Meaning Construction in a Cultural Gallery: a Sociosemiotic Study of Consumption Experiences in a Museum

ABSTRACT - The recent cross-fertilization of different semiotic traditions has resulted in a sociosemiotics that combines sophisticated textual analysis with a pragmatic, socially-situated approach to meaning and message reception, and this new form of sociosemiotics has proven a useful tool for investigating a wide variety of marketplace behavior. This paper presents a study of visitor experiences in a cultural gallery of the Indianapolis Children's Museum. The study made use of this methodology and perspective, along with Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's concept of optimal experience and George Herbert Mead's notion of the collapsed act of the artefact. It is argued that the meanings the gallery has for visitors are the product of a complex interaction between the pragmatic strategies visitors (and their partners) bring to the experience and the meanings implied by the ways the displays themselves are structured.


Jean Umiker-Sebeok (1992) ,"Meaning Construction in a Cultural Gallery: a Sociosemiotic Study of Consumption Experiences in a Museum", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 46-55.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 46-55


Jean Umiker-Sebeok, Indiana University-Bloomington


The recent cross-fertilization of different semiotic traditions has resulted in a sociosemiotics that combines sophisticated textual analysis with a pragmatic, socially-situated approach to meaning and message reception, and this new form of sociosemiotics has proven a useful tool for investigating a wide variety of marketplace behavior. This paper presents a study of visitor experiences in a cultural gallery of the Indianapolis Children's Museum. The study made use of this methodology and perspective, along with Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's concept of optimal experience and George Herbert Mead's notion of the collapsed act of the artefact. It is argued that the meanings the gallery has for visitors are the product of a complex interaction between the pragmatic strategies visitors (and their partners) bring to the experience and the meanings implied by the ways the displays themselves are structured.


At the same time that a growing number of voices are demanding that increased attention be paid to the full range of human experiences in museums, and to the social and political contexts of those experiences (e.g., Annis 1986; Carr 1990; Graburn 1977; Karp and Lavine 1991; Kelly 1987; MacDonald and Alsford 1989; VTron and Levasseur 1989; Zunzunegui 1990), evaluative research done in museums, even when using naturalistic observation methods (e.g., Wolf 1980; Wolf and Tymitz 1979a, 1979b) continues to be dominated by a positivistic paradigm in which the transfer of educational content from curator to individual visitor is assigned a preeminent position (see, e.g., the review in Screven 1984). Based on an implicit Durkheimian split between the cognitive, seen as problem-solving, rational, and individual, on the one hand, and the emotive, seen as irrational and social, on the other, evaluation tends to take on the task of solving the curatorial problem of how to teach visitors for whom a visit to a museum is first and foremost a social experience, pursued as a leisure activity and with the primary goal of entertainment and self-enhancement. Screven outlines this situation as follows:

There is nothing wrong with free exploration and social interaction in exhibitions. There are very important natural elements of human behavior in museum environments and probably are among their major attractions. But if exhibitions are to serve educational purposes, these features must be harnessed. The challenge is to link communication objectives with these intrinsic exploratory, social and recreational interests. (1986, p. 113) [emphasis added]

In this perspective, human behavior that an android such as Data on "Startrek" would have trouble understanding is lumped together and, to pursue Screven's metaphor, seen as the "baser" part of human nature that must be "harnessed" or "put to good use" in the interest of cultivating the "higher" human behavior of learning "substantive content" or "information-processing."

This model is not only hierarchical in terms of visitor "motivations" or drives, but also in terms of the social relationship between the curator, a content expert with specialized knowledge stored in his or her head, and the visitor, a fun-seeking novice whose head needs to be filled with new ideas, if only one can distract him long enough to "get through" the annoying filter of socializing, dreaming, status seeking, emoting, and the like; (cf. Karp and Lavine 1991; MacDonald and Alsford 1989). It is no wonder that, with this the model implicit in the majority of evaluative studies, "the interaction between viewer motivation, exhibit content, the museum environment, and visual design are complex and poorly understood by both psychologists and exhibit planners...[and] better information must be obtained about how viewers respond to and learn from the design and content of displays" (Screven 1986, p.118-19). As Miles and others have noted, most museum visitors are "casual" ones, who spend only a few seconds at each display and are "concerned with the consummatory rather than the educational use of knowledge, i.e., they are using it for pleasure and for passing the time in a largely passive way." (Miles 1987, p. 121). Before museums can accomplish their acknowledged educational goals, they "must above all begin to pay attention to their visitors' concerns, interests, expectations and so on, and make an effort to speak to them in a familiar language." (Miles 1987, p. 121)

