Chapter 2. Aims and objectives of museum communication 

(Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Table of Contents

2.1. Communication theory and museum communication
2.2. The role of exhibitions among museum functions
Task 1:
Task 2:
Task 3:
Task 4:
Task 5:
Further reading

2.1. Communication theory and museum communication

The central theme of this book is museum communication. As an introduction to the topic, it seems appropriate to indicate its place and role among the forms and genres of communication. In the middle of the last century, in 1948, Claude E. Shannon published the mathematical model of communication. (This model is based on the theory of N. Wiener and often referred to as the Shannon-Wiener model, published later in Shannon, Wiener and Weaver, 1963.)  This theory introduced concepts that have been used ever since to describe the communication process: source of information, sender, message, sign, channel, noise and receiver.  

This theory, also called “the mother of all communication models”, has often been criticised for describing the process as a one-way alley, disregarding feedbacks and secondary processes directed by the receiver towards the sender or the message. However, if we want to describe models of contemporary social media, we may utilise similar concepts.

Two visitor remarks can be seen in the picture.

2.1. picture: Double feedback: audience dialogue on the pages of an exhibition guestbook.

In order to understand the process of exhibition communication, we can utilise an adapted version of the model where feedback – a feature very often absent or inappropriate in many exhibitions – is also integrated. [2] Let us assume that the curator has a message to convey in his or her exhibition. Thus we have a message and a sender of this message. The sender – or the person on his or her behalf, the exhibition designer – translates the message into the language of exhibition communication, and transmits it, using the communication channels provided by the exhibition, to the receiver, the visitor. The receiver notices and decodes the signs and transforms them into sensations and ideas. Thus the decoded message comes to life. Let us discuss the elements in the diagram below one by one!

The image shows phases of the communication process as described above.

2.1. diagram: Generalised and simplified model of exhibition communication, based on the Shannon-Weaver communication model.

Message: in the case of commercial exhibitions, it may sound like this: “My product is the best: it even enhances your personality! Fall in love with it, yearn for it, buy it!” In the case of a national exhibition boosting the image of a country: “Hungary is the land of classical music (or salami, or any other characteristic national product), we are world leaders in this area!” In the case of a museum exhibition: “Munkácsy[3] is an outstanding painter, whose amazing oeuvre is generally appreciated.” Or perhaps: “Nature is interesting, beautiful and vulnerable, worthy of our attention and protection.”

A picture of flowers by flashlight. A butterfly is flying above one of them.

2.2. picture: The meaning of the scent of the flower (Oenothera biennis) that blooms after dusk:” I have nectar!” The butterfly (a Macroglossa stellatarum) feels the scent, and does its duty:  the pollination of the flower. This process can be interpreted as the unwitting receipt of an unwitting message - that is to say, there is no direct communication (also, no misleading intent). Similarly, unwitting exchange of messages also often occur among human individuals. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Sender: it can be a private person or a company, sponsoring the exhibition. The sender can be a researcher, the developers of the exhibition – usually more than one person. It  can be the artists, too, but most often he/she exhibits his or her work in a gallery, so he / she has to rely on museum staff for the transmittance of the message of the artworks. The one (or many) who formulate(s) the message is included in the left part of the diagram above. In this case, the sender is the person who formulates the message.

A picture of a memorial plaque made of marble.

2.3. picture: Unambiguous message, unambiguous sender. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Picture of a shield on the wall and a Xerox copy attached to it by adhesive tape and pins.

2.4. picture: Above the lamp switch, there is a list of names of exhibition developers. The intended message is a tribute to them. An unknown sender included yet another message, a simple Xerox sheet with a review of the exhibition, thus contributing, anonymously, to the information about the show. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Translation: appropriate communication channels and tools have to be found for the more or less articulated message (that is often blurred and only partially formulated). Translation means a different process for exhibition design than for the compilation of the catalogue or family booklet.

A picture of adults and children, engaged in folk crafts, in a tent.

2.5. picture: What can the message of the selection of this tent as an event venue be? Environmental consciousness is better transmitted through collective creation out of discarded materials than the slogan banner in the background). (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Communication channel: in communication theory this concept has a rather dry description. „The channel is the phase in the communication process that unites the data source and the data consumer.” However, data may have different characteristics, from easy and simple to complex and sophisticated. Channels of communication in real life are, among others, speech, writing and body language, perhaps also the use of tools for messaging. Forms of communication in dictatorial systems include public punishment or the declaration of regulations. Exhibition communication is also multifaceted: the venue, mood, colours, furniture, objects, images and sound bites (or, less frequently, tactile sensations) all belong to the repertoire of exhibition communication. Supporting documents like the catalogue, leaflet, flyer, task sheet, guided tour, live presentation or a virtual tour accompanying the real experience are also important communication tools.

