By Michael Cranick
When I visit a museum, I appreciate the opportunity to interact with exhibits and artifacts in different ways. I might take part in a workshop, engage in a conversation with a museum staff member during a presentation, read exhibit labels, or participate in a hands-on activity. As we explored this week, these are all forms of museum interpretation. So what is museum interpretation, and why is it important?
Pioneered by Freeman Tilden and the National Park Service, interpretation was first considered to be a broad, educational technique. As Tilden stated in his landmark work, Interpreting Our Heritage (1957), interpretation “is more than just conveying facts and information but is a way to connect guests and their experiences to the objects being observed.” Tilden further described it as “revelation based on information” and “not instruction, but provocation.” More recent views, like those in the MASS Action Toolkit (2017), now define interpretation as a narrative, a method of communicating to and with visitors, and the institutional “voice” of the museum. At its core, interpretation fosters connection and dialogue.
For example, a live interpreter may aim to connect visitors with the objects and stories in a gallery by providing a verbal narrative that fosters a dialogue between visitors and the artifacts. This dialogue can ask visitors to make a comparison, relate something to their own lives, or participate in creating something inspired by the objects in a gallery. A self-guided tour brochure, student worksheet, or exhibit label may do the same, offering a written narrative instead.
Museums have always had the power to direct the narrative that visitors experience, through what they tell and how they tell it. That narrative has traditionally reflected a single or “expert” perspective that is often exclusionary. In Inclusion Requires Fracturing, interpretation specialist Swarupa Anila advocates for interpretive approaches that are boldly inclusive and accessible. One such practice is polyvocality, or the “integration of many voices or streams of discourse.” Polyvocality builds upon Tilden’s argument that interpretation is about connection and provocation by promoting the creation of interpretive programs that have multiple layers and avenues for visitors to participate and experience them (Anila 2017, 111).
A strong interpretive program creates what Anila calls an “undisciplined space where boundaries of disciplinary knowledge dissipate and new ways of thinking emerge” (Anila 2017, 111). Polyvocality encourages participation. It encourages connection and dialogue not just between an interpreter and a visitor, or visitor and an object, but also between visitors. It is an interpretive approach that allows for multiple narratives and connections.
The Museum of Broken Relationships truly exemplifies the power of polyvocality. It is our challenge now to create interpretive programs that do so, too. Articles like Inclusion Requires Fracturing are giving us tools to develop programs that will hopefully help visitors connect and dialogue with the objects and narratives of love and loss on display in the MBR Indianapolis exhibit. If we are successful, visitors just might gain insight into themselves as well as other people, too.
Michael Cranick is a first-year student in the Museum Studies Master’s program at IUPUI.
Anderson, Annie, Ashley Rogers, Emily Potter, Elon Cook, Karleen Gardner, Mike Murawski, Swarupa Anila, and Alyssa Machida. 2017. “Interpretation: Liberating the Narrative.” In MASS Action Toolkit edited by MASS Action. https://www.museumaction.org/s/TOOLKIT_10_2017.pdf.
Anila, Swarupa. 2017. “Inclusion Requires Fracturing.” Journal of Museum Education 42, no. 2 (May): 108-19. DOI:10.1080/10598650.2017.13069996.
Tilden, Freeman. 1957. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.