrelationships in which they could have been together and worked together only very seldom in the past, and which are the results of the creative wishes of the author of the exhibition and the laws of some of the fundamental scholarly or scientific disciplines that deal with a given segment of the relevant world of objects (archaeology, history of art, ethnology and so on). The exhibition is an intellectual construct of selected phenomena of the past created through the knowledge of the present about that same past. This combination of virtual and real is the basis for every interpretation of the past at a museum exhibition and its basic premise.

6262f8b77e34e55b86a1fc98ba410174Peter Clarkson

We would close with a few thoughts of Siegfried Lenz expressed in his award-winning book The Home/and Museum. He wonders what happens after the closing of a homeland museum. Stressing the connection of museum objects and public, he goes on to say that the objects were of value only as long as others were looking at them, and while, during their looking at them, they learned something about themselves. When they were isolated from the public, they were just alone, witnesses of the human past, marked and carefully distributed among cases, cupboards and display shelves, redeemed from decay, but in this new, shady refuge, almost as if they had died some other, if more prestigious death (Lenz, 1986:405). The museological challenge seems to well up from these words. Because we do not collect objects, the moment we are gathering them in, only to keep them and guard them, but to put material of the present under lock and key so that through keeping they should gain a patina, layers of noble mould, one day becoming witnesses suitable for museum exhibits (Lenz, 1986:418). In this, this well-known author perhaps even inadvertently described the phenomenon of museality, which is the foundation of a diverse exhibition activity, a spur to the creation of relations between past and present. The true museological challenge of the museum exhibition is in the recognition of museality and in making a statement about it in the present.

78b97aaf405cc1b83b804bfe9f0eb81dThomas Mathews

Main photo: Talent hits a target… (But does it float?)