Object Knowledge:Researching Objects in the Museum Experience / Elizabeth Wood and Kiersten F. Latham
Abstract: This paper investigates an interdisciplinary perspective on museum research, offering a new orientation and methodology for fieldwork. It begins from the stance of "object knowledge", which describes the ways of knowing that come from human interaction with and study of physical objects. Next, is the documentation of the power of objects to define the lived experience of time, place, and identity, presented with an applied and theoretical perspective on tangible objects and their relationship to lived experience. Through object knowledge we argue that museums can better understand their impact and influence on visitors and define the ways that objects and artifacts serve as key aspects of human life that contribute to multiple ways of knowing. To make use of this perspective, phenomenology, as a field methodology is most useful in studying visitor experiences and interactions with objects, artifacts, and exhibitions. As an underused strategy for research in museums, phenomenology offers a way of investigating the relationship between viewer and object that can help scholars better understand the meaning of museums and their relationship to our human worlds of knowing, being and experiencing history, the arts, the sciences. This process offers a re-engaging with the muses, so to speak. Using multidisciplinary theory drawn from education, information studies, semiotics, anthropology, and history, researchers can better ascertain the meaning and impact of museums from a decidedly human standpoint. The convergence of object knowledge and phenomenological fieldwork offers exciting new avenues to continue the study of material culture and museums while enhancing our understanding of the human experience.
<1> The museum field is awash in efforts to better connect visitors through experience-driven exhibitions and content. This emphasis often drives focus away from the museum's primary function as a collecting institution. It may even lead one to question whether the object is still a major part of a museum-going experience (Latham, Wood and Pekarik, 2008). As researchers of the human experience with objects, and with many years of museum experience in the areas of education, curation, collections, and exhibit development, we propose there is a need for a new view on the purpose and role of objects or artifacts within the museum.
<2> Visitor experiences and audience relationships are not new avenues of research on museums. Over the years many scholars and professionals in the field recognized the importance of visitor, or audience, needs and interests--from early 20th century writings by John Cotton Dana (1999) to the most current studies on museums and communities (e.g. Knell, MacLeod, and Watson, 2007; Watson, 2007). The most recent work on museum and community points toward the museum as convener and shaper of multiple identities (Peers and Brown, 2003) and organizers of memory (Watson, 2007). In each instance, scholars examine the role the museum and its exhibits and programs play in unlocking the potential of communities to reflect and re-engage in historical narratives, collective memories, and "intersecting histories" (Edwards, as cited in Peers and Brown, 2003, p. 5). Embedded within this view of museums as sites of memory, of representation, and of identity, is the signal of a paradigm shift for most museum practice. The perspective of museums in a more engaged, responsive position is what helps set the stage for new ways of working, researching, and experiencing museums.
<3> Recognizing museums as co-constructors and facilitators of memory and representation is a concept that requires more interaction between museum and community (however construed and defined) where community participants are asked to actively participate in developing the meaning of artifacts (Peers and Brown, 2003, p. 1). Other scholars have identified the role of the museum as key players in memory making by working with community to develop, shape, and record collective memories, group narratives--each with the power to enact a group's identity (Watson, 2007). In this new position, as mediator rather than authority, "museums redefine their strategies of representation of the past" (Misztal, 2008, p. 390). These representations often rely on objects to serve as the trigger point, or reference, for stories and experiences.
<4> In this paper we draw on this emergent orientation by looking very specifically at the use of artifacts in the creation of the visitor's experience. This paper outlines an interdisciplinary framework for "object knowledge" as we will call it, as a way to rebuild the object as a primary component in the museum experience. Object knowledge as such re-positions the object within the visitor-driven museum and emphasizes a new mode for developing strong connections between content and medium. Following the framework we outline a methodology that deftly orients research toward this paradigm, specifically within the museum experience. This methodology incorporates the philosophical and methodological elements of phenomenology and gives researchers new strategies to interpret and define object knowledge in the field. Finally, we offer some considerations and implications of this methodology for museum professionals and researchers.
What is it to know an object?
