Towards an empathic understanding of history in the museum

Brown Bag 16th February 2011

Performance as a Learning Medium in the Museum – and the ‘Empathy Paradox’

Tony Jackson

Today we welcomed back Tony Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Educational Theatre at the University of Manchester. Given the current emphasis on learning in the museum, Prof. Jackson was keen to discuss the findings of his most recent research project, entitled ‘Performance, Learning and Heritage’, which investigated the increasingly widespread and varied use of performance in the museum as both a learning medium and interpretive tool.

Prof. Jackson began by suggesting that ‘museum theatre’ is too narrow a term to describe what is happening in museums now, and that we need to think in broader terms of ‘performance’, which includes theatre, but also performative acts such as storytelling and guiding. Prof. Jackson’s team were particularly interested in the visitor response to the more overtly theatrical aspects of performance in the museum space such as costumed interpretation, and conducted ‘longitudinal’ research which assessed the impact of different types of performance on independent adult visitors and families, as well as organized educational groups, both at the time and ten months later. The research focussed on the different types of performance style employed by three museums and one heritage site in the UK: the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, The Manchester Museum and Llancaiach Fawr Manor, a restored seventeenth-century manor house in South Wales.

Performance in the museum, Prof. Jackson argues, is a particularly difficult tool to master. Its detractors have claimed that it represents a diversion from the ‘real’ purpose of museums, as well as a ‘dumbing down’ and worse still, a caricature of history. Yet done well, Prof. Jackson contends, it can serve to enrich our experiences in the museum, and his research found that the memories of it can stay with us long after much else has been forgotten. Far from trivializing history, it can also serve to draw attention to the complexities and lacunae of any attempt to interpret the past. Done badly, however, it can be, quite simply, embarrassing. While performance in the museum remains a matter of contention, Prof. Jackson suggests that we are witnessing an increasing confidence on the part of museums in deploying it, while simultaneously, an increasing number of questions are being asked about its validity as a learning medium.

There are certain elements which Prof. Jackson’s team found were key to a successful performance. First of all, it was important for the hosting institution to establish trust by introducing the purpose of the event and its ground rules out of character, thereby creating a ‘contract’ between the performers and the audience. Secondly, interactivity and participation on the part of the audience were found to be vital parts of the performance. In ‘The Gunner’s Tale’, visitors to the National Maritime Museum encountered an actor playing the part of an ‘ordinary’ sailor at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, who talked to them about his experiences and passed around a ship’s biscuit. One adult visitor’s remark to the research team was that while they did not learn any new information, they had experienced a moment of immediacy and tangibility with the past which they found very satisfying. Interactivity helps establish a direct link between visitors and persons whose ‘otherness’ and marginalization as lesser-known historic figures would otherwise preclude such a close reading of the past, helping visitors to recall facts, sites and artefacts, and often establishing an empathic bond between visitors and the ‘character’. Visitors who had seen the performance first remarked that it had helped them look at the objects in the museum in a more focussed way.

Prof. Jackson is particularly interested in the dynamics of performance, which can often create significant challenges for the host museum. He cites the recent example of the performance of ‘This Accursed Thing’, a ‘promenade’ play held at Manchester Museum in 2008 in which museum visitors met six costumed actors playing characters involved in the slave trade in various parts of the building. One of the characters was a slave trader from 1807 who directly challenged visitors to tell him why slavery was wrong. He was able to defend ‘his’ position with well-researched answers; something audiences found extremely frustrating, and more than a little uncomfortable. The situation was complicated still further by the fact that many of the museum objects on display in the performance environment were paid for by wealthy individuals who had profited from the traffic of slaves.

Prof. Jackson argued that stinging audiences into an emotional response meant that many visitors formed a deeper, longer-lasting interest in the subject. Yet stirring up emotions has its consequences, in extreme cases proving traumatic for the individuals involved, and the research project found that a ‘debriefing’ session, usually in the form of a museum-led focus group, in which visitors could talk through the issues that had emerged was crucial in managing the performance. Nevertheless, in the case of difficult histories with a continuing resonance in the present, Prof. Jackson warns that not only can it be difficult to close the emotional floodgates once opened, but that the museum can also run the risk of creating a ‘monocular’ reading of events seen through the eyes of a single character.

Prof. Jackson cites the work of the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956), who suggested that theatres should get away from ‘easy’ emotional engagement through a central character such as Hamlet or Oedipus, and move towards crafting a more ‘epic’ portrayal of the world which encapsulates the larger political, economic and social developments which impinge upon the central characters. Also a source of inspiration for Prof. Jackson is philosopher and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895 – 1975) notion of heteroglossia in the Russian novel, in which a variety of different types of speech, or voices, co-exist within a single work of literature, from the speech of the narrator and characters, to the speech of the author, each of them representing a completely different world view from the protagonist’s and even the author’s. Nevertheless, Prof. Jackson argues, it is still possible to glean a sense of another perspective from a monologue, and the delivery of interpretation through theatrical performance is an effective way of getting visitors to engage with dialogues and debates so as to put flesh on the bare bones of historical facts.

There followed a brief but engaged discussion during which Pat Schettino considered whether the research might be extended to include performance in digital immersive environments, giving the example of the Immigration Museum, Melbourne. Prof. Jackson seemed very interested in this idea, as this was not something that had been looked at in depth during the research project. Dr. Giasemi Vavoula remarked on the surprising importance of the focus group in providing a ‘scaffolding’ for managing performances and their aftermath, and Prof. Jackson noted that in some cases, the memory of the focus group outweighed the memory of the original performance. Ceri Jones asked if the research found any tension in visitors’ minds as to whether they were being ‘entertained’ or ‘educated’ by performance, but Prof. Jackson suggested that it simply depended on the individual and their own notions of what ‘learning’ is, although in the case of children they tended to talk about their enjoyment of the event, even if they had also been learning!

Creating that personal, immersive, empathic moment between museum audiences and the past and breaking down the temporal barriers so that they are encouraged to feel, as well as think, helps forge a direct connection to historical persons and events, and responsibly used is, I would argue, one of the most powerful tools at the museum’s disposal. While we may employ more than one mode of display or interpretive paradigm in today’s museums, we have also, to some extent, inherited an Enlightenment tendency to privilege ‘rational’ didactic displays which presuppose a Cartesian split between body and mind, whereby reason, and not imagination or the senses, is considered to be the most reliable route to knowledge and visitor engagement. Paradoxically, therefore, evoking life on board an early nineteenth-century ship for a twenty-first audience requires a more flexible approach. From burlesque at the British Library to the Hogarthian staging of one man’s philosophy of history at Dennis Severs’ House (coming soon to a Brown Bag near you), performance in the museum is here to stay.

Our thanks go to Prof. Jackson for taking the time to speak to us today, and for those of you who would like to learn more, Prof. Jackson’s and Jenny Kidd’s edited book Performing Heritage: Research, Practice and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation, published by Manchester University Press, is available now.


Stephanie said…
P.S. The recording of this session is not up on Blackboard just yet, but you'll have it very soon, I promise!
Jenny said…
This sounds like it was a great Brown Bag. Thanks for the write up!

I'm interested in Bakhtin myself, and many of his literary ideas can very well be applied to the study of museums, and their operational practices. Once forgotten, he seems to be re-emerging as a scholarly resource.

I look forward to having the audio soon!
Stephanie said…
Thanks Jenny. It was a really interesting seminar, and touched on some of the more controversial aspects of display I encountered while researching my MA dissertation. I'd be interested to know more about Bakhtin too!

The audio is now available on Blackboard.

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