Rethinking The Museum Experience

A collaborative research project with the Immigration Museum Victoria.

British migrants crowd the deck on the ship Beltana.

Source: Museum Victoria
British migrants crowd the deck on the ship Beltana. Source: Museum Victoria

This week, The Alfred Deakin Research Institute and the Immigration Museum Victoria hosted a lunchtime seminar, featuring Philipp Schorch (Alfred Deakin Research Institute) and Andrea Witcomb (Deputy Director, Alfred Deakin Research Institute) and LauraJane Smith (ANU).

Although it is widely acknowledged that museums produce experiences, the nature of these experiences has proven to be difficult to formulate and substantiate. In this seminar, three museum scholars attempted to rethink the museum experience through research conducted at the Immigration Museum. The insights emerging from these research projects will be of interest to museum scholars, students and professionals, particularly those working in the areas of visitor research, concept development, exhibition design, interpretation and education.

Dr Moya McFadzean (Senior Curator Migration & Cultural Diversity at the museum) had this to say:

"I myself was gratified to hear many of the findings of your survey research, which really places the Immigration Museum so well in terms of the levels and layers of public engagement and interaction we offer through our permanent exhibitions. It was especially encouraging to hear from Laurajane that the Immigration Museum is rating along with the NY Tenement Museum, Miners' Museum in the UK and the Memphis Civil Rights Museum in terms of the emotive power we engender - particularly considering we don’t have the advantage of a defining site of meaning.

We of course must continue to push ourselves and we have much more to do. But this research demonstrates that our 'humanising' and 'affect' approaches are working, along with other more 'passive' interpretive approaches which visitors also enjoy. As Philipp observed, we are a museum of 'encounters' through which visitors perform their own responses and hopefully we are getting that balance between presenting information and taking a stand about right."

Professor LauraJane Smith (Australian National University)'s paper drew on 133 interviews conducted in late 2010 with visitors to the Immigration Museum as part of a ARC funded research project on the identity and memory work that visitors undertake at a range of different genres of museums in the US and Australia, including museums of immigration. The talk provided a brief overview of the results of the work undertaken at the Immigration Museum and placed those findings within the wider context of the overall project.

Drawing on a long-term narrative study of Australian visitors to the Immigration Museum, Dr Philipp Scorch (Alfred Deakin Research Institute) explored the meaning-making processes of museum visitors, who entangle meaning, memory and belonging in a complex web of interpretive negotiations, and transform cosmopolitanism from an abstract normative ideal into a lived and interpreted reality. The findings of his paper suggested that a cosmopolitan museum practice could open interpretive spaces for shifting subjectivities across differences and commonalities, thus loosening the restricting notions of ethnicity and multiculturalism.

Associate Professor Andrea Witcomb (Deputy Director, Alfred Deakin Research Institute) put forward that exhibitions are no longer just about the recognition and representation of cultural diversity. Increasingly, exhibitions aim to get audiences to feel in order to imagine and empathise with those they are not. Her paper explored some of the contours of this new form of pedagogic strategy - that of feeling - with reference to the Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours exhibition.

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