Part One
Present on Site:
Transforming Exhibitions and
Theme: Constructions
- intoduction

Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Theme: Questions
- introduction

Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Theme: Invisibles
- introduction

Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Theme: Openings
- introduction

Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24

Introduction to the theme:
Constructions – The visitor in an exhibition

When visitors come to a museum, they experience everything! The focus is not on the individual object, but on the ambiance, the surroundings. This is significant because from the curator’s point of view the exhibition clearly comprises specific, individual objects, while from the visitor’s point of view the exhibition is primarily seen as a whole and a narrative. The visitors’ approach is that someone is going to tell a story or that they will be compelled to construct their own narrative and give meaning to the objects presented.

The aim of the following five chapters is to examine these approaches in the context of the somewhat heterogeneous, rather large field of exhibition analysis. The two main theoretical frameworks that will be used to assess the construction of the competences the implied reader, viewer or visitor must possess to understand and get something out of an exhibition are narrativity and the concept of the Model Reader.
These frameworks will be the analytical tools used to help describe the narrative in the exhibition and to put the visitors’ experiences into words. Translating the physical, tactile and visual aspects of the exhibition experience into written words is essential for creating a distance to the physical exhibition and for recreating the exhibition for the reader of this text. Most of the exhibitions analysed are not running any more. This means that the text must recreate not only the mood and atmosphere of the exhibitions but also the rooms, the objects and the paintings in such a way that the reader has a meaningful experience.

The main goal of this collection of articles is to present how the visitor, the viewer or the reader is constructed by means of the exhibition.
Numerous elements comprise the totality of an exhibition, but the point of view of visitors begins upon entering the museum. John Falk tells a striking story about a little boy who accompanies his mother to a museum. She is eager to enter the museum and look at the exhibitions, but the boy wants to explore the museum shop, which he finds fascinating. Shaking him, she shouts in his face that they have to go into the museum immediately, but the boy looks at her and calmly says, “Mom, we are at the museum.”

Prior to arriving at the museum, our previous experiences have shaped us, not to mention our expectations based on what other people we trust have told us. Depending on the nature of the museum, e.g. whether it is a highly modern art gallery, a quiet historical museum or an exceedingly interactive science and technology museum, our preconceptions put us in a certain mood, but it is not until arriving at the actual exhibition that we get a true impression of what to expect.

A tiny ship – the implied user
The presentation of the theme, the objects and the mediation creates an implied user and comprises certain expectations toward users concerning their knowledge, understanding and experiences of life and insights into social relationships as well as expectations regarding e.g. their openness and sense of empathy. It is possible to narrow down a whole exhibition into a single showcase and then further reduce it to just a few objects and their presentation. For example, at a special exhibition called Harbour – Odense Docklands and Canal over 200 Years at Møntergården, the cultural and urban history museum in Odense, Denmark, the caption on a box of tiny toy wooden ships and models stated:


Wooden model ships etc. from Odense port and canal.
Many residents will recognise the lighthouse at the entrance to the canal (Gabet) and the port’s cylindrical oil storage tanks, whose construction in large numbers began in the 1930s. The models were made in the 1950s. (On loan from Lars Hansen, Odense)

The Møntergård exhibition has one significant general feature, namely the considerable use of miniatures, with model ships as an item of particular interest. The brief analysis that follows is based on a showcase comprising scale models of ships at the port. One item is a beautiful and fascinating secret box containing a personal, handmade toy. There are six fairly large and small vessels as well as some buildings and lighthouses. Covered with paper patterned with large yellow flowers on a dark blue background, the box is slightly larger than an adult hand. Even though the paper looks trendy, the box is obviously worn, indicating that it is old and used. The exhibition designer has taken objects out of the box and lined them up in rows.

The rows consist of a variety of different ships, e.g. a large ship with three rows of portholes, some small tugboats and some slightly larger ships. But they are not ships, they are models of ships. Cultural researcher Susan Steward believes that models of this nature are basically nostalgic because they make everything small, so that the models create a representation of “… a product of alienated labour, a representation which itself is constructed of artisanal labour” (2003:58).
Steward points out that in real life ships are a result of the work of many people under tightly controlled organisational circumstances under which the owner and manager have employees do the work. The converse is true of the model. Model makers produce the object with their own hands from start to finish.