A picture of three old-fashioned telephone sets with pushbuttons.

2.6. picture: In the Museum of Postal Services, Budapest, many older visitors are  nostalgic about old telephone sets and are pleased to use them again. If you pick up the receiver of the “Tell-a-Tale Telephone”, you can listen to folk tales and short stories. It is a well-suited communication channel for the 50+ generation. For children, however, it conveys another meaning: phone receivers used to be heavy and were supposed to be hand-held during the conversation. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Receiver:  for museum exhibitions, the receivers of messages are the visitors – including professional ones, the reviewers and critics. For trade shows, business partners and customers can be considered the most important receivers.

A picture of two small children peeking into a tall glass showcase full of large insects.

2.7. picture: It is very difficult to communicate with several generations of visitors at the same time. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Decoded message: in further chapters, we will discuss the circumstances that influence the types of impressions, assumptions and knowledge elements that are elicited in viewers by an exhibition. As a response to the types of messages cited above, we are likely to encounter the following responses, from sincere acceptance to repulsion: “Munkácsy is an outstanding painter whose oeuvre is generally appreciated – and I quite like him, too!” “Munkácsy has painted quite a lot of pictures – I’m sure he made a lot of money selling them, too!” Or else: “Munkácsy is our hero! The whole world is admiring him!” “What a beautiful and realistic rendering of flowers and people – although less would be more, I think, this gallery wall is overcrowded!” “To hell with these harsh-coloured daubs!” It is important to emphasize that distorted messages are not only caused by bad exhibition design or interpretation, but also the social surroundings and the mindset of the beholder.

details of a sculpture with chalk scribbles on its surface.

2.8. picture: An evident example of the inappropriate  “reception” of a work of art, unintended by its creators and sponsors.  (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Noise: this expression for disturbances in the communication channel date back to the early years of landline telephone services. The machine forwarded human voice with scratching noise and distortion. The quality of the sound at the receiver’s end was very different from the voice of the speaker. Nevertheless, speech could still be understood, but the pitch and rhythm of voice was less varied. (This is a situation similar to chatting in a noisy environment.) Noise can occur in many phases of exhibition communication. For example, the viewer hates the hue of the background colour we used for the showcase, so she closes her mind and perceives very little from the objects exhibited. Another problem may be the quality of the text: if it is incomprehensible, the visitor stops reading at once – and she does so if the lettering is too small, too, not wanting to tire the eyes. Another inhibiting factor for messages to get through is the scope of the exhibition. If it is too large, visitors get tired, start to hurry towards the exit and scan objects or read text only superfluously on the way. On the images below, you can see some sources of communication “noise”.

stuffed animals encased in glass showcases. There is a stuffed adult giraffe in a dark corner accompanied by the skeleton of a smaller specimen.

2.9. picture: Details of an overcrowded, incomprehensible exhibition, the key elements of which (the two giraffes) are tucked away in a corner. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

big and heavy showcases with the head of a predator dinosaur peeking in through a hole in the ceiling.

2.10. picture: Overcrowded exhibition space with a normally frightening dinosaur looking strange, almost ridiculous. (Photo: Vásárhelyi Tamás)

Four cast iron stoves with sculptures on top of three of them. Above, kitchen utensils are hung on the wall.

2.11. picture: Because of lack of space, three groups of objects of entirely different nature are crammed in a small space by benevolent exhibition developers wanting to display as many items as possible. Decorated cast-iron stoves, important and attractive objects themselves, are degraded to the role of platforms. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

dissection of a narwhal: its gypsum tusk is broken and the paint covering its mouth peeling off.

2.12. picture: Images of worn and torn objects are repulsive for visitors if decay is not a natural process of aging. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

the picture shows the feet of an ostrich, but because of the mirror effect of the floor, this object is barely visible.

2.13. picture: Glass surfaces or shiny tiles on the floor reflect light and spoil the homogeneous visual effect. In some cases mirroring makes proper observation and enjoyment impossible. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

The examples shown above demonstrate to what extent “noise” is able to reduce or even endanger the achievement of our exhibition communication objectives. All these elements will be discussed in detail later in this book.

[2] We will see later how important evaluation or structured feedback can be in the process of modern exhibition design and development.

[3] Mihály Munkácsy: 19th-century Hungarian painter in the style of patriotic Romanticism and Realism; a winner of several Gold Medals and other recognitions of excellence at exhibitions in Paris. According to several art knowledge surveys, he is the most famous Hungarian painter.