<5> For nearly thirty years researchers and practitioners in museum studies have called for more discussion on object-based discourse. Notably, Schlereth (1984) suggested, "despite all our collection and classification of objects, little is known about the reasons for human attachment to them or about the various personal ways by which they become incorporated into people's goals, experiences, and very identities" (p. 107-108). Schlereth focused his discussions on this type of object knowledge as a sort of museum literacy, the idea that visitors to museums need to know how to 'read' the objects and the artifacts housed there. One of the immediate dilemmas in such expectations is the orientation to, and understanding of, the object or artifact as a piece of knowledge or a representation. In the variety of fields that compose museum research and practice--anthropology, archaeology, art history, history of all kinds, education, and the sciences--the idea of "object" holds multiple meanings, reflects different ways of thinking and knowing, and expects divergent avenues of research. Within each of these fields, the entire classification of an object requires particular disciplinary knowledge. There is a great deal of value in examining the role of the object across these disciplines as a way of setting the stage for fieldwork in a museum setting. Though this is not an exhaustive list, consider the following concepts of objects across the disciplines, particularly as they apply to understanding the human experience: semiotics: object as sign (i.e. Pearce, 1994; Taborsky, 1990, 1997); archaeology and material culture: object as product of human activity (i.e. Hoskins, 1998; Prown, 1993; Schiffer. 1999; Tilley, 1989); museology and museum studies: object as polysemic (i.e. Hooper-Greenhill, 2000; Silverman, 1993, 1995, 1999); psychology: object as the medium of the human psyche (i.e. Csikszentmihalyi & Robinson, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton,1981; Paris, 2002, 2006; Winnicot, 1971); philosophy: object as the orientation of thought and being (i.e. Dewey, 1934; Heidegger, 1967; Hein, H, 2000; Jackson,1998; Schusterman, 2000).
<6> In the interdisciplinary work of general museum practice, it becomes necessary to draw from all of these disciplinary conventions and adapt them in such a way that each discipline's philosophy and orientation is maintained, while at the same time creating a hybridized definition. This definition, based on the features of the disciplines mentioned above, can be distilled into three representative paradigms: Material, Cultural, and Personal. As investigators of objects, these three paradigms need not, and realistically cannot exist in isolation. The paradigms do need to be considered for the individual ways in which they contribute to meaning, and more importantly to ground the concept of object knowledge in such a way that it can be studied differently. The following descriptions echo the perspectives of the multiple fields described above, using as an illustrative example Abraham Lincoln's iconic hat:
- Material Paradigm: recognition of the physical properties, the functions and uses, the extrinsic qualities that an object or artifact possesses. The material paradigm lends itself to more impartial analysis, but clearly comes with its own set of interpretive devices.
Lincoln's hat, in the 'stovepipe' style, made mid-nineteenth century, was made of fur felt with a 2" brim and crown of 8 1/2 inches.
Cultural Paradigm: demonstration of the object within a contextual field, meaning conferred on an object by nature of group or social use, meaning endowed by the viewer and the maker from a broadly shared or communal perspective
Lincoln's hat is considered among "America's Treasures" as part of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. It was presumed to be the hat that Lincoln wore to the theatre on the night of his assassination. It has become an icon and symbol not only of President Lincoln, but also of presidents in general and the Civil War.
- Personal Paradigm: marked by personal significance, evidence of a personal experience or relationship, definition of the self through biographical meanings or associations, containers of identity and personal narratives.
I first saw Lincoln's hat at age nine when my family toured the Smithsonian museums. I had always been a fan of Washington D.C., and that family vacation has lots of good memories for me. Every time I see the hat, I think of that trip.
<7> This broad level perspective provides a basis for understanding the ways in which museum visitors may approach and "read" the museum, its objects, and its contexts. These types of object knowledge are critical to the further investigation of the visitor's overall experience and ability to comprehend and make meaning from their visit. These three paradigms offer an epistemological background that becomes a useful tool in establishing a methodology for studying object knowledge. It takes in to account each of the ways that an object is important to multiple fields of study, as well as the visitor's experience. Yet, the detailed nuances of how one goes about studying objects in this way are still necessary. The following section outlines three ways in which this knowledge is informed within the museum setting.
How do we know the object in a museum?
<8> Representations of the material, cultural, and personal paradigms in the museum are readily recognizable, but how is it that we come to know the objects in this way? Attending to the ways in which museum staff and visitors use and interact with objects is the next essential element in understanding the study of objects in this context. In the museum the function of the object is three-fold: sign, document, and experience. These functions not only relate the three paradigms described above, but they also demonstrate the unity of thought and interdependent nature of our knowledge of objects.
