Description of PhD project

PhD student: MA Mette Houlberg Rung
Provisional title of research title: Museum Experiences: An investigation of adult’s experiences in the permanent collections at Statens Museum for Kunst (working title)
Duration of project: 1 October 2006 – 1 October 2009
Name of supervisors: Main supervisor: Dr Vivien Golding, Second supervisor: Dr Sandra Dudley Department of Museum Studies. University of Leicester, UK
Other: The project is based at Statens Museum for Kunst in the Department of exhibition and education, Statens Museum for Kunst under head of Education and Exhibition Elisabeth Cederstøm and Head of Research Peter Nørgaard Larsen. Moreover, the project is connected to The Danish Research School of Cultural Heritage and financed by the Danish Ministry of Culture and Statens Museum for Kunst.

Aims and research questions

Last year over 400.000 people visited Statens Museum for Kunst, the Danish National Gallery, in Copenhagen. Some came in groups or as a family, others arrived alone, but most of the adults had asked a good friend or partner to come along for some inspiring and social hours in the museum (Statens Museum for Kunst 2007). The mission of the museum is to ‘enrich and move people through art” But how is this done? And what actually happens when adult museum users move through the displays?

In a Danish context, larger investigations into visitor experiences in art museums have been virtually non existent. Besides a few initiatives, which I will refer to below, there is a profound need to explore the area in Denmark. This view is supported by Helene Illeris, who in her report for Nordiska Akvarellmuseet in 2004 (Illeris 2004 p.12), concluded that a systematic, inter-disciplinary and empirical research into visitor experiences in Nordic museums is much needed. This conclusion was underlined and expanded in the latest report ’Review of Museum Education’ written by a committee under The Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs (Kulturministeriet 2006). My PhD project focuses on how the adult museum users make meaning and engage with the artworks in the permanent collections at Statens Museum for Kunst. On the background of a larger qualitative visitor survey, as well as a theoretical discussion about museum experiences, the research has the following objectives: 1) To explore the museum experience in relation to the Danish context. 2) To investigate adult’s experiences at Statens Museum for Kunst. 3) To develop a framework from which informed strategies of display and interpretative material can be made. With these objectives in mind, the following research question has been formulated: ‘What characterizes adult museum users’ experiences in the permanent collection at Statens Museum for Kunst? And with what strategies do they engage with the artworks?’

The background for posing these questions can be traced to two developments within museology. First of all, the focus on the museum users can be found in the tradition of visitor studies, which started in the beginning of the 1920s. The aim was, especially through quantitative research, to establish the profile of the visitors, and clarify their needs in the museum (Bicknell, Farmelo & Science Museum 1993). Secondly, in the latest decades, some of the most fundamental categories such as objective knowledge and representation, upon which the modern museum institution was established, have been challenged. When Peter Vergo in the late 1980s introduced the concept of New Museology, he summed up and specified the epistemological turning, which also had reached the museological field. The New Museology involves a theoretical anchoring of the processes, which takes place in the museum and accepts that objects obtain their meaning from a specific context and that the museum exists in a historical, political and social arena and cannot be treated in isolation (Vergo 1989). The consequence is a more reflective museological practice, as well as a debate about what the museum is, and what function it should have in society. After the theoretical opening of the field, the museological literature has grown significantly, and theories from different disciplines have been used in the investigation of what is happening in the museum. This has also happened in Denmark where Bruno Ingemann and Ane Hejlskov Larsen in 2005 published the anthology ‘New Danish Museology’ (Hejlskov Larsen, Ingemann 2005). In addition, an expansion of the museological field has happened, because the perception of exhibitions and objects has become part of a museological analysis. Here a displacement from exhibition as a space for representation to a space for action or performance has taken place, and the focus is on the active meaning making, which happens in the meeting between object and museum user (Jalving 2006). It is within this context the project takes place.

Literature and theory

Investigating the museum collection as a performative and multimodal space, where actors and objects communicate and interact, demands an interdisciplinary research approach, where literature from different areas is combined. The project positions itself within the literature concerning adult learning especially the writing with a sociocultural perspective, is relevant for the project. In addition, discussions about the tradition of ‘Bildung’ is pertinent, since this concept has played an essential part in establishing the Danish museum tradition, in the sense it has conceptualized the perception of artworks and served as an argument for the educational purpose of museums. Also literature from the area of (art) exhibition analysis can be useful, when trying to understand the complexity of meaning making in a museum space.

Adult Learning Theory in Museums

The area of museum learning has developed tremendously the last decades, not least because of the growing political agenda about learning and museums, which has been seen in especially the UK and US. Key authors in the field includes Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (Hooper-Greenhill 1993, Hooper-Greenhill 2000, Hooper-Greenhill 2004) and George Hein (Hein 1998), who have been leading in applying constructivist learning theory inspired by John Dewey and Jean Piaget to the museum, exposing how the museum user constructs her own museum experience. I have chosen a sociocultural perspective and here it is especially Gaea Leinhardt and Karen Knutson’s books (Leinhardt, Crowley & Knutson 2002, Leinhardt, Knutson 2004) as well as Lois Silverman’s PhD thesis (Silverman 1990), which functions as primary texts. Leinhardt and Knutson investigate the conversations adults have when they go to a museum and expose the interplay between the meaning constructed by the curatorial team and visitors.