This reorientation requires a radically different model of human behavior and society than the information-processing and information-transferring one. Carr (1990), drawing upon Polanyi's concept of "indwelling" and Jerome Bruner's narrative psychology, uses the metaphor of the museum as an

evocative text, a private mnemonic environment that summons a range of memories, thoughts, and meanings-images like those we find surviving in diaries and letters, in accumulated snapshots of enduring experiences, in fragments and allusions. The user carries permanent, evolving texts and an array of private captivities: visions, dreams, encounters without language. In the presence of objects we go beyond objects to recognize our continuous histories. Out of these continuities we articulate silent hypotheses, and as we gain new information, we alter them. Each new encounter in the museum means the revision of one life: new understandings, even drastic or unexpected reorganizations expand the bursting backpack we carry. The museum is a place for the dreamer to see private dreams in public places, deep memories framed anew. The content of the museum has to do with choices and desires, with things that please the senses, satisfy values, and explore human fears. In museums we are living examples of Jerome Bruner's idea that 'perceiving takes place in a tuned organism' (Bruner 1973, p.92). The museum evokes those strands of experience and memory that human beings use to attune themselves, to remember themselves, to remember themselves as actors framed by the continuities in their lives. (1990, p. 368-69)

Learning in a museum must be re-creation "to create anew, to restore, refresh" (Quinn and Bedworth 1987; cf. Zunzunegui 1990), addressing on an equal footing the intellectual, sacred, and social needs of visitors (cf. Graburn 1977; Kelly 1987; MacDonald and Alsford 1989) rather than catering primarily to cognitive needs. Evaluation must involve investigative techniques that can provide what Clifford Geertz calls a "thick description" of visitor experiences in museum settings.


Semiotics, like other human sciences, has been caught up in just such a shift from a positivist to interpretivist approach to human behavior. Culture is now viewed not as a stock of information transmitted passively from generation to generation, but as sets of strategies for transacting or negotiating meanings and thereby resolving dilemmas. Renouncing the Durkheimian split noted above, what is sought is the elaboration of a "theory of active social actors, located in time and space, reflexively and recursively acting upon the world in which they live and which they fashion at the same time" (Lave 1988, p. 8). Culture and cognition are seen as two aspects of the same phenomenon. Cognitive processes are culturally constituted phenomena.

Ythe central concept of a human psychology is meaning and the processes and transactions involved in the construction of meanings.YThis conviction is based upon two connected arguments. The first is that to understand man you must understand how his experiences and his acts are shaped by his intentional states, and the second is that the form of these intentional states is realized only through participation in the symbolic systems of the culture. Indeed, the very shape of our lives-the rough and perpetually changing draft of our autobiography that we carry in our minds-is understandable to ourselves and to others only by virtue of those cultural systems of interpretation. But culture is also constitutive of mind. By virtue of this actualization in culture, meaning achieves a form that is public and communal rather than private and autistic. (Bruner 1990, p. 33)

One of the byproducts of this shift in semiotics is the growing emphasis on meaning as a socially-situated process determined not by the code which enables a sign to stand for an object so much as the relationship of the sign to other signs which also represent that object, that is to the sign's interpretant signs. This Peircean view of semiosis "allows for a much more hermeneutic concept of interpretation, where meaning develops out of a continuing translation of the sign" (Liszka forthcoming, p. 18). As a pragmatic theory of semiosis, the intentions and problem-solving goals of sign users also become an indispensable part of the semiosis.

This view of semiosis as dialogic and interpretive implies a dynamic concept of communication, contrary to that of Ferdinand de Saussure, which, "based on Locke's theory of telementation,Ywas simply the transference of thoughts from one human mind to another by a process of decoding and encoding." (Liszka forthcoming, p. 18). Although Saussure saw semiotics as a part of the social sciences, he conceived of culture as a pool of knowledge and thus, in effect, did away with any serious attention to the socially situated nature of signs and communication. Over the last dozen years, there has been such a vital cross-fertilization of ideas between the Saussurean, code- and language-centered semiology and the pragmatic, interpretive, Peircean-inspired semiotics that it would be difficult to find any semiotician today who did not believe in the necessity of developing an interpretive, pragmatic sociosemiotics. This has been especially fruitful for the study of marketplace behavior and communication, resulting in a flowering of hybrid studies combining sophisticated narrative and rhetorical analyses not just of texts (in the broad sense this term has in semiotics) but of consumer responses to them. Pragmatic semiotic studies have ranged over a wide spectrum of consumer contexts-including subways, banks, museums, libraries, gift shops, swap meets, and hyperstores- and message forms-including print ads, TV commercials and programs, clothing catalogs, packaging, a wide range of consumer products, magazines, and newspapers, to name a few (see, e.g., Bachand and Cossette 1988; Defrance 1983, 1986, 1987, 1988, forthcoming; Floch 1988, 1990; Fouquier 1984, 1986, 1988, forthcoming; Fouquier and VTron 1985, 1986; PTninou 1972, 1983, 1988; Semprini 1990a, 1990b, forthcoming; VTron 1983, 1985, 1989; VTron and Levasseur 1989).