Object as sign
<9> Returning briefly to the semiotic perspective, objects act as a sign, a representation of something. As the sign, this representation allows for multiple definitions, interpretation and meaning. The most useful description of the object as sign comes from Peirce's (1991) semiotic model and Taborsky's (1990) semiotic concepts of individual, group, and material realities. These models reflect the overall notion of the object as a representation of some concept,idea, or meaning. The main elements of Peirce's model illustrate a three-part interaction: the object, an interpretant, and a meaning. In this model there is not one, but multiple meanings that are determined by the individual viewer. Peirce illustrated the "semiotic triangle" to define the processes by which an individual communicates or interacts with a sign. These basic notions help us understand the whole process by which understanding the object occurs. When a person comes into contact with a museum object he or she will experience the object from three vantage points: the interpretant (the sense of the museum-goer), the vehicle (museum object), and the referent (meaning). The interpretant is simple to explain: this is a person who comes to the situation, bringing with them their background, experiences, cognition, culture, education, aptitudes, feelings, and moods, and it is the sense that they make out of the sign in the transaction with the vehicle and the referent. But that sense is linked uniquely to what they bring to the situation. Taborsky (1990) calls this the 'individual reality' and it can also be considered in relation to the personal paradigm described above. The vehicle, in this case, the museum object, does not inherently have any particular meaning. It is whatever it is, say a block of wood with color on it and a character on each side. It is a vehicle, a carrier, for meaning created in the transaction. This carrier of meaning clearly connects with the material paradigm, and corresponds to Taborsky's material reality.
<10> The referent is the resultant meaning that emerges in the transaction between the person (interpretant) and the object (vehicle). Such meaning is clearly connected to the broader cultural paradigm as well as the conventions we use to discuss and communicate about the material world. Taborsky roughly equates this with what she calls "group reality," meaning shared social knowledge, or perhaps culture or even "environment", in which we share understandings about something because of our participation as members of a society.
<11> The transaction between person and object described here produces some element of meaning, and that meaning becomes the sign by which we further describe and refer to the world. From this standpoint, it should be quite clear that the interpretant plays a pivotal role in the process. But, the whole of this sign must be placed in a context. The meaning is transformed by context--particularly when it is in a museum. In that context, the viewers will begin to differentiate meaning and interpretation based on worldview, personal experiences, background, and so on. However, the museum context has traditionally communicated a fairly uni-directional interpretation of an object's meaning and purpose, most often from the material and cultural paradigms, and almost always from an expert-driven perspective. This type of expertise-driven contextualizing poses challenges for the visitor, and can block knowledge development in the personal paradigm. This gap in the full realization of the object's purpose or meaning may be the missing link between visitor and museums.
Object as document
<12> How does the missing link occur? To better illustrate this, the field of document studies lends a model that illustrates the effect of the museum context and traditional modes of describing the objects. Once objects enter a museum, they become "documents" (Maroevic, 1998; van Mensch, 1992). Not merely a text or artifact, a document is so named because it has a level of intentionality, which stems from its place as evidence of something (Buckland, 1991). In the museum context, this evidence is often collected to represent, demonstrate, or explain some aspect of the human and natural worlds. Documents can be further identified by four parameters (Briet, 2006; Buckland, 1998):
- There is materiality.
- There is intentionality: it is intended that the object be treated as evidence.
- The objects have to be processed: they have to be made into documents.
- There is a phenomenological position: the object is perceived to be a document.
<13> Museum objects are physical entities that exist in space, made of materials that can be touched, seen, and felt. Museum objects enter the museum as evidence of some past behavior, activity, function or representation. The objects are processed into the collection using registration methods. These objects are perceived by both museum workers and users to represent something from the past; they are perceived as representations of some activity, person, or event. As documents then, museum objects are involved in communication, just as any other signifier.
