2.2. The role of exhibitions among museum functions

It is generally accepted that museums have three major tasks: collection, safeguarding and publication. However, not all authors mention these three elements together. Today, all of these activities may be accompanied by intensive communication campaigns. For example, a staff member of the Natural History Museum in London keeps a blog on the museum home page about his arduous experiences while collecting mosquitoes in Africa. Proofs of successful safeguarding are the showcase storage rooms, the digital collections with objects and their metadata and descriptions.

Even the designation of “publication” as an activity indicates that this is the major element of the communication process in museums. In addition, museum activities that are unattached to collecting and research (management, administration, economic planning, etc.) cannot be undertaken without certain communication activities. Here, however, we only discuss how exhibitions are used as platforms for communication.

Wooden forks attached to a white wall through wooden stands and lit up with white neon light in a stainless steel storage environment.

2.14. picture: The first Hungarian showcase storage room  was installed at the Szentendre Open Air Museum (Skanzen). Huge wooden forks attached to the plain white wall through a wooden structure evoke the attention of the visitor only through their attractive arrangement. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Let us group communication activities according to their target populations. Who are the intended recipients of the message? Most museums define themselves as research institutions and therefore, their most important target group consists of fellow researchers: museum staff working with the same type of collection, experts at universities, research institutions, and, in many museology areas, also private collectors. Museums turn to them with research reports (mainly bulky monographs), collections of studies, catalogues and journals, or papers published in journals edited by other members of the field of science. Conferences and workshops with presentations and discussions are lively, personal means of communication. At these events, personal and professional communication forms are integrated.

scientific publications of museums stacked in front of a shelf holding similar publications.

2.15. picture: Publishers attract the research audience through increasingly colourful title pages. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

The exhibitions – with the exception of smaller study shows – are not intended for communication among researchers. Nevertheless, in many cases the curator or museologist clearly has his or her peers in mind when making decisions about exhibition communication and choosing its dialect and frame of reference. (Well, to be self-critical: the sentence you have just read is also not intended for readers of glossy magazines!)

old fashioned chest of drawers with a colourful chart and text on top, understandable, however, only for experts.

2.16. picture:  For the geologically untrained visitor, making meaning of this showcase (recent replica of a 19th century item of exhibition furniture) is rather difficult. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Wider audiences – or, to use a more contemporary phrase, exhibition users – have recently become an important target group for more and more museums. On the eve of modern museology, it was the erudite and ready-to-learn elite that were approached, and it was a matter of common understanding that visitors shared the interest and also some of the professional knowledge of museologists, and therefore were able to comprehend and appreciate the exhibition based on results of research. These exhibitions barely contained text. Objects were labelled to be identifiable in catalogues. Guides were knowledgeable, mostly male museum staff members with a narrative style you can easily imagine.

In glass containers in a showcase and before them, unlabelled with the exception of one serial number, there are dissections of molluscs.

2.17. picture: Part of an exhibition which is a delight to the eyes of one of the authors of this book, a biologist by training, but which lacks meaningful information for laypeople. However, this train of thought may be reversed: laypeople may marvel at the sight, even if they do not understand the message of the scientist-exhibitor. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

The opening-up and democratisation of the museum requires, however, that non-experts should also understand and appreciate the messages of exhibitions. Around the eve of the 20th century, didactic installation pieces, explanations attached to objects and items placed in a setting modelling their natural environment (interiors, diaporamas – showing stuffed animals in their natural setting – or scale models and mock-ups at least) appeared in exhibition halls.  

the picture shows an exhibition room. On one wall, there is a painted marine scene, on the other, a “reconstructed” soil section. In the section, the petrified skeleton of a reptile can be observed.

2.18. picture: A mural and soil section explain (for children and gown-ups alike), how the giants of ancient seas got “imprisoned” in the soil. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

the picture shows a panel with an old engraving attached to it. Above the panel, you can see the reconstruction of the cabin of a ship, presented by the mock-up maker.

2.19. picture: An installation placed on a high shelf to avoid damage (and thus can be seen by adults only): reconstruction of the cabin of a ship, presented by the mock-up maker In its original format, this cabin would occupy a huge space at the exhibition. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Panoramic view of Brussels as if seen from an airship basket. In front of us, birds are flying around.

2.20. picture: A special type of diorama. The cityscape is seen from a “bird’s eye view” – birds of the city are flying around us as we stand in the balloon cabin. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

the picture shows an exotic interior with three dolls dressed in folk costumes seated on benches covered by carpets.

2.21. picture: Even without figurines, interiors help us imagine or remember the everyday culture of living in ages past. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

In the second part of the 20th century, exhibition communication developed further and produced publications intended for the public at large: exhibition guides, illustrated catalogues, and – with contemporary phrasing – publications for museum learning: task sheets, exercise booklets, discovery leaflets. Encounters of museum staff and visitors happened outside the museum building, with the help of the media: broadcasting, television, the press, the moving picture and popular publications by the education or science communication press. These means of communication have broadened the potentials of museum staff to deliver messages about exhibitions.

a folding exhibition leaflet.

2.22. picture: Even without understanding the text, we can see which part of the publication is intended for children and which for grown-ups. Children are approached through images and shorter texts printed with larger letters. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

the picture shows three book covers side by side.

2.23. picture: Three book covers about the same topic, but with entirely different diagramic design.

The information technology revolution has also embraced museums. After the creation of static and later dynamic home pages, computer screens appeared at the exhibitions and museums appeared in different segments of the internet: on social web sites as well as in virtual professional communities. Today more and more museums find it important to update their Facebook pages regularly, and several exhibitions are introduced through the curator’s blog. (For more about multimedia applications in museums, see Chapter 7 of this book.)

home page of the Esterházy Palace in Pápa, Hungary.

2.24. picture: On the home page of the Esterházy Palace in Pápa, Hungary, a click on any area of the main menu activates the voice of the “little Baroque girl” who offers the services of the museum.

Museum communication formats and possibilities are wide-ranging. In this book, we concentrate on exhibition communication solutions, but will also introduce methods of communication about the exhibitions. The tasks below invites you to use communication channels described in this chapter.