Chap 23: ‘Translating museum meanings: A case for interpretation’ by Kerry Jimson

In the last section of my new book Museum Practice authors consider aspects of professional work relating to the public face of museums and galleries. In Chapter 24 author Kerry Jimson makes ‘A case for interpretation’. A professional writer and interpreter who has written for the stage, screen, page and exhibit, Jimson provides a valuable summary of interpretation and its place in the museum today.

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Jimson sees interpretation as a function rather than a role, which is an important part of the museum’s work in communicating with the public. After a short history of interpretation, Jimson demonstrates the value of interpretation through a series of short case studies. He looks at the process of making exhibitions and argues that concept development and interpretation is a critical aspect of producing accessible exhibits for the general public. Unfortunately, like visitor research and education, interpretation can be undervalued by academics and professionals, either on the basis of an overly critical postmodern hermeneutics or on the grounds that it undermines their scholarly acuity (in other words their power).

But because interpreters operate within the institution and also figuratively stand outside it as audience advocates, they can act as a sensitive mediator and a reflective touchstone. Good interpreters employ their understanding of communication, engagement and learning styles to serve both institutions and audiences. Jimson argues that interpretation is essential to the museum. “In financially straightened times, museums can ill afford to shed or marginalise this important function,” he writes. “Interpreters represent the interface—a permeable membrane—between institutions and those they serve. The skills of the interpreter in mediating between multifarious groups to enable engagement and learning make for better exhibitions, and for better museums.”

Kerry Jimson has worked extensively in museums throughout New Zealand as a writer, editor, interpreter and concept developer. He began his museum career during the development of the new Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) in 1995. In 1998, he became the national museum’s Senior Writer, responsible for the quality of verbal output across the institution. Since 2002, he has worked around the country in a variety of roles in major museums, art galleries, and zoos, and has worked on many exhibitions across a range of subject matter from natural history, science, transport, social history, exhibitions on iwi (Māori tribes), archaeology and art. Now resident in Nelson, Kerry is a Teaching Associate for the Museum and Heritage studies program at Victoria University of Wellington, taking classes on museum-based writing and interpretation.

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About mccartco

Conal McCarthy has published widely on the historical and contemporary Māori engagement with museums, including the books Exhibiting Māori: A history of colonial cultures of display (2007) and Museums and Māori: Heritage professionals, indigenous collections, current practice (2011). His new book is Museum practice (2015) in the series International Handbooks of Museum Studies. This edited collection includes chapters on many aspects of current professional work from audience, leadership and policy to collections, exhibitions and conservation. His next book co-authored with Bronwyn Labrum of Massey University will explore history of/in museums.
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