Exhibition Spaces of Action and Encounter: Scenographic Exhibition Design for the Presentation of Migration Narratives in Museums

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This practice-based research enquires into scenographic exhibition design for the presentation of migration narratives in museums. It specifically investigates how performance-based strategies can provide exhibition experiences that invite critical engagement with migration narratives' complexity and politicised nature. The research centres on scenographic exhibition practice, which is examined and reconsidered through an expanded, scenographic, theoretical framework. The research proposes that the generation and communication of narratives in museum exhibitions shares characteristics with the way performances generate and present narrative experiences, and that this offers opportunities to develop new exhibition design strategies. Migration is regarded as a contentious and complex topic for museums, and previous research has highlighted problems with the construction and prevalence of narratives representing political and socio-cultural dominant groups within a multicultural context. Exhibitions often produce all-encompassing, harmonised narratives and conceal difference and the reality of conflict, adversity, and dissent. In response, best practice in museums today is characterised by an awareness and understanding of their role in society, and the power they hold in representing communities, and in determining exhibition content and their narratives. In particular, reflexive museums are concerned with providing transparency about the exhibition-making process, and increasingly seek ways of communicating why and how exhibition content is developed and selected. To achieve this, processes to co-author exhibition content and narratives and ways of representing these have become a significant part of reflexive museum practice. The research develops a theoretical framework that combines concepts of museological and performance- based interpretation to expand on and deepen the performance foundation of current scenographic exhibition practice. The emphasis on performance frames the museum visitor as a co-author and performer in the construction and presentation of the narratives. The research also utilises Mieke Bal’s notion of a migratory aesthetics (Bal, 2007, 2015), and Chantal Mouffe’s proposition that museums should function as agonistic pluralist spaces (Mouffe, 2005, Pozzi, 2013), to further articulate narrative interpretation experiences for the negotiation of difference and critical contemplation. These ideas are tested through practice-based research involving two professional, creative projects undertaken at a museum institution in regional Australia. The research proposes that the resulting exhibitions are spaces of action in which museum visitors have a role to perform in the construction of the co-authored narratives. They are also spaces where the differences between ‘us’ and ‘others’ are encountered and not minimised, and where dominant and alternative narratives can co-exist.
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