Posted by: okathleen | May 14, 2008

Participant observation?

I suppose this is one way of doing it… but not really what I had in mind!

 Although it might be construed as one of the provocative methods alluded to by Basu and Macdonald (

“This raises crucial questions about reception. For, as Thomas Hobbes
pointed out in his objections to Robert Boyle’s claims about the superiority
of experimental knowledge in the late 1660s, ‘‘there [are] immense problems
for the very notion of witnessing” (Shapin and Schaffer 1985: 114).
Part of Hobbes’s objections concerned the point that even if people are all
brought together to witness a particular event, this does not necessarily
mean that they ‘‘see” the same thing or make the same inferences. In
relation to exhibitions, we typically know rather little about how they are
received(cf.McClellan 2003; though see also Hooper-Greenhill 2006); and
too much research remains rather crude (ibid.). There is undoubtedly a
need for more subtle approaches that observe the kinds of language and
metaphors that visitors use in their own comments… While such studies show that
there is surely always scope for readings beyond those anticipated, it is also
clear that visitor readings are produced in relation to the complexities of the
exhibition’s affective syntax, assemblages, and spaces. This includes, importantly,
the extent to which visitors are sufficiently provoked to experiment
with forming and voicing their own views.”

It is this provocation I am interested in. How to draw out the sensory reaction. And I prefer the notion of ‘witness‘ to ‘consumer’, ‘audience’, ‘observer’, ‘visitor’.

Witness connotes a presence, a readiness, there is a whiff of participation about being a witness, a legal or religious connotation perhaps lends more gravitas, the notion of meaning being ‘received’ as if the artefact were a gift…

“What is important now is that we recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” — Susan Sontag.

Check out:

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2006) Studying visitors. In S. Macdonald (ed.), A Companion
to Museum Studies. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 362-76.

McClellan, A. (ed.) (2003) Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium.
Oxford: Blackwell.


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