Sample Dissertation Paper on Culture and Meaning in The Museum

Culture and Meaning in the Museum

Culture is refers to a variety of things ranging from biology to anthropology.  In anthropology, culture refers to the way people live that is presented through their language, religion, food, social livelihoods, music and arts. These characteristics are shared, learned through socialisation and are passed from one generation to the other.  It gives a particular group of people their unique identity. A museum is a building where a collection of artefacts and other scientific, cultural, artistic or historical objects are collected, stored and preserved for exhibition to the public (Interpreting museums. n.y, 12). This paper discusses how museums reflect and shape our view of culture (interpretation) through its display of objects and exhibitions in museum specifically through clothing.

According to Bennet T. (2005, 6), Taylor, L. (2004, 252) and Knell, S. (2007, 7), museums serve as important sites for historical production.  Many decorative arts, local and folk-life museums in Britain contain holdings of European peasant and British rural dresses collected mainly from the 1890s onwards and most of them hidden away in deep storage. Museums share their collected work with the public and give interpretation and access to the collections. Objects are stripped off from their cultural context and assembled later in a way that advances museum pedagogy. Museums construct cultural meaning (Museums Australia Inc. 2005, 16). In India, the museums have several traditional, religious and cultural arts which are the living heritage of some communities. The portrayal of these artefacts especially clothes are used to pass on knowledge and skills from one generation to the other in families by the elders. Sometimes the communities get emotionally attached to the artefacts (Bala, S. n.y, 3).

In museums, meaning is constructed from objects and from the sites themselves. It involves an encounter between the past and the present and the interpretation of material matter which is hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics tells us that the construction of meaning depends on prior knowledge and on beliefs and values. We see according to what we know and we make sense of meaning according to what we see. We construct our meanings and do not find them ready made. This construction is entirely dependent on how we relate the past to the present (Hooper-Greenhill, E. 2001, 12 and Dean, D. 2002, 2).

According to Pearce, S. (2003, 12) cultural objects have three broad meanings; first, there is the object as involved in exchanges of matter, energy, information. We talk of how the object is used, how it conveys information about social characteristics, personal feelings and religious ideologies. Second, the object has meaning because it is part of a code, set or structure and its particular meaning depends on its place within the code. Third, there is the content of the meaning. Objects start by standing for prehistoric peoples who are the intended subject of study but the symbolic process is easily inverted and people under terms such as cultures become viewed principally as labels for groups of artefacts which are the immediate subjects of analysis (Geertz, C. 2000, 52).

The National Army Museum, London has an infantry officer’s red jacket known as a coatee that was worn by Lieutenant Henry Anderson at the battle of Waterloo currently Belgium on Sunday 18th June 1815. The jacket has been preserved from that day to date thus bears a lot of significance for all the generations that have lived since then. To the survivors of Waterloo, Anderson’s coatee would have been experienced in a way quite different from that felt by Thackeray and most of his readers. These examples show the range of interpretations in which the battle and its elements were directly involved. A finer mesh would bring us the feelings of each single individual who was alive at the time with his or her interpretations of loss, gain or differences and all these perceptions share an equal validity (Pearce, S. 2003, 25 ).

Hooper- Greenhill E (2013, 3) says that museums are socio-cultural institutions like schools, cinema, mass media that are susceptible to analysis through the semiology of signification. Semiology of signification analyses messages that are often but not always unintentional. It searches for the hidden ideological messages. According to Fritsch, J. (2012, 118), clothing evokes memories of social experience. Much accessioning of clothing in museums happens when a family member dies and the material repository is distributed. Objects of clothing are less likely to become heirlooms as they tend to symbolise an individual’s rather than familial biography.

Clothing is peculiar in museums today since it is made into being by the human body. The absence of the body becomes tangible as it is somehow unnervingly replaced with proxy of the human figure. According to Ecole du Louvre (2003, 12), remembering clothing many lament their disappearance or disposal and speculate on their future like that of a friend with whom someone has lost touch with.  From the display of clothing into the museum, we get to know the religious background, the time, and the fashion of that time that was dependant on the culture or fashion of that time (Fritsch, J. 2012, 118).

In an argument presented by Tythacott, L., & Arvanitis, K. (2014, 67), the presentation of Sami culture is important in non- Sami museums only that it should be done in collaboration with the Sami people. In non –Sami museums, Sami culture is occasionally presented in ways that can be offensive. This may be done in putting together traditional clothing in an incorrect way, elements from different regions are represented together or even gender related clothing is displayed in relation to the wrong gender. The museum visitor is given an interpretation of the Sami culture through foreign eyes, an interpretation that may be foreign to the Samis themselves thereby perpetuating stereotypes.

According to Wade E. A. (2007, 11), through both academic studies and museum exhibits, material culture aids in understanding the objects in everyday life of the past and the people who made, owned, used and discarded them. Wade E. A. (2007, 16) and Moussouri, T. (2015, 18) outline the theories of learning that are used in museums as expository- didactic, stimulus response, discovery and constructivism. Expository didactic theory presents information in a rational, incremental sequence. A body of knowledge is mastered, memorised and reinforced with repetition. Museums employ this theory by arranging exhibits with a defined beginning and end following an intended chronology by which visitors view objects.  Labels and panel texts state what visitors should learn with information presented in small incremental steps from simple to complex. Information in one display case builds off information in the preceding case.

Stimulus response theory or behaviourism theory emphasises method and rewards appropriate behaviour or responses. Museums employ this theory to reinforce targeted concepts by offering rewards for visitors who obtain the correct answer. Discovery theory suggests that engaging learners in activity achieves specific desired educational outcomes and that exposure to sufficient data results in acquired knowledge. In museums, this theory is put in place by allowing visitors to learn by doing. Labels and panel texts engage objects by touching, smelling, holding, utilising more than eyesight to learn (Wade E. A.  2007, 19-20).

Constructivism theory advocates for active participation. Marstine, J. (2007, 30) says that visitors engage in total mind and body experience. In the museum, it utilises knowledge and experiences that visitors bring with them emphasising both exploration and question asking. Exhibits have no set path for visitors to follow; labels and panel texts present a range of viewpoints and often pose open ended questions (Wade, E. A. 2007, 21).

The display of clothing in museums have two separate points wrapped up together (Dudley, S. 2013, 4 and Tilley, C. Y. 2006, 203). First through our sensory experience the objects have the potential for value and significance in their own right whether or not we are privy to the information concerning their past or their purpose. The second point is that creative materialistic thinking about embodied and emotional engagements with objects can provide more powerful alternatives or additions to textual interpretation in enabling visitors to understand and empathise with the stories the objects may represent.


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