In recent years many writers have emphasised the communicative nature of museums. Robert Lumley argues that ‘the notion of the museum as a collection for scholarly use has been largely replaced by the idea of the museum as a means of communication’ (Lumley, 1988:15). Hodge and D’Souza see the two roles as complementary:
Museums are not only protectors but also communicators…. A museum display is an exercise in one branch of the mass media, requiring a special kind of understanding of the processes of communication, namely the nature of mass communication systems.
(Hodge and D’Souza, 1979:146)
Mass communication systems are unnatural forms of communication, in that they operate at a distance and often in the absence of one of the two parties necessary before communication can take place. It is difficult therefore, to be sure that the process has worked. Has the message really been understood? In ‘natural’ communication, which we can visualise as a face-to-face conversation between two people from a common background, the main message of the communication is interpreted through this common background. Shared experience enables the message to be decoded. The words that might be used are supported by many other channels of communication, such as gesture, facial expresssion, emphasis. Any point of misunderstanding can be verified by asking a question and by repetition or restatement. In a face-to-face conversation, there is a possibility of the message being modified by either party and being reshaped as ideas are exchanged. In natural communication, and particularly in a domestic situation where two people know each other very well, ideas are often exchanged in fits and starts, with frequent repetitions and clarifications. Often two conversations are carried on at once, or ideas are conveyed through a series of grunts and gestures, with perhaps a drink acting as mediation. The shared domestic environment makes this erratic and unelaborated transfer of ideas comprehensible to the two people concerned. In natural communication, then, we find the following features: interpretation through shared experience, modification or development of the message in the light of response, and many supporting methods of communicating. Natural