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«Policy and Practice Interpretation at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Policy and Practice The Interdivisional Committee On Interpretation THE ...»

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Interpretation at

The Minneapolis

Institute of Arts

Policy and Practice

Interpretation at

The Minneapolis

Institute of Arts

Policy and Practice

The Interdivisional Committee

On Interpretation



Preface........................................ 4

Policy on Interpretation......................... 5

Interpretive Media Table....................... 10 Label-Writing Guidelines....................... 27 Bibliography.................................. 67 Preface The Minneapolis Institute of Arts houses over 80,000 objects from diverse cultural traditions spanning 4,000 years of world history. In preparation for a museum-wide reinstallation of the permanent collection, the Interdivisional Committee on Interpretation was formed, made up of representatives from the Curatorial and Educational divisions.

The committee worked for over a year to produce this document, which serves the foundation for planning and interpretation within the museum.

The museum’s interpretive program grows directly from an understanding of our visitors’ needs and is intended to promote viewers’ engagement with works of art. This approach emphasizes creating opportunities for discovery and critical thinking rather than simply imparting facts. We are committed to the view that learning is a process, both for ourselves and for visitors to the museum. All forms of interpretation should provoke, stimulate, inform, and delight our visitors.

Policy on Interpretation Pluralism of Audiences The museum’s interpretive strategies must be varied to serve our diverse audiences.

Because individual learning styles differ, multiple approaches to interpretation and a choice of interpretive media are necessary. Certain media may be suited to a particular level of experience or knowledge. The museum must address the needs of both first-time and repeat visitors and also meet the special requirements of visitors with disabilities.

Elements of Visitors’ Experiences Visitors say they want information. According to educational research, they also want to establish a connection between the work of art and their own lives. Every visitor brings a unique combination of knowledge and experience to each encounter with art objects.

Many visitors’ initial responses are subjective. In order to derive meaning from works of art, however, people have to know something about them. Our interpretive strategies must acknowledge initial responses and then enable visitors to move beyond those reactions to discover multiple levels of meaning.

Although seldom considered as elements of a museum’s educational program, the order of galleries and the arrangement of objects are fundamental to interpretation. The sequence and definition of gallery spaces influence our audience’s broad conceptual frameworks. Clear signage establishing chronological and geographical contexts is vital to overall understanding. Some visitors, however, have no framework of information (style, history, technique) in which to place works of art. They are likely to browse through the museum, seldom paying close attention to individual works of art. For such visitors, a thematic interpretive structure is especially useful because it helps focus their attention — the crucial first step in aesthetic experience.

Most museum-goers learn more from contextual or thematic arrangements of art within a chronological or taxonomic groupings. One of our prime objectives is to create installations that give visitors opportunities to compare and categorize works of art and construct frameworks for understanding.

Finally, while ease and comfort are not components of interpretation per se, welldesigned signage and plentiful gallery seating will reduce barriers to viewers’ enjoyment and comprehension of works of art.

Attitudes Underlying Interpretation We assume that every visitor is an intelligent and curious person capable of learning about art. The museum’s interpretive materials should address all audiences without condescending to any. The key question for all of us should be, How can we help visitors develop their understanding of art?

A critical means of support is the tone of our interpretive materials. We understand that tone is created by the writer’s conscious and unconscious attitudes. Respect for the intelligence of the public provides the tone appropriate to museum texts.

Focus of Interpretation

Interpretation should begin with recognition of the visitor’s viewpoints and needs. Surveys indicate that the topics most helpful to most viewers are Subject (imagery, iconography, referents) • Content (iconology, allegory, symbolism) • Function (practical, symbolic, changes over time) • Cultural and historical context • Why the object is considered art and why it is in the museum • Artist (own commentaries on work, own philosophy, pertinent biographical • information) Technique (how produced) • Economics (patronage, consumption) • Less helpful, although sometimes useful in particular areas of the museum, are Unsubstantiated assertions of aesthetic quality, comparative judgments, • connoisseurship Stylistic development • Discussions of art theory • Lengthy artists’ biographies • Provenance (list of owners) • The content should be generated by and germane to the objects. It should be substantive yet not overwhelm our visitors with unnecessary and irrelevant information. However, oversimplification and failure to answer visitors’ most pressing questions are obstacles to effective interpretation. Over simplification, for example, ultimately undercuts the museum’s aims because it stifles curiosity and implies a lack of respect for our audience.

Cultural Relativism

In an effort to avoid ethnocentric approaches that impede understanding of unfamiliar art, we will endeavor to apply consistent methods of interpretation to Western and non-Western cultures. Respect for diverse value systems should inform all our practices. First and foremost, the sequence and allocation of galleries themselves can demonstrate a commitment to a world view in which the European tradition is not the sole point of reference.

Terminology is no less critical. We will maintain a consistent distinction between geographical and cultural identifiers. When identifying objects, ideals, materials, and so on, we will use such terms as “European American” and “Euro-American” and will seek non-Eurocentric terms to replace such labels as “pre-Columbian” and “Oriental.” Concrete examples and qualifiers, as well as comparisons (“X was current in Europe, while Y was the case in the Arab world”), will help our visitors construct frameworks in which works of art can be considered purposefully and their meanings apprehended.

