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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Museum Practice chap 22: ‘Visitor Studies’ by Lee Davidson

In this chapter of my new book Museum Practice, my colleague Lee Davidson looks at the topic of visitor research, something that has been referred to already in a few chapters earlier in this blog. Davidson points out that visitor studies is developing as a “more methodologically and theoretically sophisticated sub-field of museum studies.” “The key to its future, she argues, “is to maintain a strong dialogue between theory and practice, with museum practitioners and university researchers working together to build a culture of reflective practice and critical museology for the visitor-centred museum”.


Davidson reviews the brief history of visitor surveys and other forms of research, and the more recent qualitative methods employed to find out what the visitors do, think and feel in the museum, and then the numerous uses to which this information can be put internally, not just in areas like marketing, education and public programmes but also collection development, visioning etc. Indeed visitor research has become an integral part of museum practice across the board which underpins what the institution does not just by testing whether its work is effective or not, but by furnishing information about users and what meanings they make from their experiences.

One important area she touches on is exhibition evaluation, a critical if misunderstood aspect of exhibition development which can help guide and refine the process of making exhibits. Another crucial topic to watch in future, she argues, is virtual visitors, the question of how to measure and analyse those who do not come through the door but via the website, or Facebook page. Since museums are not just bricks and mortar, but digital entities, finding out more about visitors to these elusive spaces is essential for museums to remain relevant.


Dr Lee Davidson is a senior lecturer in the Museum and Heritage Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include leisure (history, theory and contemporary practice); visitor studies; narrative research methods; tourism and natural/cultural heritage. She has published research articles in Visitor Studies, the International Journal of Travel Research and Leisure Sciences, as well as contributing a chapter to Intangible Natural Heritage (Routledge, 2012) and co-authoring Serious Leisure and Nature (with R.A. Stebbins, Palgrave, 2011). Recent projects include the development of a national visitor research framework for New Zealand’s museum sector (in association with Museums Aotearoa), and a transnational, collaborative study of Te Papa’s exhibition E Tū Ake: Standing Strong on tour in France, Mexico and Canada.

See her blog Museums and International Touring Exhibitions here:


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Museum Practice Chap 21: ‘The “active museum”: How concern with community transformed the museum’ by Elizabeth Crooke

In the last section of my new book Museum Practice, which was published recently (see last post), there are several chapters describing the outputs produced by the contemporary museum at work. Though the exhibitions considered earlier in the book could also be seen as the most obvious of museum outputs, here in Part IV ‘Publics’ we look at a more diverse and diffuse range of public products: from visitor research and community, to interpretation, learning, digital media and research.

In chapter 21, author Elizabeth Crooke looks outside the walls of the museum to the community. She considers how a concern with community effectively transformed the institution of the museum. Drawing on examples from around the world, but also at home in Northern Ireland, she reviews “the role of museums as a symbol of community; the connections between museums and community policy; and the use of museums for community action.” Crooke then argues for what she calls the “active museum,” the antithesis of the “disconnected museum of old,” which rather than only providing comment, at a safe distance, is an organisation that actively co-produces with its community, effects change and forges dynamic connections.

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Elizabeth Crooke is Professor of Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland.  As well as supervising PhD students, she is Course Director of the MA Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies and the MA Museum Practice and Management (distance learning). She has published Museums and Community: Ideas, Issues and Challenges (Routledge 2007),  Politics Archaeology and the creation of a national museum of Ireland (Irish Academic Press 2000), and many book chapters and journal articles. She is a member of the Board of Directors Northern Ireland Museums Council and the Board of Directors of the Irish Museums Association.

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Out now: The International Handbooks of Museum Studies

The International Handbooks of Museum Studies has now been published by Wiley Blackwell, including volume 2 Museum Practice which I have edited. The handbooks bring together original essays by a global team of experts to provide a state-of-the-art survey of the field of museum studies. It creates an authoritative, multi-volume reference, offering unprecedented depth of coverage and breadth of scholarship in this interdisciplinary field.