<14> Two qualities of the object as document require further investigation in the understanding of object knowledge. The first is the suggestion that to be a document the object must be processed. The act of entering the document into some form of system-- whether as a registration, a categorization, or numbered collection-- often places it within a de-contextualized field, but at the same time a space where an "expert" places it in various disciplinary contexts. The experts in this case are those with specialized knowledge that put the document into highly specific constructs where the language, hierarchy, and substantive explanations resist external variation. The goal, having entered and processed the document into the museum's collection, is to present the document in some kind of display--a text or exhibition--so that the visitor can perceive the object within the disciplinary context. The second quality of the object-as-document illustrates the perception of the object, i.e. the visitor sees the object in an exhibition and takes in whatever factual or interpretive material is presented. For many within the museum field, this step is the end of the process, and the place where potential gaps exist for the museum visitor.
<15> The persistence of the material and cultural paradigms as the sole definition and interpretation of an object prevents full potential of the visitor's knowledge, experience, and personal context. The missing link, as it were, is the museum visitor's experience and interaction with the object, the personal paradigm. To bridge the gap, the museum context can support further exploration of the object by the visitor. Enhancing visitor experience is currently one of the most prevalent themes and challenges for contemporary museums (Falk and Dierking, 2002; Pine and Gilmore, 1999). Unfortunately such orientations to visitor experience and meaning making have rendered objects less than central to exhibitions, and in some cases, to the museum's purpose (Hein, H., 2006). However, the third function of object knowledge, the object as experience, provides a basis in which the object is re-envisioned as a critical component to the visitor's ability to make meaning.
Object as experience
<16> In both the sign and the document models described above, we suggest there is a context or field that provides a necessary background for the visitor experience. The object as sign cannot exist apart from a transaction, and the object as document cannot exist without a holistic referential ground. As suggested above, when the museum practitioner acts as the sole arbiter of this experiential ground, there is frequently no room for the visitor's context, experience, or knowledge. True object knowledge, then, is the place between the viewer and the object (whether seen as sign or document). It is the way in which the visitor interacts with, experiences, or has a transaction with the object. The result is a newly formed, individualized meaning, one that represents multiple disciplinary expertises, including that of the visitor (Latham, 2007b, Wood, in press).
<17> This total transaction, between the object, the individual, and the environment (or culture) is what creates the experience. Meaning is never simply embedded in an object. The person, carrying his or her set of knowledge, interacts with that thing, which elicits a reaction that otherwise may not have emerged without its presence. The most important aspect to remember here is that all three components are required in order to understand how a person understands an object, and this is how meaning happens.
<18> Such knowledge is predicated on the human condition to organize experience along a broad spectrum of values, e.g. social, physical, spiritual. The lived aspect of this knowledge is significant when investigating the interplay between object and visitor in the museum setting. The role of the object within the visitor's experience is primary. The use of the object in this way allows museum researchers and staff the opportunity to bridge disciplinary boundaries and unlock a range of meaning and perception for broader audiences. The interpretive nature of museum exhibitions and programs helps to facilitate a level of visitor experience and transaction with objects. Here, drawing on educational and psychological foundations, the experience with an object is more than just the material paradigm. It must elicit personal connections in order to help visitors make sense of the overall object in multiple contexts. For example, one of the seminal works in the field of heritage interpretation calls on the personal experience of visitors to aid in the communication of core messages. Tilden's (1977) principles of interpretation include: relating what a visitor sees in front of them with some prior knowledge or background experience; combining multiple perspectives that not only convey information, but draw out emotional responses; provoking interest rather than serving as didactic instruction; presenting the whole as the sum of its parts.
<19> In each of the functions of the object--as sign, document, or experience--the interrelated nature of the object knowledge paradigms becomes very clear. Where the physical object clearly becomes a sign, its physicality signals it as a document, as well as facilitates the experience of the visitor. Where cultural significance of the object is triggered, the very nature of it as a sign indicates it as a document and thus, experienced. Where personal experience informs and shapes meaning, the personal approach to an object clearly comes from its state as document and recognition of it as sign. Each of these functions correlate with the three paradigms of object knowledge in such a way that unites multiple disciplines and sets the stage for studying objects within the museum setting. However, as has been important throughout this paper, the visitor and his or her personal paradigm are the most significant elements in each of these definitions. It is as though the human presence signals a shift in the way in which objects are studied for their fundamental meaning.
How can we study object transactions?