As mentioned above, in Denmark adult learning or adults’ experiences in museum have not been investigated thoroughly. However, Bjarne Sode Funch, Bruno Ingemann and Inge Merete Kjeldgaard are the three, who in more detail have engaged with the topic (Funch 2006, Ingemann, Gjedde 2005, Kjeldgaard 2005). Bruno Ingemann is drawing on amongst others Falk and Dierking (Falk, Dierking & American Association for State and Local History 2000, Falk, Dierking 1992), who is also relevant for this project, developing a method called ‘the video hat’, where he asks visitors to carry a hat with a built-in video camera, recording their conversations, movements and directions of sight (Ingemann 2006). His research however, is limited to only 10 recordings and the participants have been specifically chosen for the project. Both Kjeldgaard and Sode Funch have conducted more controlled experiments within both a university and a museum setting. None of the three has conducted larger empirical surveys or written in length about the results. Moreover, mainly constructivist and phenomenological approaches have been used in these studies. The last relevant literature, I wish to mention is Palmyre Pierroux from Oslo, who in her writings applies a sociocultural perspective on learning in the museum. Most of her work is on children in groups, but her use of Vygotsky and Wertsch is interesting (Vygotsky 1978, Wertsch 1998). Her discussions include an understanding of museum learning as a situated, social activity (Pierroux 2003).

The understanding of what learning is, is relevant of the project, but what an experience is and how it is constituted play a part in qualifying and deepening the comprehension of what is happening in the meeting between artworks, museum space and museum users. Research into experiences has the last years increased, because it makes meaning to consider our general economy with an experience frame. From being a specific cultural commodity, almost all goods, material as immaterial, can be sold as experiences (Pine and Gilmore 1999). Conceptualization and research in experience are for example conducted by Christian Jantzen amd Mikael Vetner fra Ålborg Univeristy in Denmark (Jantzen and Vetner 2006).

The literature described above all uses non-Danish theory to understand museum learning. It is one of my objectives to of course build on the literature, which exists in the field, but also to pay attention to the Danish museum and learning tradition, in order to see the research project in relation to the Danish context. Through archive material at Statens Museum for Kunst, it is possible to establish a sense of how people in the past have used the museum. This combined with theoretical discussion about this, with also inform my project.

Bildung and Self-formation

The rise of the modern art museum in the 18th century was built upon the Enlightenment’s neo-humanistic values about education of the public and establishing a feeling of national community. It was conceived as a space, which could be used by the people to develop and become educated, forming themselves through the objects and displays (Hooper-Greenhill 1993, Sheehan 2000). Or as Tony Bennett explains: ‘the spheres of art and culture came to be regarded as a special realm providing a set of resources which, in the following conduct of various kinds of work on the self, would result in a harmonization of the diverse aspects of the individual’s personality (Bennett 1995 p.877). In Germany this harmonization process was called ‘Bildung’ and was conceptualized by Wilhelm von Humboldt, who applied it to many cultural institutions, as well as to the formal school system (Sorkin 1983 p. 55-57). In Denmark this concept was used as well, and it was further developed by N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). He used it in is his ideological foundations for the Danish Folk High Schools, schools for life, as he called them, arguing for a school where national history, Christian values, practical skills and poetry were combined through motivated speakers, dialogues and debates (Bugge 1968). That ‘Bildung’ was used in a museum context is shown by this quote from 1938, which describes where the ‘Committee of Organizing Museum Lectures for Unemployed’ wrote a booklet about the benefits unemployed would gain from visiting a museum: ‘The aim was to develop participants into active employees. They should not only see and hear, but also contribute themselves. They should sense some of the life, which was prior to their own and learn from this [..]. They should feel some of the strength, which have carried mankind in its efforts to permanently make the development progress. In this way they would not only acquire more knowledge themselves, but also get more strength to resists the hard struggle of time’ (Komitéen til Afholdelse af Museumsforedrag for Arbejdsløse 1938 p. 7-8) [my translation and emphasis].

What is apt here is the universal moral strength and union with history that the museum visit will transmit to the unemployed through a certain sensation or feeling provoked by the artworks.
The notion of ‘Bildung’ has recently been re-actualized by the Danish social-analysts Lars Hammershøj (Hammershøj 2003) and Lars Henrik Schmidt (Schmidt 1999). They have launched the concept of self-formation, which beneficially can be applied to a museum context, exploring why and how the individual engages with a social space as the museum today. Briefly explained they understand self-formation as a new version of ‘Bildung’ where instead of absorbing specific values and inspire to become like the perfect universal human being (the Greek citizen), self-formation turns the process around. The individual interprets and evaluates the values presented, and she incorporates, what she find interesting. Self-formation is a continuous process of change, where the ideal keep changing according to what seems original or interesting to the individual at a particular time. This has, by Daniel Lieberkind, been named an ‘original attitude’ (Lieberkind 2005). The use of these texts in my project qualifies the way I think about the reasons behind a museum visit, as well as conceptualizes what could go on in the meeting between the museum and the museum users. The theory can be seen as connected to the concept of performance, briefly mentioned above, but in self-formation the social aspect of a museum visit is underlined.

