Mapping Meaning Making in Museums
Mapping Meaning Making in Museums is a three-year project developed in line with the demands for audience development that offers greater insight into visitors’ learning and engagement in museums.
Visitor studies have heavily been framed with a concern about what visitors learn rather than the meanings they make moment-by-moment, in an embodied process unfolding during their encounters with the exhibits (Smith 2015). Museums “hold the promise of multiple connections waiting to be made, the majority of which cannot be predetermined as they rely on specific conjunctures brought by those who, in viewing them, bring them to life” (Message & Witcomb 2015, i). By exploring audiences’ interactions with the museum exhibits, the project seeks to explore how museums bring cultural heritage to life and how visitors’ interactions with the museum bring a range of cultural practices to the fore.
During the first year of the project (June 2016 - June 2017), a new qualitative tool was designed called Social Meaning Mapping, a theoretically informed expansion of what is known as ‘Personal Meaning Map’ which collects individual responses and focuses on the cognitive benefits gained after visiting a museum. Social Meaning Mapping, with a focus on groups, invites visitors to reflect upon their experience, asking them to re-trace their way in and through the galleries by drawing either on the gallery room’s floor plan or on an empty canvas as seen in the images here. At the same time, visitors’ discussions are audio-recorded. The new tool was integrated into the Visitracker app. A pilot study was conducted in late July 2017 and another one will take place during this autumn. The first results from the pilot study showed that visitors felt very comfortable when using the new tool, which allowed them to reflect upon their visit itinerary, revealing information about the social dynamics of their group, their interests and subjects of discussion while in the gallery room.