<20> Studying the human transaction with objects is not necessarily a simple merging of material, cultural, and personal paradigms. Rather, to better understand the meaning that is made, this sense of object knowledge, we assert that phenomenology, as a field methodology, is most useful in studying visitor experiences and interactions with objects, artifacts, and exhibitions. As an underused strategy for research in museums, phenomenology offers a way of investigating the relationship between viewer and object that can help scholars better understand the meaning of museums and their relationship to our human worlds of knowing, being and experiencing history, the arts, the sciences.
Basic Concepts of Phenomenology
<21> Phenomenology is one methodology that allows researchers to study object-based lived experiences within this framework. The epistemological basis for this relies on understanding the "lived experience" as it connects to an individual's interactions and transactions with objects and artifacts. The philosophy draws on the supposition that human experience stems from the senses and perception of the physical world (Merleau-Ponty 1949/1962). Such experience translates into meaning at various levels, whether as recognition of the material and cultural significance, or more readily in the personal sense. The experience expands into greater meaning through an individual's reflection. Polkinghorne (2007) suggests:
Experienced meaning is not simply a surface phenomenon, but it permeates through the body and psyche of participants. But, participants are able to articulate only that portion of meaning that they can access through reflection. ...If a participant stays with their reflective gaze, deeper aspects of the experience will begin to seep into awareness and become observable. (p. 481)
<22> In this manner, the experience is so immediate and visceral that it is accessible for "measurement" only after the fact, and only when further translated through language. In the museum context this often manifests itself days, weeks, or even months later (Falk and Dierking, 1992). From these lived experiences with objects a researcher can begin to reveal the meaning and significance of objects according to the object knowledge framework described above.
<23> The transaction with an object, this idea of lived experience, is a result of two core concepts in phenomenology: consciousness and intentionality. Dahlberg et al. (2001) define consciousness as a process of making sense of our perceptions; "consciousness brings together past intendings of objects...[and] affects the present relationship with it" (p. 58). Here is where the material paradigm is hard at work; the general conceptual focus of objects as "things" inform our initial sense-making of the interaction. Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) argues that we live in and are conscious of the world through our body. While ultimately proving problematic for hands-off exploration of objects in many museum settings, the structure of this bodily knowledge incorporates the senses, as well as our concepts of temporal, spatial, and relational awareness.
<24> A related tenet of phenomenology is intentionality, or a directed awareness toward the phenomenon, that is an awareness of the object in its transaction with the individual (Dahlberg, et. al, 2001). This awareness is based on our perceptions of an object, its characteristics and patterns. The goal in phenomenological study is to find ways to describe the natural course of transactions with the objects, rather than a critical analysis of its purpose. In short, the use of phenomenology serves to bring deep knowledge of objects to the foreground, thus demonstrating the inter-related nature of our contact with objects at the material, cultural, and personal levels.
<25> There is undoubtedly a link between the concepts of phenomenology and the foundational views of Peirce's semiotic structure presented above. As well, the work of John Dewey supports the notion of object knowledge as explored through experience. As Dewey (1916) writes:
To 'learn from experience' is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction--discovery of the connection of things (p. 140).
<26> This connection of things, our relationship to the use and purpose of objects--the material paradigm, the cultural meaning of the objects, and the meaningful personal experiences with the objects--are the basis of object knowledge. The act of an experience with the object is part of the process, an opportunity to learn from the world. These ideas are, of course, not new to the museum field. George Hein (2004, 2006) and Ted Ansbacher (1998, 1999) illustrate the vital connections between Dewey's work and the experience of the visitor in the museum environment. Further examination of Dewey's (1934) principles illustrates the aesthetic elements of experience. The direct interaction between an individual and the layers of meaning embedded in the object is part of the aesthetic moments of learning. Dewey identified three traits of aesthetic experience--completeness, unifying emotion, uniqueness (Dewey, 1934; Jackson, 1998)--which further express the value of object knowledge. Completeness focuses on outward experience and qualities of the object; unifying emotion contains the personal interactions, meanings, and connections; and uniqueness illuminates the meaning moments in which the object was present.