The International Handbooks of Museum Studies (Hardback)The series is accessibly structured into four thematic volumes exploring all aspects of museum theory, practice, media and controversies, and the impact of new technologies. The volumes include a treasure-trove of examples and original case studies to illuminate the various perspectives represented. It features original essays by an international team of contributors, including leading academics and practitioners, as well as up-and-coming names in the field. The handbooks provide an indispensable resource for the study of the development, roles, and significance of museums in contemporary society.

Volume 1 Museum Theory, edited by Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message, showcases innovative theoretical formations that have defined museum studies and which point the way towards its future.

Volume 2 Museum Practice, edited by Conal McCarthy, addresses areas of museum work–especially those that have been neglected in the existing critical literature–in order to re-articulate and transcend the theory practice division.

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Volume 3 Museum Media, edited by Michelle Henning, focuses on the architecture and space of museums, including the diverse media of display.

Volume 4 Museum Transformations, edited by Ruth B. Phillips and Annie Coombes, addresses the social, cultural, political, and economic developments that are shaping and re-shaping museums.

When you buy the series the books arrive in their own box like this. They are beautifully designed and look great!



For more information, and details on how to buy this series or subscribe to the Wiley Online Library, see here:

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Museum Practice chap 20: ‘Rewards and frustrations: Repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains by the National Museum of Australia,’ by Michael Pickering

In my new book Museum Practice, out next month, there are two chapters on repatriation. In the last blog post I described Piotr Bienkowski’s useful critique of current repatriation practice. Like Bienkowski, Michael Pickering is the veteran of many years working on the repatriation of human remains at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. In his chapter, he talks about the “rewards and frustrations” of dealing with the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains in terms of his relationships with colleagues within the national museum and government agencies and of course out in Indigenous communities around Australia.

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The issue has been the subject of much heated debate internationally, which is often rather circular, and short on the pragmatics of the repatriation process itself. However in Australia, as in other post-settler colonies such as New Zealand and Canada, repatriation has become business as usual. There has been a shift away from the “familiar critical ‘rhetoric of allegation’ and simple case studies toward wider philosophical, historical, and cultural considerations.” In this spirit, Pickering documents the work of the NMA from an insider perspective, discussing issues in current practice, such as funding, provenance, mandate and problems with government processes and policy. “Despite fears,” he says, “the repatriation of remains has not ‘opened the flood gates’ to collections.” But increased demands for the return of sacred and secret objects is not so much a direct and inevitable consequence of the repatriation of human remains, but “an unavoidable consequence of cultural and political groups asserting their individual and/or national identities.” All the more reason, he concludes, that “issues be identified and addressed with a spirit of transparency and cooperation as soon as possible.”

Dr Michael Pickering is currently a Senior Curatorial Fellow and the Museum’s Head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program with the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Michael worked as a consultant archaeologist and anthropologist for the Western Australian Aboriginal Sites Departmen, the Central Land Council and then the Northern Land Council and was the Regional Officer for the Central Australian region of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority in the Northern Territory. He also worked as a Research Officer on Native Title for Aboriginal Affairs Victoria and then as Head Curator for the Indigenous Cultures program of Museum Victoria. He then moved to the National Museum of Australia as the Director of the Repatriation Program. Dr Pickering is a member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and is on the editorial boards of the journals ReCollections and Museum Management and Curatorship. He has a wide range of research interests and has published over 40 articles on topics including political cartoons, material culture, cannibalism, settlement patterns, exhibition, ethics and repatriation. Examples of recent key publications include ‘Dance through the minefield: The development of practical ethics for repatriation’ in the Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics (2011) and a co-edited collection The Long Way Home: The Meaning and Values of Repatriation (2010).

