Museum Collections and Visitors: Four Different Types of Museums

Museum collections are made up of groups of objects within each museum. These objects include any element that pertains to the realm of material and cultural nature that is worth preserving either inside or outside of its natural habitat or in documentation.

Museums can be defined by their collections, even though the objects within a museum collection or exhibition are often polysemic, that is to say they have more than one meaning. It is possible to differentiate:

  • The object’s intrinsic information, which refers to the information learned from the object itself (regardless of the museum collection).
  • The object’s extrinsic information, which refers to the information learned and transmitted through tradition or through existing documentation about the object and/or its emotional or symbolic value given by society or individuals.

Managing collections and exhibitions is one of a museum’s basic functions and can also be related to things like restoration, investigation, education and sociocultural projection among other things. In addition to their basic functions, museums can generally be differentiated into four different types according to the relationship between the museum collections and the visitor.

Four Different Types of Museums

Although there are four types, it is common to see characteristics of one or all of these types in one individual museum. These four types are:

  • First generation or contemplative museums contain mostly objects, since these are generally spaces that centre on collections of objects.

    In these museums, visitors are passive subjects and the objects are out of their reach placed on museum pedestals or within display cases. The information necessary for understanding the object’s importance is provided by the museum rather than on the visitor’s interpretation.

  • Second generation or museums of science and technology are spaces where the visitor is able to interact with certain objects either directly or indirectly. In other words, these museums allow visitors to not only observe but also touch the materials.

    This type of museum provides educational information through controlled entertaining elements.

  • Third generation or interactive museums are spaces that allow visitors to actively participate by demystifying the objects and the collections.

    In these museums, an idea is emphasised more than actual objects. However, objects are not completely discarded, but they are contextualised in such a way that they work to transmit the idea or concept to be transmitted to the visitor.

    The museum team is interested in the educational content and tries to inspire the visitor to ask questions and search for meaning by using objects that invite the visitors to use them (such as interactive equipment or devices). Theses museums tend to have a particular path or a central theme to follow.

  • Fourth generation are museums that contain everything previously mentioned and are also based around an educational project. There is an open space for experimentation and reflection where the object becomes less important and the visitor is the leading actor of their experience.

    The objects function as intermediaries for the information that respond to open ended questions and as a result the visitors can interpret the objects in different ways however they like. Some authors refer to this type of museum as “museum staging”.

It is important to highlight that none of these museums are necessarily better or worse than the others. Each museum is highlighted for a different reason, so while restoring and protecting history primarily correspond to first and second generation museums, opening spaces to communicate certain messages would be the responsibility of third and fourth generation museums.

In any case, object exhibits can be controversial and have evolved in recent years. For example, in recent years the idea that all objects should have a label with information has changed to showing objects without labels but with the information available on interactive panels or with audio guides. If the problem before was handling how much information to add onto the labels, nowadays the problem involves how to make the information available to the people interested whether it is a label, panel, audio guide, etc.

In other words, they are based on a constructivist view of education where each person constructs their own knowledge and converts the museum into its facilitator. In order to achieve this, it is important that the visitor to not only be considered a user but also a commentator. This involves a change from the traditional model of communication in most museums. Well-known museums that have adopted these tendencies in the past include certain science museums like those in London or Valencia where they have started to use activities for discovery and self-learning through the possibilities provided by new technology.

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