The Art of Meaning-Making: Museums as Spaces of Performance

Museums are spaces that preserve the cultural tradition, heritage and arts of a country. A visit to a museum expands visitors’ imagination, cultivates critical thought in their minds and helps them connect with the past – an entertaining process in its entirety that also feeds the mind and the spirit.

The learning experience, however, varies from person to person – with respect to their age, educational background and profession. International tourists, for instance, visit a museum to learn about a country’s culture, art or history; couples visit museums to probably have a nice day out; parents take their children to museums for holiday tours; and schools (mostly primary) do so as part of their educational programme. Each of these visitors interpret the exhibits/collection in their own unique way.

Museum as a space is almost synonymous to the viewers’ memory and the cultural history which the place embodies. For instance, when one visits the National Museum in New Delhi, one tries to interpret the artefacts based on one’s own personal experiences and knowledge. In short, one is always engaging with the space critically, sometimes without even realising.

Therefore, a museum becomes a creative and critical source for the viewers to form new cultural myths that are relevant to their personal identities. It is in this context of engaging with a museum space that the works of art – while they are conserved, preserved, and secured for posterity – become a repository of a potential dialogue between society and our history, for us to eventually expose, examine and question established cultural norms and codes. This process of engaging with art critically provides a new possibility to create new cultural ideas, and new ways of exhibiting and interpreting art.

This process of meaning-making, in my opinion, is almost like a performance and should be practised like one. It’s a performance that can transform the static space of a museum into a dynamic, living space. Movements, tempos and expressions that are associated with the exhibits and the space, can create new ways of interpreting the objects on display as well as the environment they inhabit.

Also read: We Need to Hold Museums Accountable For Upholding Colonial Narratives

By performing the museum, viewers challenge the museum’s established practices through the discourse of their own memories and cultural histories. The dynamic tension between the two is what makes the critical performance of knowledge possible in museums. Thus, by interconnecting its narratives with that of its viewers, a museum becomes an integral part of community life.

Furthermore, galleries and museums also shed light on how an individual’s scope of interpretation and meaning-making expands in the presence of other visitors who happen to share a space with them. For instance, one may only visit the galleries which are known to be the most famous while leaving out many others, and when one is present at one gallery along with other viewers, one’s way of engaging with the artefacts in the gallery will get influenced by the other viewers, especially those who may have explored other galleries.

People, therefore, are not only drawn to look at exhibits by those they are with, but they may also draw conclusions which may arise while interacting with others. Other person’s actions have a significant influence on what gets looked at, for how long and in what manner. As groups of visitors gather around an exhibit, they mutually constitute a sense of what they see and the relevance of seeing. Thus, museums become a space of constant interaction among visitors which give rise to newly constituted meanings and ways of seeing.

One can note that the museum serves as a performative space, a choreographed environment that is basically designed to heighten viewers’ experiences of symbolic artefacts; it is a site of cultural authority and social interaction. Hence, the museum becomes a space which not just represents a period of history but becomes a dynamic space when visitors give meaning and interact with the galleries and artefacts.

Upali Bhattacharya is a Sociology postgraduate and works as a Program Management and Student Outreach Consultant at the UChicago Center in India Pvt. Ltd.

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