One Object, Many Voices: From Participation to Interpretation
by Isabelle Heyward
About the Book
In museums and beyond, there is a growing expectation from the general public for a chance to leave a mark and express how a particular subject or object is relevant to people today. Visitor participation is an approach to engaging the public in museums, paralleling the paradigm shift of how our society expects to learn.
As participation continues to transform the museum experience, the field continues to explore how to make the results of participation an integral part of the informal learning environments museums present. While researching the roles participatory experiences can play in exhibitions, two elements seem to often be diminished: the visitor experience of the non-participant and a central role of the museum’s collection. This thesis explores how the results of participatory activities could be used to address both elements.
The rise of public history in the 1970s—when the use of oral histories paired with traditional historical narratives became more accepted—paved the way for multiple voices to be represented in contemporary history museums. Including public contributions in an object-based exhibition capitalizes on the experience of museum exhibitions as sociological events and allows museums to democratize the interpretation of objects. Using the ‘Readers Write’ section of The Sun magazine as a project model, this thesis provides an approach to how content contributed from the public can create a new process of object interpretation that can give breadth to curatorial content.
This thesis works to link public engagement intricately with museums’ origins as collecting institutions: their communities are represented not just through collections, but also in interpretation. The proposed exhibition development process is a way to find a balance between active participation, the results of participation, and continuing to present the learning environment visitors expect when at a museum.