Museum Visitor vs. Audience

[This post is a reflection on readings for HIS 9801]

In the last post I commented briefly on the short presentation of Beaveriffic at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, noting that the actress engaged her audience to consider the history of a stamp in a unique way, making it a valuable contribution to the museum.  But is this always the case in museums that put on dramatic performances?  What are some of the risks involved in using drama to teach history in a museum setting?  How does a museum transform passive visitors into an active audience?  

These questions are addressed by Anthony Jackson in his essay,  Engaging the Audience: Negotiating Performance in the Museum.  Jackson makes a point that most visitors come to a museum with a set up assumptions or expectations about the exhibits they are planning to view.  These entry narratives provide a comfort zone around the visitor, which is threatened, or challenged, when the museum space is used instead for dramatic performance.  Jackson shows studies of three reactions to drama in a museum setting.

  1. Come early, sit close, stay to the end.
  2. Come on time, stand near back, leave early or at end.
  3. Come late, stand against wall, leave early.

The reason people (some, not all) feel threatened, according to Jackson, is that a dramatic element sets up a new museum contract with its visitors, transforming them into an audience.  As an audience they now have assumed obligations to participate, thereby giving up a degree of autonomy.  No matter how passionate people are about their visit to a museum, many find the idea of active participation unsettling.

Jackson addresses the reality of “unsettlement” in museums, arguing that uneasiness should not deter museums from offering dramatic performances.  The real challenge for museum educators is to frame these performances in such a way that unsettles an audience in a positive way, encouraging questions and sparking curiosity while avoiding embarrassment, anger, confusion and ultimately, dis-empowerment.  Having taught for a few years, I found 3 areas of his advice really useful.  A museum that uses drama should:

  • Create a space that is unthreatening to its audience.
  • Invite interaction rather than demand it from participants.
  • Invite interaction in incremental ways, gaining the trust of the audience.
Drama can communicate a narrative that a museum is unable to tell through its limited collections.  It can “re-present that which is absent” and generate engagement through empathy and by unsettling people’s preconceptions.    The challenge is to create a space, to frame a performance, that eases the transformation from museum visitor to museum audience.

Source:

  Jackson, Anthony. “Engaging the Audience: Negotiating Performance in the Museum.” Performing Heritage: Research, Practice and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation. Ed. A. Jackson and J. Kidd. Manchester: MUP, 2011, 11-25

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