<27> Phenomenology's focus on the conscious, directed awareness toward objects (both tangible and conceptual) supports the researcher in the field investigating these instances of object knowledge. Embedded within these lived experiences are the visitor's own meaning-making events through their co-mingling of the object knowledge paradigms. The aesthetic encounters render visitors open to development of meaning through their transaction with the object and the ultimate transaction of some kind of knowledge--whether it is material, cultural, or personal. The basic principles of phenomenology, semiotics, and aesthetics form the basis for strategies to be used in the field to study object knowledge from the visitor's lived experience. The investigation of "transactions" in the museum context provides the most useful method for studying visitors and object knowledge.
<28> The museum experience itself should provide an opportunity for visitors to engage in all kinds of possible transactions with objects--a sort of "musing" with objects. The fieldwork strategies proposed here study object knowledge using phenomenological methodology to investigate the lived experience of transactions between viewer and object in the museum setting. By studying these experiences, researchers can better understand the interplay between the three paradigms of object knowledge and better describe the overall affects that contact with objects has on visitors.
<29> Such experiences are deeply personal and truly difficult to gauge in the museum context. What is most important is to evoke some form of lived experience wherein the visitor can explain the personal connections made with an object. This is a process of connecting the information between the material, cultural, and personal paradigms, rather than letting them exist as disparate and compartmentalized knowledge. The most direct and valuable strategy for collecting and analyzing object knowledge in the museum are the tried and true qualitative methods of interviews, written examples of lived experience, and close observation with museum visitors compiled into a narrative synthesis. In educational research, the use of narrative in learning settings is particularly useful in helping individuals make sense of the world and of their experiences (Egan, 1999). The interaction between the individual and his or her story draws out the reflective meaning of experience. Each process ultimately draws on the foundations of phenomenology to guide and shape the researcher's point of view and empirical process. Below are two types of transactions that might be investigated: the poem and dialogue.
The Poem<30> Latham (2007a, 2007b) describes visitor response in the museum context as the coming together of individual attitudes, moods, environments, design features, and personal experiences. This coming together is a convergence of personal experience, emotion, object and environment in a unique experience within the museum setting, often resulting in aesthetic and sometimes spiritual or deeply personal reactions. The response of a reader who brings her background of knowledge and experiences, in addition to her present state of mind, to the scenario culminates in a "poem". This idea of the poem is drawn on Rosenblatt's (1978) reader response theory where an aesthetic response is created through the transaction between viewer and a text. Rosenblatt's proposed poem evolves from the convergence of personal experience, context, and mood. When the personal, cultural, and material paradigms are all in play, the person-object invokes the poem as some form of lived experience. Explaining and defining these aesthetic responses must be revealed through the individual's personal descriptions and narratives.
<31> Another object transaction to investigate is that of dialogue. The object dialogue is one in which the object itself prompts a reflective state by the viewer where the object helps the viewer anchor herself ontologically, knowing herself in the world in relation to the object (Wood, 2005). The dialogic transaction with the object requires the visitor to contemplate and reflect on the meaning of the object in relation to the world. The recognition and transaction with these objects can help us to realize our full potential and abilities and can lead toward personal fulfillment, satisfaction, recognition, and, perhaps most important of all, a sense of conviction. The active nature of an object dialogue places the individual in the role of facilitator of his or her own knowledge and becomes an opportunity for transformation as well as projection and reflection. What is necessary for this transformative task, however, is to engage in a deeper level of critical reflection on the meaning and nature of the experiences encountered with the objects. Wood and Cole (2007; Wood, 2008) suggest professionals can work to build object transactions by starting at the personal paradigm of object knowledge through using the objects on display to mediate personal and cultural identity, and provide prompts that allow questioning and exploration of critical issues through the objects themselves.
<32> Several suggestions have been made regarding the shift from object-centered exhibitions to those which provide object dialogue. Gurian (1999) interposed the idea that museums will be increasingly responsible to share the act of storytelling with visitors. In this manner, the museum is no longer the single authority of the meaning, focusing only on the material and cultural paradigms of object knowledge. In Gurian's example, the definition of object is made intentionally broad to encompass multiple authors of a story. Latham's (2007b) model further advocates for a mix of personal, cultural, and material object knowledge that can aid in the creation of a transcendent experience or "poem" through the object transaction. In both instances the use of phenomenological methodology allows researchers a greater degree of flexibility in examining the various ways that museum visitors make sense of objects in the museum context, and can support further investigations into the deeper connections between humans and objects.
