As museums have evolved, so have their exhibits. We’ve seen displays go from wax model recreations of Neanderthals, miniaturized versions of places, touch and play set ups to interactive digital panels, integrated multi-media, and even augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) set ups that enhance the exhibit experience.
As the years have gone on, museums have strived to create dynamic and appealing exhibits that entice new visitors and bring repeat visitors back. While resources can be limiting in terms of how dynamic an exhibit can be, there are creative ways to achieve a compelling exhibit. Online exhibits can offer additional, supplemental content in the form of videos, interviews, additional objects and information. One way museums have delivered more vibrant and meaningful exhibits has been to include cultural heritage experiences (CHE).
Here’s the Definition of Cultural Heritage, as provided by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO):
Tangible cultural heritage:
- movable cultural heritage (paintings, sculptures, coins, manuscripts)
- immovable cultural heritage (monuments, archaeological sites, and so on)
- underwater cultural heritage (shipwrecks, underwater ruins and cities)
Intangible cultural heritage: oral traditions, performing arts, rituals
Heritage, both tangible and intangible, works together to represent a community’s lifestyle, value systems, beliefs, and traditions.
The concept of having a CHE is when one person from cultural group A engages with the tangible and intangible culture of cultural group B. Immersion into a separate culture provides the person from group A with a better understanding of people from cultural group B. The enjoyment and benefits of experiencing a separate culture’s heritage isn’t a new concept—though the concept of presenting a CHE within a museum setting is still fairly nascent.
Similar to “heritage tourism”, museums present a CHE to provide visitors with a wholistic and authentic heritage experience as part of the museum’s exhibit. This means the museum’s exhibit construction will involve the traditional display of movable cultural heritage (objects), and pair it with intangible cultural heritage (oral traditions, performances, rituals) to create a more complete version of a CHE. CHE as a component of a museum exhibit offers sensorial information, additional contextual information, and a fuller, more accurate presentation of a cultural display. Due to the amplified number of diverse streams of information, museum visitors gain a more profound understanding of the cultural community being displayed.
Examples of CHEs include listening to story-telling, engaging with time-period actors, performing ceremonies, listening to songs, participating in craftwork demonstrations, etc. Presenting a CHE typically requires additional staff or volunteers to facilitate the experience. Given the nature of presenting an experience, members of the cultural group should be consulted on how best to facilitate the CHEs. Just as with the larger exhibit, when displays involve a cultural community, care should be taken to involve the people of that culture to the fullest extent possible.
When museums present an exhibit based on a present cultural community group, there are four major areas that need to be carefully navigated:
- Seek and acquire the cultural group’s permission to present the exhibit
- Solicit the community’s involvement in the creation of the exhibit
- Include, to the fullest extent possible, all accessories needed to provide authenticity to the CHE that will be a part of the exhibit
- Realize and respect that some experiences are sacred, and cannot be replicated or shared
AR and VR can be employed to take the presentation of CHEs to the next level. For example, if a historic structure can’t be brought into the museum then it can be visited through VR. Or when viewing objects on display, AR can be implemented to view the objects within context of other structures and objects not on display.
The more traditional, digital side of the museum exhibit should also be included. Many of the intangible heritage pieces can be recorded and presented among the objects within the collection management system. This should be encouraged to capture a more complete version of the digitized museum exhibit. It also ensures delivery of equitable content for the digital visitors to engage (and reengage) with.
Rachael Cristine Woody
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The sixth in a series of 6 posts from Rachael Cristine Woody analyzing the elements of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums TrendsWatch Report 2021