National Museum of Australia:

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Museum Practice chap 19: ‘A critique of museum repatriation and restitution practices’ by Piotr Bienkowski

In my new book Museum Practice due out in July, there are two chapters in the Resources section which raise important questions about the divise issue of repatriation, returning objects and human remains to their communities of origin. In Chapter 19, Piot Bienkowski mounts “a critique of restitution and repatriation practices” in museums, which still tend to be adverserial, long winded and inequitably weighted in favour of the holding institutions. Current processes impede what he sees as the essential purpose of museums—fostering understanding between cultures—and at the very least work against the idea of a forum for debate over the meanings and values of objects. “Where institutions have developed processes which allow for a fruitful, trusting dialogue with claimant communities, which often results in an ongoing, sustainable relationship beyond the immediate results of the claim,” he points out, “they have done so despite international conventions, legal frameworks and laws of property.”

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After a searching review of the literature and current repatriation/restitution practice, Bienkowski then puts forward a new model of museum practice: “museums as loci of deliberative democracy”. In other words for museums ‘[a]n open and transparent deliberative democratic process to resolve the claims would be more beneficial to their wider purposes than the bureaucratic and costly process of establishing criteria of ownership and rights, with its colonialist demands of proof and legitimacy.”

Piotr Bienkowski runs a cultural consultancy specialising in organisational change, community engagement and cultural planning. He developed and directs the Paul Hamlyn Foundation programme Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners, which supports organisational change to embed community participation and agency in museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. Previously he was Head of Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool, Deputy (and Acting) Director at Manchester Museum (where he was responsible for several repatriations), and Professor of Archaeology and Museology at the University of Manchester. His disciplinary background is in Near Eastern archaeology, and he is the co-director of the International Umm al-Biyara Project in Petra, Jordan.

Piotr Bienkowski Culture Heritage Museums:

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Museum Practice chap 18: ‘Museum Exhibition Practice: Recent developments in Europe, Canada and Australia,’ by Linda Young with Annie Whitelaw and Rosmarie Beier-de Haan

The next chapter in my new edited collection Museum Practice, due out in July, provides a comparative international survey of museum exhibition practice. Despite the specifics of each locality, there are common developments in the display of permanent galleries as recounted in Linda Young’s Introduction to the chapter. She argues that “tectonic shifts in museum exhibitions” around 2000 reveal changes in knowledge paradigms, socio-political movements, religion and national identity and the tension with the indigenous “nation within”. At the same time as exploring and critiquing aspects of museums from within, these exhibitions show that “the aura of museum authority powerfully endorses its exhibitionary subjects…” Young goes on to recount the revision of permanent displays of Aboriginal culture and history in Australia’s major museums in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth as well as the national museum in Canberra.

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Next Anne Whitelaw discusses the transformation of Canadian art history which has been “rewritten’ through new permant hangs in three art museums in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. Lastly, Rosemarie Bier de Haan discusses “transnationality and difficult heritage” as seen in new exhibition practice in German and European museums, highlighting the key exhibitions God(s): A User’s Guide, The Image of the ‘Other’ in Germany and France from 1871 to the present, and Hitler and the Germans.

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Linda Young trained as a historian and worked as a museum curator in Sydney and Perth before becoming a university lecturer in Canberra and Melbourne, Australia. Since 2005 Linda has been senior lecturer in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Deakin University, Melbourne. She is a consultant, critic, a historian of heritage genres and practice, and a student of nineteenth-century Anglo domestic and personal material culture. She has published widely on house museums, suburban archaeology, heritage management, and museum collecting and display.

Rosmarie Beier-de Haan is Director of Collections and Exhibition Curator at the German Historical Museum, Berlin, where she has curated many social and cultural history exhibitions. Rosmarie is also an Honorary Professor of Modern History at the Freie Universität Berlin and at the Technische Universität Berlin. She has been a board member of ICOM, the International Association of History Museums and the Network of European Museums.

Anne Whitelaw is Associate Professor and Graduate Programe Director in the Department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her research examines the history of art and cultural institutions in Canada, with a particular focus on practices of exhibition and collecting as a means of understanding the formation of nationhood. She has published extensively on the display of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada, on the writings of art historian John Russell Harper, and on the integration of Aboriginal art into the permanent displays of national museums.

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