Implications for reconstructing object knowledge
<33> The idea of object knowledge that we present draws heavily on the assumption that there is a personal meaning generated through each and every interaction with an object. As Susan Pearce suggests, the meaning is neither fully placed within the object, nor fully placed within the experience, but simply through the interplay of the two (in other words, a transaction). Evans, Mull, and Polling (2002) propose the museum field has shifted from an object-based epistemology, to something of an object-based discourse. As proposed above, the notion that objects are no longer front and center of the museum experience, but rather encompassed within the total museum visitor experience, indicates that object-based dialogue and transactions can become normative functions for exhibition planning and design. In this manner it is neither the object nor the visitor who takes center stage; rather it is a balanced understanding that the concept of object knowledge requires both object and visitor to be effective.
<34> There are several threats to this scheme in the museum field. If true meaning and interaction between museum visitor and object is to occur, it means that there must be access to objects and artifacts, and there must be visitors to see and transact. Many theorists, practitioners and followers of the museum field point out that museums are moving away from using objects as the focal point for visitor experience. Hilde Hein (2006) goes so far as to suggest that when museums are "focusing instead on the conditions of encodement and multiplicity of interpretation, the new museum abandons itself and its guests to spectacle and fantasy" (p.3). Instead, she identifies the need for museums to endeavor visitors to thrive in the imaginative responses and problem-posing provided by object transactions. These reactions by visitors can be investigated through the poem and dialogue, as well as an observation of the object knowledge paradigms at work.
<35> Using phenomenological methodology to study the transaction between visitor and object lends value to the overall concept of object knowledge. In order to examine the effects of multiple and overlapping ways of knowing objects, there can be a concerted effort by researchers to direct attention to the visitor's lived experiences and directed awareness toward the object. This will come from the intentional efforts by exhibition designers and developers to create such experiences, as well as the researcher to define and shape their inquiry into the meaning of these encounters.
<36> Latham (2008) for example, is using phenomenological field methods to investigate an intensely personal and often wholly felt experience encountered in museums, the numinous experience. This experience can best be seen as a transaction, a coming together of many things--person, object, environment--to result in a moment which has been described as a unique, almost spiritual sensation in the presence of museum objects. In order to understand the essence of this phenomenon, Latham's data collection methods and analysis is based on phenomenological principles. The aim of the study is to explore the meaning made by those who have had a numinous experience with historic museum objects; to find out how people describe these experiences and express what they mean, to understand the essential patterns of this kind of experience. Through participant narratives and qualitative in-depth interviews, the descriptions of these lived-through experiences from a sample of history museum members can help researchers to gain insight into these little understood events. Starting with the object allows a jumping-off point, a catalyst for discussion of other museum elements, if they are considered to be important to the participant. The assumption here is that the museum object acts as a meaningful symbol to a person. By narrowing questions to the point of a single object, if other contextual matters are important, such as the wider museum scenario, these will be drawn out in the interview process.
<37> With so many fields contributing to the overall knowledge and study of objects and object interactions, researchers need field-based methodologies that can support and promote investigation of human experiences with objects. The orientation of fields such as education, information studies, semiotics, anthropology, and history each address different and varied understandings of the human-object interaction. What underlies the interactions is the fundamental meaning of the material, the cultural, and the personal context for the viewer. The use of phenomenology as a methodology, combined with the concept of object knowledge, provides researchers from all fields better opportunities to determine the meaning and importance of these objects for visitors. This avenue of material cultural study reconstructs the process of museum-based work from object-centered, to object-informed.
<38> By studying the object and visitor relationship, researchers can re-engage with the human experience in the museum. The recognition of the object as sign, document, and experience allows for a deeper investigation of the interplay of these three concepts in the visitor's conceptual and physical interaction in the museum space. Furthermore, the paradigms of object knowledge--material, cultural, and personal--offer a new orientation to describe this interaction. Objects have the power to create a deep level of reflective and affective meaning for visitors. They can define time, place, and identity, or they can create a spiritual and transcendental effect for visitors. This type of knowledge, generated by the visitor, through the focused work of museum professionals, contributes to the greater purpose and value of museums in the human experience. This general connection with the idea of reflective thought, consideration, dialog--musing if you will--invites greater participation by visitors, greater connection to the significance of material objects, and allows for a more focused and intentional effort on the part of museums.
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