Interpretive Diversity

Whatever the medium of interpretation, the “voice” of most museums, including ours, has consistently been authoritative and “objective.” Didactic materials with a presumably neutral tone convey a sense that the single perspective enunciated is indisputably true. At its worst, such a stance asserts the museum’s authority and the reader’s ignorance; at its best, it may just be boring. In fact, interpretation is fluid and subjective. It changes over time and can offer a variety of valid insights about a given object.

By making use of the diversity of voices inside and outside the museum, we acknowledge the complexity of the interpretive process. For example, new interpretive approaches might include augmenting programming with presenters not affiliated with museums, using multiple labels (for a single object or group of objects) written from different perspectives, and identifying the authors of text panels. Audiences will become aware that there is no one authoritative interpretation on most issues and will be encouraged to engage in interpretation themselves. Such multi-vocal approaches will acknowledge the personal responses of our visitors and communicate our respect for our public.

Interpretation and the Primacy of the Object A variety of interpretive means will help the broadest range of visitors experience art objects visually, emotionally, and intellectually. The Interpretive Media Table, included in this book, details the interpretive media to be used and their applications.

Because the works of art must always remain paramount in our installations, these interpretive means will be used selectively. The visitor’s direct experience of the object is fundamental to the museum’s purpose, and the museum staff is unequivocally committed to facilitating that experience.

Interpretive Media Table

–  –  –

The reinstallation of the Institute’s permanent collection over the next five years offers an opportunity to reconsider the use of interpretive media. To promote visitors’ engagement with works of art, as outlined in the Policy on Interpretation, the museum must have an installation plan and an interpretation plan for each gallery. These plans will be developed jointly by the appropriate curator and the chairs of the Curatorial and Education divisions and reviewed by the Interdivisional Committee on Interpretation and the director. Each part of the collection requires its own unique mix of interpretive media. To ensure that the quantity of interpretive materials never overwhelms the works of art, the planners must exercise discretion, judgment, and restraint.

Installation and Interpretation

Display id the foundation of interpretation. However, the installation of the museum depends on the nature of the collections, and the collections have not all been built on the same historiographic assumptions. Most have been developed according to paradigms of chronology and style. The period rooms represent moments in historical time. Some collections (prints, photographs, textiles) have a strong technical dimension. In our installation we must accept each collection’s particular nature, but we will make every attempt to present objects within a cultural framework. If this is not always possible in display, it can usually be achieved in the interpretive materials.

Other forms of installation will serve specific interpretive functions. “A Closer Look” areas, for example, present in-depth challenging examinations of a single work of art or small group of objects, which focus visitors’ attention and vary their pace through the museum. These installations can be used to present new research or the results of recent conservation treatments or to examine historical or cultural context in depth. They will include the perspectives of guest curators as well as those of the staff.

Because “A Closer Look” areas are designed for individual investigation and reflection and will be extensively interpreted, they will generally not be included on docent tours.

Another type of installation, open storage, presents objects in dense taxonomic formats that encourage visitors to consider stylistic and qualitative issues by comparing objects of similar media and date. It will allow public access to more of the museum’s collection than has previously been on view. We imagine this area to be of greater interest to students, scholars, and seriously motivated amateurs than to the general public. Here, object identification (ID) labels will be the only interpretive component.

Organization of the Table

The table that follows lists current and planned interpretive media and their uses. The table is based on several principles.

Variety — In each area of the collection a variety of information will be • presented in several different formats to address different learning styles and provide varying levels of complexity. Some information will be heard, some read or seen, and some accessed through computer programs. We will offer this broad range because visitors have varying interests, educational backgrounds, and needs. They are more likely to feel validated and motivated when they can control significant aspects of their experience. Some people learn by listening and then discussing ideas with others; some like to examine and reflect on authoritative information; some like to be challenged to integrate theory and practice; and others learn best by discovering underlying principles through trial and error. We know that visitors who can choose how and what they learn place greater value on their museum experiences.

Proximity and Availability — The most essential information belongs on object • labels, the medium in closest proximity to the art objects. The object label is our primary means of communicating with the general visitor. More complex, detailed, or specialized information can be presented in one or more of the other formats.

Accessibility — Visitors to museums learn differently than students in schools.

• Learning in schools is structured and linear, whereas learning in museums is self-directed. Museum materials must be organized to accommodate a nonsequential approach and arranged in small, discrete units that can be encountered in any order and still make sense.

The media listed in the table fall into three broad categories: print, audiovisual, and tours. Within each category, the most general and widely used media precede more specialized forms. The list is open-ended, and new media will undoubtedly be added in the future. Lectures, the Institute’s Bulletin, Arts magazine, and library resources are not listed in this table because they are not used in direct conjunction with works of art.

Applications in the Galleries Some media will be used more than others. The gallery ID and object ID labels are indispensable and must be ubiquitous. Other media are appropriate to many parts of the collection, but continuous loop video and slide programs may have more limited application.

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