Museums and Perceived Inequality

Title:Exploration Into the Issue of Representation and Its Connection to Perceived Social Inequality

Introduction – Defining Inequality and Its Context of the Digitalized Museum

              When one is to ponder the term of ‘social inequality’ we place it in the domain of exclusion topics such as minority, poverty, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. It is without a doubt a sensitive topic that is liable to start controversy, be misused and/or exploited and has the uncanny ability to elicit emotional responses from those who have both experienced and observed it. At its core, the term and necessarily the act of it evokes both negative and positive ties depending on the stage in which it is addressed. This being said, I place great importance that when I use the term inequality within this essay that I attempt to do so without undermining the multifaceted experiences of people who have experienced unjust and inadequate provision. However I do emphasize that the way in which the term will be used is in a manner that revisits the aged yet still relevant issue of cultural barriers that potential museum visitors experience and thus prevents a sense of autonomy to participate. The reason for this re-visitation is to give illustrate historical significance to the topic of representation within the museum and how the metamorphoses of representation potentially caused cultural barriers. This is meant to be as an intellectual extension to one of my previous papers ‘Augmenting Museum Educational Practices Based on the Perspective of Falk and Dierking’s Informal Learning Environments’ as this paper did not inquire about the historical significance and creation of these barriers.

              To further clarify this essay addresses two overarching questions that are linked; ‘What is the connection between the historical view of representation and cultural barriers within the museum?’ and ‘What effort have been made to remedy cultural barriers?’. Before addressing the way in which this essay will unfold it must be noted that while the above mentioned paragraph may seem to be dangerously leaning on the side of tautology I implore my reader to consider that the usage of certain terms should require further explanation, due to their nature, in order to avoid any misunderstanding or unintended depreciation. With respect to the magnitude in which the term social inequality encapsulates, I will continue to apply this term in a manner that does not depreciate its significance. Considering that it is not uncommon that cultural barriers can intersect and deal with the harsher topics of inequality such as racial minority or ethnicity exclusion it is possible that the use of the term social inequality in this essay may even enhance the way in which we understand it within the museum. In this sense how we understand cultural barriers and the term social inequality are interchangeable in this essay. This is because cultural barriers deal with situations that refer to individual groups (based on social class, race and/or status) who feel excluded from accessing a museum which can be seen arguably as a social good. To clarify I say arguably because considering a museum a social good (public or merit) is a a topic of debate in itself that can be seen in W.D. Grammp’s Pricing the Priceless. However, for all intents and purposes of this essay, I prescribe to the idea that it is a social good imbued with educational, political and leisurely properties and thus advocate and adhere to the idea that the museum may and can act as social good thus legitimizing its purpose (though not in a perspective that advocates subsidization or for any economic purposes). With this in mind the question of the significance of representation impacting cultural barriers presides.

              Every problem has in it seeds to its own solution and it can be argued that finding the birth place of an issue can begin a healing process. It can be equally argued that going back to the starting point or origin can very well raise more problems than it solves. The former is the intent of the first section which deals with the origin and critical issue of cultural barriers and how they continue to permeate the minds of potential museum visitors and thus cripple their autonomy to participate within museums. Finding this origin is by no means a simple task as it involves a macroscopic understanding of sociology, psychology and economics. However an exploration of the connections between what is the museum, how utilizes representation and what experiences arise from this transference of knowledge will decidedly shed some light onto its starting point and as such illuminating these points take on a sociological perspective. This exploration will base itself on the literary works of Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge), Henrietta Lidichi (In Hall’s compendium Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices) , Museum Management and Curatorship’s Yung-Neng Lin (who writes on Leisure – A Function of Museums?) and Richard Sandell (Museums, Society and Inequality) which is themed around the museum experience and perceived social inequality. Social inequality, being a term with a rather large scope that can cover a range of topics, in this essay pertains to the perspective of those who, living in the West, do not feel compelled to frequent a museum due to a lack of motivation caused by perceived exclusion. The structure of this first section will deal with the question that has lead to the continuous problem of cultural barriers – what is a museum? The historical significance which dwells on the subject of historical elitism, Renaissance episteme (a type of knowledge transference) is crucial in understanding the core issue of this essay as it is unequivocally the origin of what caused cultural barriers and thus perceived social inequality.

