What Do You Call the People Who Come to Your Museum? And those who don’t?

P1020056A few weeks ago, at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT we were talking with theater professionals about ways to change the interpretation of Stowe’s 19th century house into something more dynamic, more interactive, more dialogue-based.  One of the participants, Julia Rosenblatt, of Hartbeat Ensemble, suggested we think about visitors as spect-actors,  a concept from the Theater of the Oppressed, which was developed by Brazilian Augusto Boal, drawing on the work of Paulo Freire, whose work on the pedagogy of the oppressed was familiar to me, but the term spect-actor was not.   According to Boal,  spect-actors are both participants AND observers.   Just what we’re hoping for in the Stowe House project.

The conversation made me think about how unintentionally charged our terms are.  Visitor?  That means it’s not your place, it’s ours.  Audience?  We want you to be passive.  Guest?  Still our place.  And the people who don’t come to the museum?  Perhaps community or non-visitors, or ?  And online?  Why do we call them users, when we don’t called those who visit in person users?

I asked colleagues for the Russian and German equivalents for the terms I find in most common use.  Here’s what I learned.

  • Visitor – Besucher – посетитель
  • Spectator – Zuschauer – зритель
  • Guest – Gast – гость
  • Audience – Publikum – аудитория
  • User – Benutzer – Пользователь

Would you use these words?  What words in your language would you use?  And do they serve as ways of maintaining the museums’ power in society, over those less educated, privileged or familiar with museums?  If that’s the case, how will we change it?

9 comments on “What Do You Call the People Who Come to Your Museum? And those who don’t?
  1. What strikes me most is the fact that these are terms in everyday use which we actually never reflect upon, at least I haven´t heard of a study or contribution on this topic before. So thanks, Linda, for drawing our attention to this “detail”, which in fact tells a lot about our self-understanding and inherent possessiveness.

    I agree with Paul that it would be great to ask people how they actually name themselves when going to and being in museums.
    I think I would like to see myself as a “user”, sometimes as a “contributor” and at other times a “pleasure-lover” (“Genießer”), depending on the museum, my mood and the reasons for my visit; and maybe sometimes all at once! While this would make it difficult in naming the groups that come to our museums, having this in mind could change a lot in the ways we think and approach all that come.

  2. I was referring to the passage in Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in which he warns the “Edukator” against anticipating the appropriate response from her audience. That would include the assumption that the audience feels itself to be “less educated, privileged or familiar with museums” than the (presumably) better educated, privileged educator.


  3. We use “participant” at the Santa Cruz Museum of ARt & History. We separate participants, who engage in museum experiences, from collaborators, with whom we create them. We do our work for and with our community. Those who don’t visit are still valued members of our community–and we invite them to participate.

    • Thanks Nina–it’s been really interesting to think about how things we take for granted can be deeply revealing about what we, as institutions think. I like the participant/collaborator/community member framework!

  4. Могу прокомментировать цитатой из “Словаря актуальных музейных терминов”, над которым мы работали с моими коллегами. Понятию “музейная аудитория” было уделено особое внимание и тщательная работа:

    “АУДИТОРИЯ МУЗЕЙНАЯ, общность людей, на которых направлено воздействие музея. Характеризуется в соответствии с присущими ей социально-демографическими параметрами (пол, возраст, образование, место жительства). А.м. делится на реальную и потенциальную, постоянную и нестабильную, традиционную и новую (люди с ограниченными возможностями, мигранты, безработные, молодежь, индифферентная к музею). Детальная сегментация А.м., учет особенностей различных категорий посетителей, ориентация на ее расширение являются источниками качественных показателей культурно-образовательной деятельности музея.”

    “MUSEUM AUDIENCE, collectivity, on which museum’s influence is exerted. It is characterized in accordance with social and demographic parameters (sex, age, education, residence). The public is divided into real and potential, permanent and unstable, traditional and new (the latter refers to the disabled, migrants, unemployed, youth, indifferent to the museum). Detailed audience segmentation, records of the particularities of various categories of visitors, orientation to expand the audience are the sources of the qualitative characteristics of cultural and educational museum activity. Museum audience is the object of study of museum sociology and museum psychology.”

    Пока так. Но терминология развивается вместе с жизнью…

  5. Pingback: Museums, Politics and Power | The BestBlog Blogstoeckchen

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