By Nazlu Laird

The definition of an optical illusion is, ‘an experience of seeming to see something which does not exist or is other than it appears.’ [1] Optical illusions always fascinated me as a child (and they still do). Perhaps that’s why I am so interested in the mind-boggling fact that people can look at the same thing yet conceive of something completely different. But you can apply this simple statement to anything – that’s pretty much what having an opinion is all about, right? Let’s run with this idea anyway, an optical illusion shows us that two people can look at the same thing, have different perceptions, yet both can be right. Both can be honest and sincere and both can be right according to their perspective. Does this then mean that everything we interpret is intrinsically linked to our own preconceived opinions and perceptions? This question fascinates me, especially when we apply it to the museum space.

I want to tell you a little story before I go on so bare with me here.

Jay Rounds discusses the ‘meaning making paradigm’ in his article about meaning making in museum exhibits. I want to share with you the story that he tells, so we can understand why visitor meaning making is so important today. Here goes…

Before the 1960s, it was widely believed that people were entirely products of their culture. The child would enter the world as a ‘blank slate’ and be transformed into a civilised human being by a process of ‘deep socialisation.’ [2] In effect, ‘the contents of said culture would be ‘poured’ into the child’s head so that they became a walking embodiment of that culture.’ [3] This meant that social order would be ensured because we would all be trained to understand things the same way. Museums in this sense were looked at as ‘mechanisms in the process of cultural transmission.’ [4] This theory was dismissed by the beginning of the 1960s, and it emerged that deep socialisation was a myth and that humans were not passive receptacles waiting to be filled with culture, rather they were ‘active agents pursuing personal agendas.’[5]

So since we are in fact these ‘active agents’ pursuing our own agendas, meaning making in museums is not a one-way street where the curator (the ‘expert’), transmits information to the visitor (the ‘novice’). Rather, it is a two way street where meaning making is a process of interpretation.

The lecture given to our class by the curator of the Amsterdam Museum, Annemarie de Wildt, gave me a lot to think about when it came to this topic. In her lecture, Annemarie de Wildt discussed, amongst other things, framing prostitution at the Amsterdam Museum. This example is especially interesting when it comes to the idea of visitor meaning making and differing perceptions in a museum setting. In her lecture Annemarie de Wildt asked, ‘Do [visitors] opinions about or experience with prostitution, play a role in their interactions with [the] objects?’ My simple answer to this question would be yes, of course!

In his article, which discusses interpreting objects in museums, Colin Thompson states, ‘the trouble with things in museums is that somebody put them there.’[6] This is entirely true but at the same time, as Annemarie de Wildt’s lecture showed us, the curator is presenting to us a narrative by framing the objects in a certain way; it does not mean it is the only narrative. That is perhaps for the visitor to decide. One object cannot and does not mean the same thing to all people – a simple remark but nevertheless entirely true.

Annemarie de Wildt drew our attention to how important it is that the museum take the responses from it’s visitors into account, by telling us about the Museum Lab that was created at the Amsterdam Museum. Visitors were invited to look at objects which had no labels and write down or discuss how they experienced the objects and artworks. Of course the results showed that the performance of the visitors varied, many visitors had different perceptions and perspectives on the objects and made their personal opinions public, in diverse ways. This meant that those who were part of the Museum Lab experience all used the experience to create meaning, perhaps not only about the objects, but also about themselves.

I suppose what I am getting at here is the idea that most often museums are not trying to tell us what to think, they present a narrative and we can shape our own opinions around that narrative with the perspective that we already carry with us. Lois H Silverman also discusses meaning making, communication and consequences in exhibit design. She argues, ‘visitors value their own personal meanings in addition to, not instead of, the meanings presented by museums,’ [7] reminding us of how meaning making in the museum can be like a conversation between the curator and the visitor. Silverman reminds us to ‘expect that the visitor will make a variety of meaning in response to any exhibit,’ [8] which supports the idea that the museum should, if possible, support multiple meanings.

Of course, we make meaning out of what we see inside the museum and outside in the world. At times this can perhaps be detrimental, if an object in a museum is truly misunderstood, but then we have to wonder, who defines what is misunderstood? And isn’t it rather great that we can all look at the same thing and see something different? We make our own meaning, (we have the ’60s to thank for that confirmation). There is no right or wrong, only opinions, perceptions, perspectives and I suppose at times, illusions.




[2] J. Rounds, Special Section: Making Meaning in Exhibits, Meaning Making; A New Paradigm for Museum Exhibits?, Exhibitionst. NAME (National Association for Museum Exhibition). (1999). p. 5.

[3] Ibid. p. 5.

[4] Ibid. p. 5.

[5] Ibid. p. 6.

[6] C. Thompson, The Role of Museum in Interpretation: the problem of context, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 1:1 (1994). p. 40.

[7] L. H. Silverman, Meaning Making Matters: Communication, Consequences, and Exhibit Design, Exhibitionist, (1999). p. 13.

[8] Ibid. p. 13.

Image: Pixabay, Optical Illusions.