              After allocating a fixed term for the museum and the manifest concoction of definitions that shows aesthetic, educational and political properties, the origin of cultural barriers will be better ascertained and allow for there to be a reexamination of how cultural barriers had been dealt with in the past decade. Cultural barriers, as it will be defined in the first section, have stultified potential visitor participation. In this second section the reexamination of cultural barriers will highlight an attempted solution to fix this cultural barrier issue – namely that of the application of Falk and Dierking’s Free Choice Learning Theory and the use of interactive materials that followed. As it will be seen the application of this theory has lead to both positive and negative results and the reason for this is due to the misuse of the didactic functions that interactive materials could have brought. The example used for this section will be from Robert Hughes’ Making Science Fun – Fetish of Interactive Exhibitions which demonstrates the negative use of interactivity and Ellen Rosenthal’s Rethinking Learning Museums and Young People which shows a positive use of exhibition interactivity. This demonstration of past attempts at increasing the flow of visitors as well as engaging them in the manner that they learn will wrap up into what is to hoped to be an intellectually stimulating journey and analysis that refocuses on attempts of remedying the issue of cultural barriers.

The Museum Meaning, How It Can Shape of Knowledge and Origin of Cultural Barriers

              What is a museum? This is a question of great significance and throughout history it has proven difficult if not impossible to come to a uniform decision on what its fixed term is. However it can be agreed that there is an approximating term; “Museum exist in order to acquire, safeguard, conserve and display objects, artifacts and works of various kinds.” (Hall, 1997, p. 155) This preservation cannot be doubted but it is what can be best articulated as surface thinking. On the same plane as this, it can be determined that museums exist in order represent the world in a categorized, classified manner by way of displaying objects that give notions of what the world is or should be. Upon closer inspection though, museums “… do not simply issue objective descriptions or form logical assemblages, they generate representations and attribute value and meaning in line with certain perspectives or classification schemas which are historically specific.”. In other words the intention of museums is not only to reflect the world through objects as well as safeguard their value, as it is perceived at first glance, but utilize objects as a way to mobilize a representation of the historic and present world. This emphatically implies that knowledge is now well understood as the commodity that museums offer. Recent studies incite that ideological,economic and cultural elements seamlessly flow together to afford this knowledge and it is a matter of representation that best depicts this flow.

              It is of key importance to understand that how objects displayed and how they are represented ensure the future of the museum. Since societal perception is a constant flux it is safe to conclude that representation is as well as it belongs in the domain of interpretation. Representation by the strictest standards can be depicted as a“ … means to bring that which is present before one as something confronting oneself, to relate it to oneself, and to force it back into this relation to oneself as the normative area” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p. 79). Henrietta Lidichi also eloquently describes this process in her article ‘The Poetics and Politics of Exhibiting Other Cultures’. While her main focus is on describing the ethnographic museum she makes emphasizes concrete ideas that adhere to museums of all types. In summary: a museum’s interpretational abilities of representation are in a constant flux. To explain what this means even further: an object displayed in a museum is simply that: an inanimate object or a mere physical presence. However it possesses meaning and it is this meaning that is constantly changing: not the object itself. The meaning an object has changes over time due to the fact that humans have the ability to imbue objects with symbolic power. Since society is constantly changing on multiple levels (economic, psychological, etc.) symbolism is also constantly changing. Of course there are certain things about an object that will remain constant over time and it allows for consensual agreement. To illustrate this Lidichi uses a taxidermic example of Comanche – a stuffed horse that was reputedly in The Battle of Little Bighorn with his human companion Custer. While it may seem the horse would simply have consensual properties, the denotation that it was (a) a horse who (b) acts as a silent witness to the (c) historic event and traumatic defeat of Custer’s troops, the horse also represents a great amount of connotation. It is this connotation that varies over time while denotation remains constant. Under connotation Comanche was at first:


Figure 1: Comanche, The Survivor of Custer’s Last Stand

“…the link between the living and the dead, connoting the ‘anger of defeat’, the ‘sorrow for the dead calvary men’ and the ‘vengeance towards the Indians’. Later he connotes conquest and the victory of the civilized over the murderous savage. In the twentieth century, he ceases to have an objective value, connoting alternatively late nineteenth-century sentimentalism, good professional taxidermy, or a lucky charm. From some communities, his significance increases. For the Native American students at the University of Kansas he forcibly signifies the extreme partiality of white historical narratives and a denial of the Native American experience” (Hall, 1997, p. 165).

