Chapter 1. Introduction

Table of Contents


“What do you see?” If the designer of an exhibition ever asked this question, the visitor would certainly provide a variety of surprising answers. Exhibition evaluation studies show that not only a work of art inspires different interpretations, but also an exhibition, organised in museums, galleries and other public spaces, has a message of its own. Some of these interpretations may be contrary to the intentions of the curator or exhibition designer. The personal approach of the visitor is described by Hugh A. Spencer as a process influenced by motivation, beliefs and values, as well as previous knowledge and experiences. (Spencer, 2011, p. 373). Until recently, visitors were perceived as disturbing intruders in the museum functioning mainly as a research centre. Today they are appreciated, because institutions have embraced the role of educational facilities. (Mayer, 2005).

Most museums, galleries or science centres are subsidised by state organisations, (that is, by taxpayers) or civil organisations also representing the public. Visitor opinion counts, because it influences attendance figures, has an impact on the decisions that sponsoring organisations and individuals make, and fuels an important method of advertisement: word of mouth. Thus the views visitors express about the museum ultimately influence the working conditions of the institution and affect the potentials regarding expansion of facilities and collections. Today visitor satisfaction directly affects the quality of professional life of staff. Therefore, exhibitions must communicate a clear and convincing message about the mission and functions of the institution that houses them. This volume describes methods and means of this communication process.

Communication is an important design element of the planning of exhibitions. In this book, we describe how curators and exhibition designers formulate and evaluate their messages. Our work is intended for all those who exhibit art and science in any form – in a school showcase, a shop window or in a gallery space – in order to transmit information, knowledge and experiences. As this process usually occurs in museums, most of our examples stem from their exhibitions. By the beginning of our century, museums had shifted emphasis from collecting to exhibiting. The “Wunderkammer[1] of rich collectors, accessible only for a few friends, became an open resource for public education. Interpretative exhibition planning (Spencer, 2001) is the theoretical model we want to focus on in this book, with visitor experience and understanding in the centre.

Exhibitions may reveal astonishing new discoveries, or works of art with international professional acclaim, but if they are unable to enchant their audience and make people reflect and be enriched by knowledge relevant for their lives, they cannot be considered successful. Therefore, we begin this book with a discussion of major forms of museum communication and their objectives. We continue with an illustrated overview of museum spaces to show how architectural arrangements contribute to visitor experiences. We follow the history of the museum building from the first private collections opened to the public up to the social spaces of the contemporary museum.

Middle-aged woman in Medieval costume at open door.

1.1. picture: Museum educator greets visitors at the gate of a historic monument. Dresden, 2011. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Museum entrance staircase with huge letters: Museums are NOW.

1.2. picture: „Museums are NOW” – giant poster of the campaign about the relevance of museums in the 21th century. 2009, entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Both the content and format of museum communication is influenced by the mission statement of the institution. This core document is the subject of our fourth chapter as it defines exhibiting and collecting strategies and is the basis of all decisions about how to communicate the shows. Social and scientific messages of exhibitions are interrelated and both are present in museum communication. The most important factor in the communication process, however, is the collection of the museum, constituting the basis for permanent and temporary exhibitions. In chapter five, we show how choices of new areas of collecting or expanding existing collections influence exhibition strategies. When planning a show, selecting the type of exhibition profoundly influences subsequent communication. In chapter six, we show how different types of exhibitions result in different communication strategies. Translating the messages of an exhibition into different media inside and outside the show is a difficult task jointly undertaken by curators, media specialists, educators and journalists. In most cases, a wide variety of visitors have to be approached and communication should be both understandable and exciting for all these groups. We also discuss methods of transmitting scientific and social content to the audience in chapter six, too.

Channels of museum communication include but are not restricted to the media we encounter daily. In chapter seven, we outline the organs and genres of communication that may be used for reaching the museum visitor. Decisions about returning are also influenced by the perception of the institution by the local and national community. As the communication environment becomes more and more virtual, we discuss multimedia and social web applications used for reaching visitors. When planning and developing museum communication tools, the main questions is always, if museum visitors will actually perceive and comprehend the messages conveyed. Therefore, our work is focused on the museum visitor: his or her values, aspirations, ideas and previous knowledge related to the content and form of the exhibition visited.

The book concludes with a reading list that also includes works not directly referenced in this work but that are nevertheless important for further studies about museum communication. Exercises included in all the chapters help interpreting ideas presented and elaborate a personal viewpoint. These tasks also facilitate the acquisition of methods described and integrate them with experiences at exhibitions. Illustrations are mostly documentary photographs taken by the authors in museums and other exhibition facilities. In some cases, photographs illustrate a phenomenon that occurs in many museums and therefore we do not name the museum where the image was actually taken.

The authors of this book, Andrea Kárpáti and Tamás Vásárhelyi, are founding staff members of the Master of Science Communication degree program at Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Science. One of the main content areas of this course is Learning in Science Museums. Our colleagues at the Program and other experts interested in museum education were instrumental in assisting us in the compilation of this textbook. One of them, Emil Gaul, has authored part of a chapter, others contributed with case studies to the Hungarian version. Two documentary films were prepared for this book by Veronika Werovszky, science communicator and filmmaker, and a simulation for showcase light effects by Ádám Kuttner, science communicator and IT specialist –both graduates of the first class of the Master in Science Communication program at ELTE University.


The authors want to thank the reviewers of the Hungarian version of this book, Ilona Sághi and Judit Varga Bertáné, and the reviewer of the English version, Bob Dent of Szavak Bt., for their insightful comments.

Colourful text on black background: Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain.

1.3. picture: Poster showing the relevance of museums through a list of themes represented in works of art of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2009.


[1] The German word, Wunderkammer, literally means chamber of miracles. From the 16th century the word has been used for a chest of drawers or small room housing a mixed collection of art objects, interesting tools and demonstration materials for scientific experiments, nice plants, stuffed animals, skeletons, gems, etc., gathered by collectors.