Why exactly is it precisely these ships that have been made into models? A significant feature of the models is that they make a clear reference to Odense Harbour, as stated in the caption, “Many residents will recognise the lighthouse at the entrance to the canal (Gabet)”. Was Lars Hansen, the owner of the models, once the 10-year-old boy who played with the models back in the mid-1950s? Or did he make them recently as an elderly man? What is the role of the model maker in relation to Odense Harbour? Was he perhaps employed there as a dockworker, a shipbuilder or a customs officer?

Clearly toys, the model ships have just the right size for a child. They can be taken out of the box, placed on the floor and moved about to form a port. The model ships are a game that opens up the imagination of the players. As Steward explains, “The miniature becomes a stage on which we project, by means of association or intertextuality, a deliberately framed series of actions” (2003:54).

The ships provide a plethora of clues about how they were made. There are traces left from knife blades and chisels, as well as brushstrokes of white paint that indicate an inaccurate hand. The black brushstrokes used to represent windows and portholes are quick and sloppy, while the Esso logo on the petrol tank is handwritten instead of an exact replica. Scratched, the ships also show other signs of wear and tear from having been played with over and over again. They have been a good toy perhaps once actively used in the home and with playmates back in the 1950s. Although visitors might be curious to learn more, there only information provided is what is listed in the above caption.

In the context of the exhibition, the model ships have been transformed into two pieces of information specifically addressing people living in the area, namely that “many residents” will recognise the lighthouse at the entrance to the canal. Non-residents will not know whether it is the little lighthouse with the concave top or the big lighthouse with the roof. The caption then goes on to explain that the oil storage tanks are from the 1930s. Are they are still there? Have they remained completely unchanged? The focus is not the miniature items as a narrative but as topographic information. There is no statement in the caption indicating that the models of the lighthouses and the oil storage tanks were used for play and no effort has been made in the caption to evoke the joy of recognition in the viewer.

Psychologist John Dewey defines pure recognition as arrested perception. Dewey, who believes that recognition is a rudimentary perception because it ends with the recognition of stereotypes, writes:

Recognition is perception arrested before it has a chance to develop freely. In recognition there is a beginning of an act of perception. But this beginning is not allowed to serve the development of a full perception of the thing recognized. It is arrested at the point where it will serve some other purpose ... (1934/1980:52)

The multitude of other ships at the Harbour – Odense Docklands and Canal over 200 Years exhibition differs from the toy ships on loan from Lars Hansen because they are not toys. Hansen’s ships have no names or specific identities; they do not need to be individualised in order to play or the name can change depending on the game being played. The professionally built model ships, which have names like Iris Oe, Christian IX, Stevns Trader and St Knud, are more than just the typical schooner, steamer, coaster or tugboat. Beautiful, and highly detailed, the miniature models are replicas of the large ships upon which they are based. The level of detail leads viewers to imagine the shipyards that built them or the company that owned them. Thus, the model ships operate as representations of the big ships in port and at sea, evoking images of extensive production facilities or the large fleet of ships that once existed.

At a museum, miniatures are turned into something else (Baxandall 1991:36). They are not exact representations of the original objects, because if they were they would be too large to fit into the museum. Within the context of the museum, they are transformed into illustrations and pedagogical tools that indicate the size and nature of the different types of ships that have navigated the canal and Odense Harbour at various times. The recognisability of the models leads to arrested perception as defined by Dewey, preventing what he calls the development of a full perception of the thing recognised.

Although there is a contrast between the tiny ships built as toys and the professional models, both types of miniatures can bring to mind ideas about dominating and ruling the world. There is a sense of fascination either way with controlling and having power over the great and mighty, the channel, the harbour, the ships and the buildings, that make them playful and powerful.

From harbour, ships and signs to the Model Reader
Chapter 2 will expand on the above analysis, but the small part of the exhibition looked at will also be used here to illustrate the idea of the construction of the Model Reader or Model User. Exhibitions construct users and the expectations they must live up to. Users of the small part of the exhibition described above must be highly pragmatic and playful. The toy ships and related items bring to mind a specific lighthouse at a specific site, but this recognition is only possible if the users are local and have the necessary knowledge. Outsiders do not experience this phase of recognition.