To summarize the popularity of the taxidermic horse Comanche derives from the fluctuating relationship between connotation and denotation just as this relationship deals with all other objects found in museums. In other words the descriptive power of objects displayed in museums maintain a greater amount of stability (denotation) than an objects relevance and meaning which are under constant revision and metamorphoses (connotation). The ways visitors perceive these objects, whether they be artefacts, paintings, architecture, etc., shape their knowledge of their society and other cultures.

              What does this lengthy explanation of the denotation and connotation of museum objects have to do, then, the topic of the virtual museum and the analysis of if technological advances have aided in easing the impact of cultural barriers? Firstly, denotation and connotation are what can be best described as the ‘soul’ of how contemporary museums represent their collections. By soul I mean the very identity that belongs to museums and each identity differs from one museum to the next (i.e. an ethnographic/anthropological museum would not display Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii as much as an art museum dedicated to Neo-classicalism would not display a tribal deity tiki mask from Hawaiian tribal ancestors because the physical presence of the object does not correlate to the material represented). Without a systematic set of principles in regards to representation with these elements of physical presence and meaning a museum would solely mimic the 15th and 16th century origins of the museum – a cabinet of random uncatalogued and unclassified foreign objects of wonder (or a Wünderkamer) that were used for the purpose of personal amusement as it related to macrocosmic and microcosmic views. In the past decade most museums have shifted into what has been called the virtual museum; a digital rendition of a museum streamed online that results in a more publicly accessible venue. This digital or virtual rendition of the museum naturally has its limitations due to copyright restrictions, fiscal matters and more pertinent to this topic curatorial choice due to issues of representation. It is long debated whether the way staff members depict representation through virtual means still offers potential visitors the same experience and matter of structure it does when they visit the museum itself. This will be better described in the second section.

              Secondly and referring briefly back to the Wünderkamer, the cabinet was one of the earliest predecessors of the modern museum and was owned solely by those who could afford extravagant oddities and the space to arrange and display them such as wealthy merchants and nobles in Europe. Central to this concept is that those who had owned them also assembled their collections in a manner that presented the world in a manner that was graspable and controllable. As such it was not uncommon that the wealthy collector would situate himself symbolically within the centre of his collection. The mindset a collector would have is what Foucault called the Renaissance episteme (or knowledge) – necessarily an idea that “life (is) led under an aegis of powerful forces from a hierarchized universe so man, who is the central point in the universe, must strive to understand beyond the world of appearances and control it” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p. 103). This ‘episteme’ was only available to those who could afford it. Even several centuries after these collections went from private to more open in locations such as the British museum and the Louvre there was still a certain amount of secretive privacy surrounding the availability of this knowledge which went to Renaissance episteme to established and scientific judgements based on measurement and other forms of empirical testing. This dramatic leap in time to the 18th and 19th century isn’t meant to trivialize the evolution of the museum however it will go to show the connection to cultural barriers and that is this: the 19th century museum still had a certain amount of privacy as collections were still only available to those who could afford them.

“The museum was a domain of learned gentlemen and access was quite restricted. After a visit to London in 1785, the German historian Wendeborn complained that ‘persons desiring to visit the museum had first to give their credentials at the office and that it was then only after a period of about fourteen days that they were likely to receive a ticket of admission’. Until the turn of the nineteenth century access was governed by the rules of court protocol and aristocratic etiquette” (Schubert, 2001, p.17).

