Museum discourse

Some time ago I wrote in this blog on what I described as the four discourses of the art museum.  The four discourses represent in my view the at times competing agendas that the art museum negotiates today.  These discourses play a key role is shaping, amongst other things, how institutional resources and time are prioritised, what activities and knowledge are seen as more or less important and what messages the museum seeks to communicate.  And in the previous blog post to this one I drew attention to how philosopher Michel Foucault deploys the term ‘discourse’, highlighting how in his terms discourses are shaped by the relationship between knowledge and power.

You might gather from this that the concept of discourse is important to me, both as a way of understanding how institutions operate and as a means of unpicking them so as to bring about change.  What I had not come across until recently, however, was the idea of ‘museum discourse’ as a way of framing and interrogating how museums communicate and what that can tell us about these organisations.

The concept of museum discourse stems directly from the field of discourse analysis, itself a field of linguistics that considers how written or spoken language is employed in a social context.  In very simple terms, researchers undertaking discourse analysis examine in close detail the language employed in a given scenario so as to understand from such things as grammar, syntax, style and frequency what the underlying meanings are.  So, much like corporate discourse incorporates the communications that a corporation makes with its public and shareholders, museum discourse is made visible through websites, press releases, interpretation texts, corporate plans, mission statements, annual reports and so on.

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I learnt a great deal more about museum discourse at a seminar I attended recently at Turin University convened by Dr Federico Sabatini and Dr Cecelia Lazzeretti.  Over the course of a day I heard from researchers who had made detailed comparisons between museum websites dedicated to accessibility and to engaging very young children.  I heard about how the language of museum press releases has changed over the last 50 years and why, and I came to understand better how the branding of a museum can shape our perceptions of it in multiple ways.

I was particularly fascinated by the study undertaken by Professor Marina Bondi from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in part because one of her case studies was the Tate Kids website.  Professor Bondi examined how museum websites try to engage young children, looking in detail at the language employed on their pages directed at young children.  Many things have stayed with me from this talk, but one finding resonated especially.  In identifying the frequency of key words on the Tate Kids site, Professor Bondi identified that the words ‘she’ and ‘art’  occurred most regularly.   A simple finding perhaps, but what it revealed to me was the significance of museum discourse in manifesting institutional values – in this instance the organisations’ commitment to foregrounding women artists.  What I recognised in hearing this was the importance of researching the details of museum activity, as well as the bigger pictures.

Being mindful of how museums use specific words is ever more important at a time when language is increasingly recognised as political.  Studying how museums employ language through the lens of discourse analysis is an effective way of doing this.  Yet, as Dr Sabatini writes in the abstract for a recent paper, ‘Museum Discourse is under-researched, notably in terms of its positioning and dynamic meaning production.’  What I have come to realise is that, by paying attention to the granular details of language, museum discourse analysis can tell us a huge amount about how the museum’s values are made real in the world and what the implications are for practice in the future.

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