Examining Museum Visits as Literacy Events: The role of mediators
Museum exhibitions are literacy rich environments. Visitors may engage with a range of texts including texts that constitute the exhibition objects themselves, those that convey information about the objects and those that instruct visitors about how the visitors are expected by the museum to navigate through the exhibition. The ways in which visitors engage with these diverse texts are important defining factors of the visitors’ museum experience. For museums, understanding how texts in their exhibitions are influencing the museum experience, and the possibility of a museum experience for the broad public community is important in the fulfilment of their public mission as cultural and education institutions. In this paper, we adopt a view of literacy as a social practice, the perspective of New Literacy Studies (NLS), that offers a fruitful way for museums to consider the interactions between exhibition texts and their audiences. Such considerations, we argue, can inform museums’ approaches to broadening their visitor demographics to more strongly fulfill their public mission. We show that the goals of NLS resonate with some of the goals of the New Museology movement in museum studies, a movement that aims to democratize what museums represent and how. From NLS, we employ the concept of a literacy event to describe an exhibition visit through a literacy lens, and the concept of a literacy mediator to examine the literacy event not exclusively as an individual event, but a collectively produced event. The paper draws on data on how the literacy events of two groups of ‘non-traditional’ visitor groups were mediated in an exhibition, and show how they reveal the range of different literacies that visitors need to negotiate in a museum exhibition.