              This learned gentlemen image had not been completely erased in the 20th and 21st centuries. It has been noted that the history of the museum shows its reason for existence (raison d’être) is distributing acquired knowledge but “For most of the nineteenth century there was an international consensus among cultural decision makers in the west that the first responsibility of a public art museum was to enlighten and improve its visitors morally, socially and politically”(Sandell, 2002, p.25). The contemporary museum of the late twentieth century ushered in a more specific idea of this: for education and learning. While museums have attempted to replace ‘learned gentlemen’ with ‘all who want to learn’ there still is resistance among potential participants. Inequality of participation does exist and it is known that people with higher socio-economic income and status tend to visit museums more often than others (Lin, 2004; Hooper-Greenhill 1994). This is concerns the main issue to cultural barriers which arise from the image of museums and the public’s attitude towards museum services. Perceived exclusion caused by historical elitism has generally been typified as lack of interest, understanding and time. Lack of interest has been analyzed in Lin’s text to be the most significant of these. This link between historical elitism and cultural barriers is apparent and it is often perceived that one of the three common perceptions of the museum, the political perspective, contributes towards cultural barriers. While the non-visitor perception of museums and the general public perception has continued to be that museums are educational institutions it can be noted that there are views among the general public that museums also have ability to give visitors the pleasure of aesthetic contemplation and inspirational value. However this inspirational value can only be shared among those who would by typified as ‘elite’ and it is the third perception of a museum, that it is a political institution, that upholds and “…reinforce(s) the power structure of society and transform visitors into willing acceptors of the status quo” (ibid).

              How then have museums dealt with this issue of perceived social inequality/cultural barriers? The next section analyzes a forth element of what a museum commodifies in, leisure, and how this forth element has been used as a way to increase visitor participation.

Does the Application of Free Choice Learning Theory Break Cultural Barriers?

              For a moment, let us refer back to representation and how an object within a museum has both connotations and denotations. As it has been said before denotations are constant and hardly in need of explanation to visitors while connotations are contingent and in need of remedial revision in order to reflect society in its constantly changing. It has been said that an object is merely that, an object, but since humans have the ability to imbue objects with symbolism, an objects can mean so much more. This explanation of connotation and denotation is not just limited to the category of what objects belong in museums but in everything we do or see. As humans we have the ability to associate or symbolize something we feel of significance or of unimportance. It goes without saying that not all humans see objects in the same way and it is merely up to their own experiences that imbues an object with positive or negative symbolism. However this symbolism can be directed, orchestrated and it can be universal within an individual society on rare occasions. Museums, with the appropriate amount of know-how, can act as conductors in this area. As we saw in the previous section, the museum itself is an ‘object’ or a mere physical presence that allows participants to positively or negatively symbolize what a museum means and what type of negative or positive experience it may elicit from potential visitors. Cultural barriers or perceived social inequality are a product of negative experience or anticipation of it.

              This section delves into the strides museums have made towards subsiding these fears of a negative experience from the past decade and these strides can be said to have founded by Falk and Dierking’s Free Choice Learning Theory. This theory is by no means new as it is one that is reused. In order to draw up a schemata of how to get more museum visitors, especially those who feel excluded museum staff members turned their focus to how their audiences learn and remember. The cultural barriers mentioned in the previous section allude to the idea of lack of interest in wanting to participate within museums and this lack can be redirected to the idea that the museum is not only a place of education and political connotations but that it requires a certain amount of cultural refinement to enjoy such an experience. While this may be true it is only to a certain extent. Curators and staff members have in the past two decades placed emphasis on making the museum as more publicly accessible environment. The ways in which they intended to do so was, again, to analyze how people learned. The importance of this is paramount. The future of the museum solely rests on increasing and maintaining the participation of visitors and this is especially true in the past year for countries such the Netherlands (who have in the last year experienced a 25% decrease in support for financing), England (for example; In 2012, Newcastle Council passed the notion that it should cut all funding to art venues) and Portugal (who had in the same year abolished their Ministry of Culture)*1. This is only naming a few of the many examples that can be listed and all face the same issue of no longer being able to rely on subsidy to make up for loses due to decreased visitor participation. In an ever changing environment that ushers in new fashions and various advances that distract potential visitors it is detrimental for museums to keep up with the momentum. Representation has always been a difficult task and the future of the museum has always been contingent.