In 1979, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco developed the idea of the Model Reader as the conscious and unconscious result of an author’s endeavours:

To organize a text, its author has to rely upon a series of codes that assign given contents to the expressions he uses. To make his text communicative the author has to assume that the ensemble of codes he relies upon is the same as that shared by his possible reader. The author has thus to foresee the model for the possible reader (hereafter Model Reader) supposedly able to deal interpretatively with the expressions in the same way as the author deals generatively with them. (Eco 1984:7)

Eco underlines that the strategies in producing the Model Reader are partly textual, involving choosing, “... a specific linguistic code, of a certain literary style, and of specific specialization-indices.” But also by more media-specific choices such as typography and design elements and images – and very importantly, “Many texts make evident their Model Reader by implicitly presupposing a specific encyclopaedic competence” (Eco 1984:7).

According to Eco’s formulation, talking about strategies in producing a Model Reader indicates that it is or must be a conscious decision the author makes, but Eco also believes that whenever an author writes a text with a purpose, there is perhaps also an unconscious construction of a Model Reader. His idea is that by being aware of the approach of the Model Reader, the authors become more conscious about the content of theirs communication.

Applying Eco’s approach to museums and exhibitions, the concepts behind the Model Reader can also be used to talk about the Model Visitor or the Model User. The term Model User is preferable because of the various elements involved at an exhibition, e.g. walking around the objects on display; visual input such as wall colour, showcases, photographs, drawings, iconography and objects; interactive media and screens with sound and moving images; text and labels. These features all work together to form an idiolect encompassing what the exhibition covers, i.e. the theme, content and approach, which in themselves are part of the creative strategy that constructs the Model User. The content of an exhibition, often related to a specific era, is frequently conceptualised from a fairly academic field of research such as art history or history, or it stems from an archaeological or ethnological perspective.
Eco’s concept of the Model Reader goes beyond limited strategic terms such as target group or target segments and can work as a gateway for understanding the multifarious dissemination of information that takes place at an exhibition. Chapter 24 examines this way of thinking further, looking at it from a production-oriented perspective.

At museums, cultural heritage and personal memory are important. From a psychological perspective, the two major aspects of personality – emotion and memory – are linked together:

The memories we tell ourselves and tell to others inform us about ourselves when we attend to the emotions they generate in us and notice the recurring themes of what matters to us most now and before. They provide us with two great important sources of information: they teach us about the outcome of goals we might pursue (cognitive input) and at the same time they remind us what it would feel like to attain these goals (emotional input). No other source of information processed by the mind provides us such complex input in such a palatable form (Singer, Jefferson & Salovey 1993:ix).

Combining Eco’s structuralist, semiotic approach with a psychological view of emotion and memory expands the concept of the Model User to include a lifeworld perspective (Schutz 1967). An exhibition taps both the personal memory of visitors as well as the collective memory by helping them translate their experiences into language.

Talking about an event is ‘a form of rehearsal that may aid memory’ because talking or translating an experience into language, seen as the social mechanism guiding memories, can help to organize and assimilate the event in people’s mind (Pennebaker & Banasik 1997:8).

Often, memories that are believed to be personal are not and that which is remembered is frequently mediated knowledge whose source has been lost, but that nevertheless has become part of one’s own memory. Understanding the meaning of a picture or seeing it in the same way as someone else is the result of shared experiences, schooling and other similarities; in short, this phenomenon is what Schutz calls, “growing old together” (1967: 163, 177). Misztal explains that, “… much of what we seem to ‘remember’ and what we assume to be our personal memories we have not actually experienced personally” (2003:76).

The central point is that this exhibition analysis shows that constructing a Model User with the necessary competences to decode and relate to an exhibition at a museum is possible. The analysis demonstrates that the competences are related to:

- style and genre of the expression
- media-specific elements
- specific encyclopedic knowledge
- professional fields
- emotion and memory fields
- mediated experiences and knowledge.

