Visitor meaning making: #TBT

Was at a planning day this week when the question was asked: What is meaning making? So, for this #throwbackthursday post I revisited Chapter 2 of my doctoral thesis that discussed meaning making within the context of constructivism, where prior knowledge and experience form key conditions for learning.

Jeffrey-Clay (1997) pointed out the relationship between prior knowledge and meaning making:

“Constructivist theory holds that prior knowledge is of primary importance. Rather than learners being empty vessels into which information can be poured, they come … with a wealth of knowledge already organised. It is upon this knowledge structure that learners hang new information, creating new links to their pre-existing knowledge. To learn meaningfully, a person must integrate new knowledge into his or her conceptual structure.” (p.3).

Hein (1995) stated that learning is the construction of meaning and argued that meaning making is an essential part of constructivism. Falk and Dierking (2000) suggested that meaning making is an innate mammalian response that constructs order out of chaos through finding patterns in nature. Meaning making has been described as making sense of complexities by building understanding through an individual’s own experiences (Rice and Yenawine, 2002), in a constant and iterative progression of remembering and forgetting (Silverman, 1995). Meaning making is achieved through “… the stories we tell ourselves … In that sense, the individual viewers or learners are the ones who are best equipped to make their own meanings.” (Rice and Yenawine, 2002, p.292).

Meaning making can also be shared through a

“… process of negotiation between two parties in which information (and meaning) is created rather than transmitted … influenced by the social and cultural norms, attitudes and values that surround the communicators.” (Silverman, 1995, p.161, emphasis added).

As well as a social process, meaning making also occurs through engagement with cultural tools and materials exchanged and modified in conjunction with others, as evidenced in the work of Stevens and Martell (2003).

Silverman pointed out that visitors’ meaning making strategies are based on behaviours that are basic to most humans. She also urged us to see museums as more than just educational or learning environments, but as places that meet basic human needs:

“… visitors to museums may seek to fulfil the need to reminisce, to have a social experience, to express their individuality, to feel part of a community … Museums in new age can become places that actively support and facilitate a range of human experience with artefacts and collections.” (1995, p.167).

Silverman concluded that the challenge for museums in providing constructivist learning experiences that facilitate meaning making is that:

“… the more personal and subjective ways in which visitors make meaning (such as through life experiences, opinions, imagination, memories, and fantasies) are at best ignored and more often invalidated in museums, where they tend to be regarded as naïve and inappropriate.” (p.165).

Given that museums are primarily social experiences, and that visitors make their own meaning based on prior knowledge, interests and life events, this is a good argument (as Silverman also points out) for the critical role that front-end evaluation plays in developing programs, coupled with a re-focus from being providers of information to being facilitators of meaning making through delivering opportunities for visitors to make personal connections with objects and collections, whether in the physical or digital realms.

Some final points from Silverman: “… museums must clearly incorporate human needs into exhibit goals and institutional missions” (p. 167) and the “… future of museums lies in realising how museums can meet a variety of human needs and learning how best to do so” (p.169). In 2016 (21 years later) how have museums progressed in facilitating visitor meaning making and meeting human needs? Given that we still are asking the question, perhaps it is time to re-visit how we have (or have not) incorporated these ideas in our work practices?


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