              The Free Choice Learning Theory advocated by Falk and Dierking states that museums are considered to be informal learning environments (unlike formal environments such as schools which typically implore a strict regime of work) and free-choice learning is one of the most common and well used types of learning. It involves self-direction and a proactive attitude of voluntary interest and individually guided directions of interest. What is appealing is that free-choice learning happens all the time outside of the typical or formal institution of schools. It is a way of affirming the self and is “motivated not so much for the purpose of learning facts and concepts, but out of the desire for personal self-satisfaction and relaxation” (Falk, 2004, p.10). This autonomous theory implores the mind and body to move in and out of exhibitions voluntarily. The primary aspects of this type of learning is an active process of converging information within three contexts: personal, social and physical. These three contexts require accommodation of mental structures to process this information. The personal context in which we learn is predetermined by our unique reservoir of knowledge and experience that results from genetic make up and environment. The social aspect of the learning process deems that learning is a social activity and behavior and the physical aspect deems that all learning happens within a physical context. In other words that the physical tells us what information is perceived, stored and recollected.

              In essence, free-choice learning “happens for the most part outside of the imposed structure and requirements of schools, universities, or workplaces [and] makes it at once extremely interesting and chronically under-recognized” (Falk, 2004, p. 9). This is on top of the idea that the “major allure of investigating learning from museums is that it provides a setting in which to investigate learning that more accurately mirrors the way most people learn most of the time” (p.91). The key to acquiring visitors and most importantly captivating them has for museums been the main goal and continues to be. This theory has been deemed as plausible enough for museums to apply to how they set up interactive materials within their exhibitions that elicit positive results from potential visitors. These positive results equate to a meaningful experience that connects visitors in an intellectual, emotional and visual way. How these were set up are then based on one of the four typologies advocated by Margaret A. Lindauer: Laissez-faire, Tylerian, Constructivist and Narrative. While each typology is interesting and has as much merit as the other it is an extensive topic for another time however I will use one example, that of Laissez-faire, a typology most closely linked to free-choice learning. Laissez-faire is a “curriculum theory, which maintains that humans are inherently curious and more engrossed in an educational activity when learning is self-managed and self-motivated. An overarching teaching principle therefore is to provide students with options, rather than prescribing a required course of study or specifying desired outcomes.” (Lindauer, 2004, p. 44) This theory in combination with free-choice learning is a part of how museums use representation. When applying this curriculum theory museums have used interactive materials that were hands on or sensory as well as without a set direction. You became free to browse and engage. The use of audiotours, didactic panels, video often replaced tour guides. A shift of how education was taught arose and critics claimed it to be ‘fun fetishism’ and gave rise to issues on a epistemological level.

              In regards to representation, critics asked if this new type of transference of knowledge effective and if so was it still possible to view the museum still as a sanctimonious place that assembled and safeguarded objects of historical significance? Furthermore was a sense of meaning and value still protected? In order for museums to maintain this sense of dignity there had to be a sense of balance between representation and the educational curriculum issued. Otherwise how the museum was represented would fall into the domain of the overwhelming ‘amusement park’ fetishism where nothing can be learned and there is no contribution made to give a meaningful experience. Over stimulation of the use of Free-Choice Learning and the curriculum applied can lead to a lackluster visit. When it comes to captivating audiences who have previously felt a certain amount of social inequality this is very damaging as can be seen in the example below. It should be noted that this damaging effect does not injure or further complicate the issue of social inequality or cultural barriers itself but rather the italicization of previously merely indicates the ponderment of why they should continue to participate at all):

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Figure 2: Photos of Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

“At The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, despite its title, I saw no meeting between science and history! Each appeared in an exhibition separate from the other and each exhibition has its own page on the Museum’s web site. At Hands on Science, the Museum presents artifacts of contemporary science as objects in themselves or as sources of fun in interactive exhibits, stripping them of any substantive historical context. Further, the Museum seems to have conferred on interactive exhibits the ‘magical’ quality of facilitating learning. However, when I visited the Museum, much of the ‘magic’ had certainly worn off. Many interactive exhibits failed to deliver the fun they promised and so visitors virtually ignored them” (Hughes, 2007, p. 183).