Narrativity – a necessity
The analysis of the tiny toy ships is an example of analysing from the Model User perspective, but it is also more, it is a narrative. There is a beginning, a middle and an end, just as there is in any kind of narrative.
According to American cognition and learning researcher Jerome Bruner, people use two different strategies to understand their daily world:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another ... One mode, the paradigmatic or logico-scientific one, attempts to fulfil the ideal of a formal, mathematical system of description and explanation. It employs categorization or conceptualization and the operations by which categories are established, instantiated, idealized, and related one to the other to form a system ... The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily “true”) historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course (1986:11-13).

The intention of Model Users is to create believable accounts, as Bruner puts it when talking about the application of the narrative mode. American psychologist Donald Polkinghorne stresses that meaning construction primarily involves looking for coherence in events:

Because narrative is one of the operations of the realm of meaning, an explicit examination of this realm will aid in the understanding of the narrative. First, the realm of meaning is not a thing or substance, but an activity … The primary dimension of an activity is time, and the sequence in which the parts of action happen can be decisive in defining what kind of activity it is (1988:4).

Bruner and Polkinghorne look at narratives as a foundation for the users’ construction of meaning and as a natural way for people to understand their lifeworld and activities. This means that museums and exhibitions are also places where narrativity is inevitably displayed from the perspective of users and must also be reflected in the curator’s structure and organisation of the exhibition.

In the exhibition analysis this leads to a focus on the structure of user visits at the museum and the actual exhibition. The narrative structure can be delimited, for example by the beginning and the end of an exhibition visit. The following two questions can be addressed when describing the narrative: How is the visitor met by the exhibition? What kind of framing and approach are used to present the main theme? This leads the user to ask what the question in this exhibition? When users exit an exhibition, the aim is for them to leave feeling there was a common thread. Were the initial promises and expectations established in the beginning met? Answers provided and issues elaborated upon?
The narrative structure of a novel can be seen as being more coherent than it is in an exhibition. The reading situation is utterly different. Normally, someone who reads a novel starts on page one and ends on the last page, while the “reader”, or user, at an exhibition does not just move linearly. The user, who can be quite selective and even rude at times to fellow patrons, can zigzag in various directions, jump around and pick up a fragment here and there. Users construct their own narrative if not guided effectively by the opening.

The approach of an exhibition analysis to the situation is much different than the one an ordinary visitor takes because with the former, more time and effort are spent getting as close to the narrative of the exhibition as possible. Due to the often enormous number of objects, showcases, screens, films, text and design at an exhibition, it is necessary to narrow down an analysis to three or four points of impact, preferably ones that elicit emotions such as irritation, joy or confusion.

Narrative – and telling
The narrative is as important as the analytical gaze in that it reconstructs the experience of the exhibition for the reader of the analysis. Language transforms the complexity of the exhibition into words and a text makes what is familiar interesting and what is strange or weird more familiar.

The aim of the exhibition analysis is to create a common language that makes it possible to understand and communicate with others in the field and to add to the field insights that can be applied to create a more successful meeting between users and an exhibition. Dutch cultural theorist Mieke Bal points out how the nature of dialogue can be compared to the dynamics of an exhibition:

Conversations and dialogues are specific social events of a predominantly but not exclusively discursive nature, consisting of activities occurring in a particular time and place between people acting as subjects. Perhaps it is illuminating to view exhibitions as such events (1996:82).

The five exhibitions – and reviews
The following exhibition analysis covers five rather different exhibitions that nonetheless share a common feature in that I either experienced a coincidence or something that provoked me or irritated me at the exhibition.

French semiotician Roland Barthes distinguishes between studium and punctum in a discussion of his interest in studying photographs. One of his reasons for doing so is to become informed:

It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions (2000:26).

Barthes goes on to identify another aspect that wakes his interest and that is a highly personal interruption of studium:

… it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me ... This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me) (2000:26-27).

The punctum that Barthes describes is highly personal but can also apply as the criterion for selecting the three or four points of impact that stand out distinctly in an exhibition. In my analysis, the selection of the points of impact goes beyond the personal to encompass something prototypical for an entire exhibition or for similar exhibitions in general.
Focusing on the construction of the Model User, the narrative mode of understanding and the punctum underline my interest in what a specific exhibition does to address user and how this process takes place. Consequently, this exhibition analysis differs from ordinary reviews, which generally aim shed light on the intentions of the curators, often in an attempt to put the review within the framework of art history and in an attempt to evaluate what was good and bad about an exhibition.

