Content in Museums: Objects? People? Questions?

Dave Cormier poses these questions as the prompt for Week 3 of #Rhizo15:

So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there?
What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information?
What choices are being made… what power is being used?


Content is people. Discuss.

When I worked in museums, other organizations often wanted to partner with us because we had “content” by virtue of our collections. We might bring in “outside experts” to help develop or curate exhibitions, and we usually had curators, designers, a developer/writer, a project manager, an educator and an evaluator (me) on the planning teams. We would agree on a theme and several key “take home messages” to communicate to visitors, and these would shape the story line, text, media, and interactive elements. But the “stuff” of our exhibits were the real things, often unique, that were in our collections: art, artifacts, and specimens.

I’m struck by how the stories exhibits tell, or the questions they pose, can shape visitors’ encounter with the real things. (This fascination was what got me interested in studying museums in the first place, and motivated me to spend three years writing a thesis on exhibit labels.)

Michael Spock (son of Dr. Benjamin Spock) directed the Boston Children’s Museum, and then served as Director of Public Programs at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago from 1986-1994. At both institutions, he worked with teams to create exhibits that were “for somebody rather than about something”. Storylines built on what was familiar, so that a collection of skeletons was organized by the simple vernacular taxonomy of which were cats or dogs, and a hall full of dioramas at right angles was reinstalled as a nature walk, with meandering paths and bridges. One exhibit dared visitors to pull aside a curtain to see the most dangerous animal of all–which revealed a mirror.

For the 1992 exhibit Mining the Museum,the Maryland Historical Society gave artist Fred Wilson free rein to curate any objects he chose from their collections. He used juxtaposition to challenge assumptions. This included retitling paintings, and covering them with a layer that had cutouts to highlight only black people. The most thought-provoking case was labeled “Metalwork, 1793-1880” and contained an ornate silver tea set and a pair of slave shackles.

Our questions can invite people into a particular frame of reference. Of course, visitors and learners make their own meanings of what they see and experience.

In a keynote speech to the American Association of Museums, Sherman Alexie walked out on stage and said, “I’m scared. I’m an Indian, and you guys are museum people.” [Followed by silence, and then laughter.] I took that (pun intended) to mean that he didn’t want us to seize his body as an object for our collections.

Where people are presented as content, we are also challenged to look again at our/their place in the world.

Maybe I don’t have a conclusion here, as my ideas will keep changing over time, and through interaction with others. I think content is assembled and experienced in many different ways, under the influence of people, power, and perspectives.


9 responses to “Content in Museums: Objects? People? Questions?

  1. Omigosh i love what you shared. My dream is to have a meaningful museum for kids here in Egypt and all the ideas you shared helped me think about key things it should have.
    I think what you’ve shown us is that the value and meaning of content in a museum can be changed by how you present it. That you can Make it say something different from what it originally seemed to be saying and that you can make it more or less accessible to visitors of diff ages, and that content in museums also has a postcolonialism behind it sometimes that can offend indigenous people. There is so much here i don’t even know if i captured it all

    My main takeaway is how you changed museum content into something active and dynamic abd highlighted the process of interacting with it in simple ways (not computer software)


    • Thanks, Maha. And yes, the meanings you took from this are all things I was trying to convey. Hearing you talk about starting a children’s museum makes me happy. I have a dear friend who moved to Doha, Qatar to work on exhibits for the children’s museum there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. o very interesting, thanks Lisa. reminds me much of something I was thinking about a lot some time ago and wrote about here.. []… there was something in there about it being convenient to think about texts in terms of ‘content’ only, as though separate from the people and points of view putting them together, and broader purposes they serve – but that every text is actually both a representation and a social interaction. love the be ‘for somebody’ rather than just about something approach 😉


  3. Great post — this line of yours is key: “Where people are presented as content, we are also challenged to look again at our/their place in the world.”
    It’s interesting how far so many museums have come, to be aware of their impact in telling other people/culture’s stories that then shapes the perspectives of a society … that’s a heavy burden to do it right.
    I suspect Sherman Alexie’s comment was about just that, and how the American Indian heritage has been represented in time by museums in an often-negative light (now being corrected in many places),

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lisa, I loved the insight you share about museums and museum exhibits. I’m overwhelmed by the richness of people’s diverse, relevant posts for each prompt in Rhizo15.

    When I was a kid my father used to drag me to museums a lot. He loved them but I was yet to grow into them. I wondered why it was so important to show off old things and to label them so precisely. Now I love the old museum feel but that’s just nostalgic. The line Kevin mentions is the one that stood out for me: “Where people are presented as content, we are also challenged to look again at our/their place in the world.” The museum exhibits I remember are the staged ones like life sized dioramas, eg Australian Indigenous people frozen in the middle of a hunting expedition with trees and boulders around them. They looked like objects doomed to be savages forever. Trouble is that kind of picture influences stories in children’s heads. No wonder you wrote your thesis about exhibit labels. Thank you, Lisa, for your thoughts.


    • Yes, Tania. Lots of museums with anthropology dioramas have struggled with the message they convey, that people from “primitive” cultures are frozen in time, perhaps even extinct. The museum where I worked renovated one of those halls by overlaying a storyline of human adaptation to climate around the world, with some video to include contemporary voices and provoke some cognitive dissonance with the visual message of the older dioramas. But the presentation was still problematic, and eventually those dioramas were torn out so the hall could be turned into a climate-controlled space for temporary and traveling exhibits.

      My favorite story about that exhibit hall told of one evening when the museum guards were doing their rounds. The hall was next to our planetarium, which showed evening Laserium shows based on the music of the Grateful Dead and other bands while the rest of the museum was closed to the public. Once the guards found a very stoned visitor sitting naked in the midst of a diorama, having an intense conversation with the naked people it portrayed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. For somebody rather than about something is a perfect thought for this week 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. so interesting to think about museums in this way… at the British Museum I was enjoying all the art and artifacts and someone pointed out that they all represent stories of expanding empire, meetings with other cultures, assumptions about what needed “saving” from those who had made the artifacts… “in fact, you could call it the museum of stolen things.” i think i’d been calling it “the museum of things i’ve only seen in text books” until that moment…

    Liked by 1 person

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