              Without doubt, the experience Hughes had was poor. Although it has been proven that museums can create a balance amidst the mayhem it should be asked, “At what cost?”. This can be seen at Ellen Rosenthal’s experiential museum Conner Prairie who, after several years of declining interest and near bankruptcy, altered the way the engage with visitors after market researching. After altering the way in which they set up their exhibitions (switching authentic objects with replicas in order for visitors to touch and interact with them, providing child development courses to staff members to allow them to engage with children more easily, changing the way educational stories were told, etc.), a way that reflected the Free-Choice Learning Theory, its visitor participation increased and showed that admission attendance increased by 60% and membership and repeated attendance increased into the double digits. However there are factors to take into consideration on the success of applying the Free-Choice Learning Theory at Conner Prairie. The first being that it was a family-oriented museum and the second is that it was already ‘theatrical’ – Conner Prairie prided itself as a time-travel experience of early 19th century Indiana settlers and as such museum staff members were actors. Its quintessential audience was for children. However, most museums do not target this audience and when they do it is only for a short period of time and is considered a temporary side-exhibition. The market research done and the augmentations made do not fit into a ‘one-fits-all’ category due to limitations such as time and costs.

              This essay’s exploration on the historical significance of representation has shed light onto the topic and birth of cultural barriers that continue to cripple autonomy if solutions are misappropriated. In the first section it has been issued that the future of the museum rests in the hands of how the museum uses representation, how it is itself represented and thus it necessarily needs visitors participation to ensure its survival. However the issue of cultural barriers can block if not cripple potential visitor autonomy. There has been an analysis of what the museum is and has meant in a brief historical overview in the past centuries. As the museum has evolved it has been postulated that so has the opinion of what its function is among the public. The metamorphoses of the museum has lead most to subscribe the museum as educational, political and aesthetic. All of these point to the fact that the museum continues to commodify in knowledge. Regardless of what it may commodify in potential visitors have felt a certain amount of social inequality due to the historical elitism surrounding it.


              How then have museums dealt with this issue of perceived social inequality/cultural barriers? In summary, visitors, especially potential and first time audiences who have once been under the thumb of cultural barriers, need a visit that is memorable and engaging in order to increase participation rates and thus ensure the survivability of a museum. The way museums have dealt with this is to change their exhibitions in ways that relate to how people learn. Since free-choice learning theory is the closest simulation of the most popular type of learning museums have augmented how they represent their collections as such. However a balance between representation and educational curriculum is crucial in order to create an atmosphere of multi-generational interest, relaxation and social interaction (as can be allocated to Falk and Dierking). However it must be asked; has this augmentation aided in subsiding cultural barriers for potential visitors? The answer shows to be that it is both yes and no as it all depends on how the museum uses the popularized Free-Choice Learning Theory advocated by Falk and Dierking in respect to how they balance and appropriate its use.


*Dowling, S. (2012). European Arts Cuts: Dutch Dance Loses Out as Netherlands Slashes Funding Found: (Last Received: 24, January 2013).

Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D., (2002) Lessons Without Limit: How Free-Choice Learning is Transforming Education AltaMira Press California, US

Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Culture, Media and Identities SAGEPublications Ltd, London UK

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1992). Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge Routledge, New York NY

Lin, Y-N. (2006). Museum Management and Curatorship ‘Leisure – A Function of Museums?’ Vol 21, No 4.

Lindauer, M.A. (2004). From Salad Bars to Vivid StoriesL Four Game Plans for Developing ‘Educationally Successful’ Exhibitions Elsevier Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Rosenthal, E. (2009). Rethinking Learning. Museums and Young People. Bartholomew, J. Edinburg Museums.

Schubert, K. (2000). The Curator’s Egg: The evolution of the museum concept from the French Revolution to the present day. Christie’s Books, London, UK.

Extension Upon Previous Work of:

Heuts, K., Duchemin, J., Widlak, A. (2012). Augmenting Museum Educational Practices Based on the Perspective of Falk and Dierking’s ‘Informal Learning Environments’.


Figure 1: Comanche, Custers Last Stand Hall, S. Found in: Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Culture, Media and Identities SAGEPublications Ltd, London UK (p. 163)

Figure 2: Interactive “Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body” David Woo/Staff Photographer at The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History get-grossed-out-at-the-fort-worth-museum-of-science-and-history.ece?ssimg=688295

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