Chapter 2 - The safe harbour – How an exhibition constructs the user
This chapter, which focuses on a temporary exhibition at the city museum in Odense, Denmark, on the history of the local harbour, looks at the exhibition in question as a prototype for similar history museum exhibitions. The aim of this chapter is to uncover the exhibition’s secrets and expose hidden codes and stories in an attempt to present a more generalised idea about how to talk about and analyse the relationships between the user of an exhibition and the actual exhibition. The relationship between the realm of possibilities in the exhibition and the framework of possibilities for the user is apparently exceedingly strong and stimulating.

Chapter 3 - The human aspect in ancient times
This chapter is closely connected to the following chapter in that the analysis is also based on the National Museum of Denmark, the country’s largest museum of cultural history. The museum covers the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, all of which form the foundation of Denmark’s centuries’ old monarchy. But is the exhibition examined only about objects made of stone, bronze or iron? Exposed to new ways of looking at a well-established exhibition, I was led to ask the question: Are there people at the exhibition on ancient times at the National Museum of Denmark? There are of course the visitors. But what about the traces of ancient people and the relationships they may have had with each other?These questions will be addressed in the analysis of a single display case on the Vikings and connected to the wide range of mediated images and stories about ancestors.

Chapter 4 - The hidden exhibition – The new prehistory exhibition at the National Museum in Copenhagen
This chapter deals with the same exhibition as the one in Chapter 3, which looks closely at a single showcase as a prototypical example of the presentation of objects and narratives that successfully engages visitors. The old exhibition has been taken down and rebuilt from scratch, opening up the opportunity to present Danish prehistory in new and unique ways. In analysing the whole exhibition space, I have chosen three areas of impact that show the approach the curators and designers chose to pursue talking to visitors. The focus on scenography and narrativity reveals an exhibition that is rather problematic from the perspective of the user.

Chapter 5 - Mise-en-scène – One artist constructing himself retrospectively into the future
In this chapter we visit a retrospective exhibition on a famous Danish painter and look at how the whole mise-en-scéne constructs the artist and the visitor. We are highly open to finding traces, cues and leitmotifs that can help us see possible unarticulated arguments that block the impact of the exhibition as a whole. The role of the dissemination is unfolded and questioned as to whether it opens or reduces the artist and his various and fascinating paintings, photographs and installations. For visitors without prior knowledge of the artist, the exhibition comes across as a mix between a public fair and a department store.

Chapter 6 - The forced gazes: Home, shop, museum and IKEA
In its most banal form our visual existence takes place in a most familiar way, namely in the family home, e.g. in the living room. This chapter is based on two different rooms. One a living room in a bungalow as represented in an exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark called Stories of Denmark 1660-2000. The other one is a contemporary living room as presented in an IKEA store display in June 2007 in Copenhagen. Photographs, though not a target of the analysis, are used to look at these two rooms in a different way. The idea is to challenge and explore the physical space to interpret what it says about our visual existence as presented in the two exhibitions. Photographs support the dual purpose of the analytical approach, which is to look at the retail store from a museological perspective and the museum exhibition from a business perspective. In the visual culture field, the focus moves from the image itself to choice of perspective, thereby providing the materiality something social and personal.

The last two chapters in the first theme I move the exhibition analysis into a broader realm by adding two approaches. In chapter 5, which is on a retrospective exhibition of an artist, the analysis is preformed in a dialogue between two people with different professional competences, namely visual communication and art history. The focus is not so much on how the visitor is constructed but on what possible leitmotivs and cues are laid out in the overall construction of the artist. Examining the possibilities shows how the Model User is let down.

In chapter 6, which looks at living room displays in IKEA and a museum exhibition, the use of photography in the form of two photographs adds a new aesthetic dimension and mode of representation to the foundation of the analysis. The concept of the forced gaze transforms what is intimately familiar in the living rooms into disturbing ambivalences, interstices and places of resistance.


    © Chapter from the book:
Ingemann, Bruno (2012): Present on Site. Transforming Exhibitions and Museums, Lejre: Visual Memory Press. 396 pages, 147 illustration, printed in colour.