The article I chose to focus on is a study of visitors from across the globe to Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in New Zealand

The article I chose to focus on is a study of visitors from across the globe to Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in New Zealand, introducing their personal experiences of the museum space. The author’s main aim is to show “the interpretive dialogue between museological space or form, content and narrative, and the ways in which visitors engage in the process of meaning-making”. (Schorch, 2013) Through experiential research and interviews, he provides the readers with visitors’ experiences concerning the process of meaning-making. In this way, he tries to show that meanings and feelings are interlinked with the experience of a museum space.
This idea relates to the argument of our main reading “Museum architectures for embodied experience” by Kali Tzortzi. More specifically, in the part “Theoretical background: embodied experience” the author mentions Mark Johnson who refers to the American philosopher Jack Dewey. Jack Dewey supported that “bodily engagement with our environment makes thought possible”. Mark Johnson uses Dewey in order to support his argument that “meaning becomes possible and takes the form it does ‘through bodily perceptions, movements, emotions, and feelings'”. (Tzortzi, 2017)
In the article which I use “The experience of a museum space”, Philipp Schorch conducted a series of interviews in order to certify that bodily and sensory engagement with our environments generate meanings and experiences. He interviewed each participant twice over a period of time, something that enabled him to “closely investigate the context-dependent ‘endemic fluidity of meaning'”. (Schorch, 2013) He followed the method of “empirical approach” and “in-depth narrative interviews” in order to “facilitate the exploration of the multiple layers of meanings by focusing on the different levels of narratives”. (Schorch, 2013)
He presents the visitors’ experiences, impressions and memories concerning the spatial form of Te Papa, the architecture of the building, as well as the exhibition design and the display of artefacts. After that, he critically examines the “content dimension which reveals the key function of ‘narrative’ as a human meaning-making tool in mediating the mutual relationship of spatial form, museological content and visitor experience”. (Schorch, 2013)
In the question “what does it mean to experience a museum space”, Susan from the USA mentions that “it is an amazing building” (Schorch, 2013) She likes how the space feels like a “big open area”. There is a continuity in the building, from the moment that the visitor will enter it, and walk through the exhibits; a smooth coherence between the different rooms of the museum. She also mentions that the space is simple and not intimidating towards the visitors. Spatial coherence is one of the key elements that Peter Zumthor suggest in Kali Tzortzi’s article.
More specifically, according to Zumthor, “the factors that generate a certain atmosphere in a museum is the material compatibility, the coherence, the tension between the interior and exterior spaces, the sound and temperature, as well as the light on things” (Tzortzi, 2017) “The generous spatial layout and the flowing relations among individual exhibition spaces” (Schorch, 2013)provoke spatial feelings in Susan’s visit in Te Papa museum. Susan’s spatial experience verifies J. Dewey’s view that “life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it” (Schorch, 2013)
Australian citizen Mike conveys a similar experience concerning the museum space, saying that the museum “changes the landscape you are walking through. You don’t feel you are in the gallery A, B, C, D all in a line and you are moving off to a room left and right” (Schorch, 2013) He says that “they have divided the spaces into unusual movements of people” (Schorch, 2013),so the visitors do not feel that they are in a crowded space. The observation we get from this experience is that the spatial experience demonstrates a feeling of “embodied meaning” or “internal understanding” (Schorch, 2013) Furthermore, his use of the word “landscape” seems to portray an understanding of the museum as “an organism, a living landscape rather than a static building” (Schorch, 2013)
Philipp Schorch refers to Hillier and Tzortzki who argue that “spatial experiences are inherently human phenomena and patterns of spatial relations are so basic to our existence that they form part of the apparatus we think with, rather than think of” (Schorch, 2013) This argument can relate to what Juhani Palasmaa considers as the “atmospheric sense”, which is the “sixth sense through which we relate to our environment” (Tzortzi, 2017)
Another intriguing experience is Nicole’s, from Canada. In her interview she pointed out the important impact that the museum space had on her. More particularly, she states that the environment was so good that somebody could read there, so it was neither hectic or busy. Furthermore, she refers to the openness of the space as well as the way that the information was gradually progressed through it. The spatial configuration made sense to her, and the way in which, for example, the Maori or the immigrant section was organised.
For Nicole, “space becomes an interpretative agent, active in the making of meaning” (Schorch, 2013) From her experience, we understand the “mutual dependence of spatial form and thematic content within human communication and the museum experience” (Schorch, 2013) We can make a connection with this argument, and the one that is being referred to Tzortzi’s article that “museums communicate messages not only by labels and other interpretative devices, but also through bodily, sensory and affective experiences” (Tzortzi, 2017), which lead to the creation of meaning, as well as memory. This also applies to the museum’s display as well, “which provides the multisensory, emotive and embodied context for interpretative actions” (Schorch, 2013)
Nicole was interviewed again, after six months of her visit at Te Papa museum. What was the most memorable and meaningful thing of her visit in Te Papa museum was “the actual layout of the building and its structure”. She said that “when I picture Te Papa I don’t necessarily think of the information, but the layout and the structure” (Schorch, 2013).
Many visitors shared the same experience concerning the spatial configuration of the museum, mentioning the amount of free space that was left between the displayed artefacts, and even when the place was full of people, they did not feel cramped. They had the space they needed, and this offered them the possibility of contemplation in front of the exhibited objects. They all appreciated the free space and the feeling of comfort that it created, giving them the impression that “there was room to digest everything” (Nicole, Canada)(Schorch, 2013). In this context, we can refer to Tzortzi’s article, and more specifically to the term of “parataxis” which was suggested by Andrea Witcomb. Applied to exhibitions, this term means “the power of juxtaposition to create meaning in the gaps between things, and particularly to the idea that these gaps work through poetic or affective frames rather than explicit rational forms of knowledge production” (Tzortzi, 2017) So, we can conclude, taking into account the visitors’ answers, that there is a prioritization of experience, over other forms of communicating information.
Te Papa Tongarewa is a good example of a museum that uses “a mixture of information” and the way that this information is being delivered, how “they have tried to mix the way in which they are telling the story” (Schorch, 2013). Mike’s experience is that even though he could not recall every gallery of the museum, he had a clear memory about the plural delivery of messages, how the museum uses different ways of delivering information, through images, as well as interactive activities, in order the engagement to be interesting, rather than monotonous.
All those research findings that were mentioned above unveiled that the spatial composition of Te Papa with its individual characteristics such as architecture, exhibition design and display creates a “medium framing and shapes the visitor experience” (Schorch, 2013). Another memorable thing that other visitors mentioned in their interviews, is the narrative which Te Papa museum uses to tell its story, as well as the linkage between those stories.
According to Mike’s experience, “it is a story of the land of New Zealand from the beginning to the current” (Schorch, 2013) His highlights from his visit was the impression that he was left with, concerning “the linkage of the galleries and how there was a narrative being told, instead of a simple display of information” (Schorch, 2013). Another visitor, Bruce from the USA, also pointed out the importance of the narrative, rather than the artefacts. He supported that artefacts are “dead things” and that only stories can create a real meaning and still have an impact on the world, rather than reading labels and inscriptions.
Finally, it can be concluded that a museum space, with its interior and exterior architectural design, its spatial configuration, the way of displaying its objects and the way that narrates its story, can create immersive atmospheres and experiences. Those experiences can be created through “new spatio-temporal forms of art in which visitors do not think in images or words, but sense” (Tzortzi, 2017) The use of senses not only create immersive experiences, but also lead to the production of meanings, interpretations and memories.


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