Exhibition analysis
A third area in the field of museology, which is relevant for my project, is the field of exhibition analysis. As explained above, this is a field, which is important for museology, since it is primarily through the displays that people gain access to the objects. Mieke Bal has the past years written about exhibitions, and her use of for example theatre metaphors and film theory in order to establish a narrative in the displays are useful (Bal 2007). Her idea of narrative as continuously established by the museum users when they move through the display is relevant in the sense that she focuses on the object as well as the museum users in the communication situation. This is also what Bruno Latour does in his understanding of exhibitions, which is built upon his Actor-network theory. He sees the exhibition as a network of actants (objects, people, utterances, installation etc), which is assembled into an assemblage, which is situated in time and place. (Latour, Weibel 2007) Both this notion of narrative and of networks between objects, people, interpretative material etc. is useful when trying to comprehend the social interaction between objects and people.

Empirical Research
The project focuses on the dialogues, which happens between people as the move through the displays. Informal observations in the collection at Statens Museum for Kunst during the Spring and Summer 2007 as well as research into the museums’ visitor surveys conducted within the past five years by the marketing department at Statens Museum for Kunst, showed that it was relevant to frame the thesis with a sociocultural approach. The surveys proved that at least 73,6% of the adult museum users visit Statens Museum for Kunst in the company of other adults, underlining the social aspect of a museum visit. The observations confirmed this, and in addition revealed a pattern, where the museum users together experience the displays: they walk into the room together, maybe split up for a minute or two, alert each other to specific artworks and have conversations. This means that museum experience is continuously created, recreated and negotiated in collaboration and interaction between the companions. The experience and meaning making that takes place is based on both the background and previous experiences of the individual and the context of the display, but is mediated and comes alive in the interaction between the museum users. This very preliminary attempt to understand what goes on in the gallery space, serves to qualify my further investigation and to help narrowing in my theory and methodology.

Epistemological framework

My epistemological framework for the whole thesis is founded within sociocultural framework. Instead of focusing on individual cognitive experiences, I understand experiences and knowledge as actively created and negotiated through social processes. In the research the social meeting will be put in the centre both theoretically and methodically. When engaging with sociocultural processes within a museum environment, it becomes apt to include the artworks and other objects (interpretative material) as part of meaning making constitution.

In order to approach an understanding of the meaning making process, I wish to focus on how the museum users create a narrative through (part of) the collection. The empirical research is founded on qualitative data collection using an ethnographical method (Silverman 2006). This I hope to do by investigating the conversations people have when they make their way through the collection. Since it seems that the narrative constituted is influenced significantly by the person you are with, it is pertinent to record the dialogue, which happens in and during the meaning making process. This I wish to do by record approximately 30 pairs, who walk through a specific part of the collection. The target group has been broadly defined as 30-65 year old.

Based on extended observations in the collection, I believe that the Modern collection (room 201-212) would be the most appropriate place to conduct the recordings. There are different hanging techniques represented in the section and there are areas where there are always people, and rooms that seem to be used mostly for walking through. Besides, this is a section of the museum, which is popular, and it will be easier to recruit people to participate in the survey. In addition, it is an area that are confined, but also so large that even pairs that walks fairly quickly through the collection, will spend at least 10 minutes. I anticipate that the recording will last between 10minutes and 1h 15 minutes. I will ask every third group, which approaches the doors to room nr. 201, be aware of the representation of gender and age. They will be briefed about the project and asked to sign a consent form to participate. I will also ask for demographic data as well as contact information if they have interest in participating in a group interview on a later state. To show our appreciation all individuals are offered a free collection catalogue. The findings in the recording will be triangulated and put into perspective by three group interviews and a questionnaire. These will defined closer when the recording are conducted.

In the analysis I will focus on and explore the strategies of meaning making, which emerge from the empirical data. Hopefully these will produce analytical categories, which will contribute to the understanding of what happens in the collection space. The analysis will use nexus analysis from mediated discourse analysis as a tool drawing mainly on Ron and Ron Scollon (Scollon 2001, 2003, 2004). The reason for this approach is because it incorporates the learning theories by Wertch and Bakhtin, which have been useful in understanding museum learning. The aim of the analysis is to generate patterns of experience of how adults experience in the collection and through these come closer to an understanding of what happens in the interaction between the museum space, the art work and the museum user.


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© Mette Houlberg Rung, The National Gallery of Denmark

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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