Examining Museum Visits as Literacy Events: The role of mediators

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Keiko Yasukawa
Jacquie Widin
Vic Smith
Karen Rivera
Michael Van Tiel
Peter Aubusson
Helen Whitty


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.

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Author Biographies

Keiko Yasukawa, University of Technology Sydney

Keiko Yasukawa is a Lecturer in Literacy and Numeracy at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her research interests focus on adult literacy and numeracy pedagogy, practices and policies, and how tensions between them are negotiated. keiko.yasukawa@uts.edu.au

Jacquie Widin, University of Technology Sydney

Jacquie Widin is a Senior Lecturer in Language and Literacy at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her research interests focus on the ways learners in school, adult and university settings engage with learning opportunities.

Vic Smith, Independent Scholar

Vic Smith is an independent consultant working in cross-cultural communications, research and evaluation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and new and emerging communities.

Karen Rivera, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Karen Rivera is the Evaluation and Audience Research Manager at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. In this role, Karen is responsible for overseeing all audience analysis and exhibition/ program evaluation for the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney Observatory and Powerhouse Discovery Centre. During her time in this role, Karen has undertaken numerous exhibition evaluations, audience tracking projects, visitor segmentation studies and economic impact studies.

Michael Van Tiel, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Michael Van Tiel is the Manager of Family and Community Experiences at the Powerhouse Museum. He leads the team that is responsible for the development and delivery of innovative Museum experiences for children and the adults they visit with. Michael has a special interest in theatre as an alternative engagement tool to exhibitions in Museums.

Peter Aubusson, University of Technology Sydney

Peter Aubusson is Associate Professor in Teacher Education at the University of Technology, Sydney. His recent research has concentrated on professional learning models and focussed on relationships between formal and informal spaces in 21st century learning.

Helen Whitty, Doctoral candidate, University of Technology Sydney

Helen Whitty is currently a doctoral candidate with UTS researching the relationships between museums, families and literacies. This triumvirate arose from her twenty plus years producing public programs for the Powerhouse Museum along with authoring books and leading exhibition teams to develop a series of collection based exhibitions for families.