Museums, drama, ritual and power : a theory of the museum experience
This thesis presents a new model of the museum visitor experience. My model analyses the dynamic interplay of visually powerful objects in authoritative institutions with the power of visitors to draw upon the knowledge, values and ideals of their own life experience and use the displays as a resource to make and take ownership of meaning. The model shows that the key factors affecting how people make meaning of displays are transaction, ritual, identity and power. I investigate the museum experience through the varied roles visitors adopt, as revealed in written comments made by visitors to my case study museum. I analyse these through a wide range of theory and through using drama as a metaphor for the visitor experience. The museum arranges the objects and spaces in a symbolic performance, leading visitors to engage in aesthetic and social rituals. Through the frames of their interpretive communities, visitors engage intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically in transactions with the objects which modify or reinforce their identities. Visitors' meaning-making is influenced, but not wholly determined, by how well the museum drama works for them. This depends largely not just on the quality of the museum but on how comfortable and familiar visitors are with museum rituals. At its best, the museum drama can engage visitors' emotions and imagination and enable them to experience intellectual, psychological, emotional and perhaps spiritual growth. At its worst, visitors' negative experiences alienate them not just from the museum but from trying such experiences again in the future. In my model, authority, power and the task of creating knowledge are shared between visitors and curators. If the museum embraces this epistemological shift, and recognises the complex transactions of ritua', drama and power, it could enable visitors to experience not just learning but growth, and greatly increase the educational and cultural value of museums.