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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.