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Interpreting Multiple Meanings


Museums can help to draw-out meaning in objects, spaces, or the commemoration of events. Whatever it is you are interpreting: objects, buildings, landscapes, historical incidents or anything else, each will carry innumerable meanings which can be teased out and interpreted to your audiences.

It is useful to look at objects in different ways; an object will mean something different to each person, depending upon their experiences or associations. Most objects will have alternative meanings which can be teased out, and it’s important to identify which would be most effective, and/or have the strongest human impact.

Thinking twice

When you are at the interpretive planning stage, it can be a useful exercise to consider how your objects or themes could be interpreted if it wasn’t you who was guiding the interpretation. This will allow you to consider a wide interpretive route, which can be helpful to think about before you begin planning. 

Objects are interesting because of the human associations that they embody. Look at an object or a group of objects:

  • What is it that interests you?
  • Are your friends and colleagues interested in the same things you are?
  • Can the object(s) be understood in a different way?

This will help to broaden the horizons of your interpretation; your interpretation will be vibrant and appealing to disparate and diverse audiences, as well as your repeat visitors.   

When an object is more than just an object

There are numerous meanings made from objects and places. If you consider objects closely, and from many different viewpoints, you might find that objects can provoke many different meanings in the person experiencing them.

These meanings will have been defined by, amongst other things: their recent experiences (both personal and public), the time of year they are exhibited, and in what context the objects are displayed (for example in either a formal gallery space, or as part of a domestic reconstruction). For the same reason, any one object could be used to illustrate a wide variety of interpretations, drive narrative, or provoke a feeling; be it contentment, horror, surprise, satisfaction, and so on, in the person experiencing these objects.

Consider, for example, a museum which is aiming to display an entirely typical example of the humble clothes iron. This iron, as a museum object, could be used to illustrate numerous interpretive ideas: the history of its particular manufacturer, or the history of the town where that manufacturer is based, for example. Similarly, it could be used as an object in exhibitions about: domestic life, the history of laundries, or the history of unsound perceptions of women. It could be used in an exhibition about the intangible cultural heritage surrounding ‘wash day’; rhymes, songs, or social customs, for example. In short, when applied at an appropriate point, an object can be used in many exhibitions, encourage numerous different meanings, and be used as a powerful symbol of the interpretive point in which it is employed. 

Re-thinking how you display

Think about the experience of your visitors. For interpretive planning, this means looking at what you know about your audience: their experiences, values, understanding and levels of interest; and applying these to your interpretation. Think about the impression the visitor will get from visiting your museum and decide if this is the desired impression. 

Would your interpretation be enhanced by any of the following?

  • Reconstructions- reconstructed scenes from a particular point in time can be useful if you are exhibiting a specific event, or if you are concentrating on a commemoration, for example. 
  • Natural settings- sometimes an object is more easily understood or more emotive when viewed in its natural setting amongst other objects. An empty chair could evoke emotion when viewed within a recreated cottage interior, for example, or historic shop stock could promote inter-generational sharing when viewed within a re-constructed shop setting.
  • Digital impressions- can you create or utilise a digital platform to bring the past alive? For example, could visitors see a reconstruction of an event on their smartphones? Could they hear realistic dialogue from a specific point in time?

These are just a few ways of exploring human stories from museum collections, historic places, or specific points in time. You don’t need collections to tell stories, and you don’t need to rely solely on text to create meaning in collections. Interpreting the intangible in museums is most effective when you consider the human impact, or emotions, it evokes in those who take part in it, and convey this human impact to your visitors. 

Learn more

See this resource on ‘Everyday Objects’ from the Open University. The whole course resources for An Introduction to Material Culture are available online and are worth taking a look at.  

National Army Museum – New Zealand: The Many Meanings of Museum Objects.

Contact our Collections and Engagement Manager to discuss any of this further.

Thanks to Michael Hamish Glen, Principal of Touchstone Heritage Management Consultants for proofreading these pages.