Museums and Their Visitors

By Eilean Hooper-Greenhill | Go to book overview
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Language and texts

The power of language

Although museums and galleries are fundamentally concerned with objects, these objects are always contextualised by words. Museums are in fact perhaps as much concerned with words as they are with objects, although in many ways, because of the focus on the material object, the words have become invisible. However, in the classifications used for documentation, in exhibition themes and in the ideas about the museum presented through publicity posters and leaflets, language is necessarily used.

Language is often used without thought, in a natural and common-sense fashion (Belsey, 1980). This apparent obviousness of the use of language hides the power of language to shape thought, to direct perception, to control responses and to present a particular view of the world.

The world is grasped through language. But in its use by a speaker, language is more than that. It is a version of the world offered to, imposed on, enacted by someone else.

(Kress and Hodge, 1979, quoted in Coxall, 1990:16)

Spoken language creates a worldview not only through what is said and how it is said, but also by what is not said. The gaps and omissions in speech reveal values, opinions, assumptions and attitudes. The same is true of course for written language. Language is both a site of and a stake in struggles for power (Fairclough, 1989), and this is true in museums as elsewhere. The words used in museums create approaches to the past, and attitudes to the present: the choice of a theme for an exhibition, and the nature of the language used to present it, for example, create and display a particular interpretation of experience.

In museums and galleries, messages are carried by a combination of words, images and objects. Both images and objects are capable of carrying many meanings, and are in fact susceptible to the imposition of many meanings (Barthes, 1977; Hooper-Greenhill, 1991b). There are many ways in which artefacts can be explored and presented. However, in museums, a particular approach has evolved over the years to the display of objects, in which they are


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