Museum literacy : a sociomaterial study of families, literacies and museum objects

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This research explores a new museum space which connects literacy, museum objects and families. I argue that this space presents opportunity for transformative encounters for visitors when literacy can encompass affect and is amplified through literacy mediators and the resources different generations visiting together bring to each museum visit. The study uncovers ways that cultural institutions can recognise the potential for literacy within their collections when they look beyond the achievement of the meanings they would like acquired to an appreciation of literacy practices by family groups. Museums through their collections are strongholds of the material and semiotic realm yet the relationship between literacy, objects and visitors remains largely unexamined, limiting literacy to visitor comprehension of museum content generally conveyed in print. I introduce theoretical tools, including concepts of materiality, spatiality, affect and mediation to help understand key dimensions in the literacy interactions between families and museum objects. Adults with dependent children are a large visitor group to museums. Their representation in museum studies has had little impact on mainstream exhibition programming beyond exhibitions for children. Non-mainstream visitors from less well-resourced demographics can be streamed into the museum via worthy and justifiable access programs, but to date these visitors have had few opportunities to influence the accessibility of the museum's core offering. In this study nine families were recruited from community agencies that assist marginalised or vulnerable groups to visit the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Museum of Old and New. Through positioning the literacies of these families as a benefit, rather than liability, and literacy as socially and materially assembled, the study expands the number of actors within the museum research assemblage. A mosaic of methods was used to identify literacy practices, including observation, guided discussion, photography, onsite recorded conversations, and participation in programs such as drawing, writing and other documentary or creative activities that did not privilege age, ability or background. Literacy became a set of theories, methods, products and actors within a material semiotic framing. Experimental writing of tiny fictional vignettes by the researcher gives life to things in the research and opens up different patterns of thinking. These writings are study motifs, being emblematic of the theoretical approach taken. Collections of objects are the essence of a museum and pivotal to its public face. Each object is a significant currency of its institution, yet the economy between families, objects and other previously unrecognised actors is little understood. By specifically interrogating the intersection between families and objects, this study argues that museums can develop new partnerships and practice directions. Overall, the findings of this research extend the opportunity for museums to reshape their interpretative relationships and see their collections and visitors in new ways.
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