The model of message reception chosen for the current study of museum visitors takes reception to be a form of social action and self-expression, rather than passive re-action. Summarizing this model for marketing scholars, Fouquier writes:

Reception hinges on a series of partial synthetic moments, namely figures. These objects, which thus become the fundamental subject matter of analysis, are composite units, arranged in chain-fashion, partially or wholly combining three links, namely an operation, a motif and a resonance. These links need to be seen as experiential qualities of various kinds (subjectively felt experiences, cognitive contents, emotions, etc.), partly generated by the structure of the work, and partly by the receiver. Figures may differ in 'length', they may be more or less complete (some have only one link, others display all of them). These links are interlinked into a dynamic: a particular aspect of the work may stimulate a specific reading operation, which in turn triggers a given resonance, depending on some internalized disposition, and in the process the text is compared or contrasted with another particular text, which in turn gives rise to a judgement based on some internalized norm whose subsequent effect is to direct the attention - and hence the motifs one perceives - to this or that aspect of the text, and so on....subjects clearly hierarchize the different components of the figures that they experiencey[and] the link that is stressed [is called] the theme of the figure. (1988, p. 341-42).

Operations may be behavioral, perceptual, or cognitive. Motifs are plastic (the physical, perceptual space of reception), worldly (the fabricated, sometime fictitious space of the message), or pivotal (a space where the receiver observes the worldly space from his or her own particular vantage point and takes a position vis-a-vis the message). Resonances include emotions, evocations or associations, cognitions, and incitements. The system of internalized skills, or habitus, against which reception of a particular message takes place includes: "a repertoire of forms, themes, knowledge, a background culture with the aid of which receivers classify, nurture, compare and complete what they ready"; centers of interest; postures or attitudes toward certain kinds of messages; and "the individual's horizons of expectation, personal 'canons,' or system of preferences, tastes, expectations with regard to forms, styles, languages, stories, rhythmsY" (Fouquier 1988, p. 338). Reception, in this conception, is a "process of confrontationYa ceaseless process of comparison" between the message and t[he] the habitus (Fouquier 1988, p. 338).


One of the first goals of the study of visitor experiences in the Passport to the World gallery of the Indianapolis Children's Museum was to identify major variations in this confrontational process of interpreting gallery exhibits. This would include a description of visitors' expectations concerning optimal experiences, an important schema for structuring the gallery visit. The reception of the gallery's "messages" takes place within the lived narrative of the visit itself, which can be looked upon as a form of social drama in which visitors seek out, as best they can given the particular circumstances of their visit, what Csikszentmihalyi calls "optimal experiences":

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy-or attention-is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, p. 6)

In a crowded museum gallery, the achievement of optimal experience requires a willing plunge into the concentrated drama of personal (or, it should be emphasized, interpersonal ) struggle within the context of a particular display, no easy task given the many sources of distraction or obstacles to an unimpeded approach to and interaction with an exhibit. Like any form of dramatic action, attention must be focused on the logic of the drama itself, with other interpretive schema, such as that of the ritualistic "doing" the museum and gallery, which the vast majority of museum visitors bring to their visits (Falk 1981), temporarily shifted into the background (which does not mean that they do not help to shape the optimal experience). (In fact, for want of additional pages, this paper is arbitrarily abstracting a visit to the Passport to the World gallery from the other events in which it is embedded, such as the visit to the rest of the museum, other activities planned for a Saturday afternoon, etc., all of which contribute to the meanings created for that gallery. See Umiker-Sebeok 1991a for a full discussion of this process of the intermeshing of narrative schema.) Optimal experience is a form of dramatic narrative, obeys the laws of narrative logic, and therefore different expectations about it may be described through application of narrative analysis. Since visitors organize their experiences in terms of stories, narrative analysis is an important part of this, or any, sociosemiotic study. The form of analysis used in this study, as a part of the description of message reception patterns, is described most succinctly in CourtTs 1991. On the importance of narrative to the study of human behavior and for research interview analysis, see, e.g., Bruner 1990; Mishler 1986; Sarbin 1986.


A final layer of framing involved in visitor reception of the gallery is the temporal sequencing of the visitor's interaction with displays. Objects are assigned a privileged place in a sociosemiotic model of consumer interpretation since they are not defined, following McCracken's suggestion, as a mere "diacritic of culture" but powerful rhetorical devices due to their concreteness, use as synecdoches, economic value, ambiguity, and ability to persuade below a conscious level (McCracken 1988). Meaning and identity are created as much through what George Herbert Mead (1934) called the "collapsed act of the artefact" as through interaction with generalized others:

As we interpret self from the perspective of the other, so we also take the perspective of the object. As we interpret the group from the position of the generalized other, so too we define our acts from the perspective of objects generalized (one might say contextualized) into a setting. As generalized, the setting becomes a constellation of acts collapsed into symbols which, like the generalized other, inform our actions and give them their particular character. (Richardson 1989, p. 174).

The three stages of Mead's collapsed act of the artefact provides a simplified model of the sequence of steps through which a consumer interacts with exhibits and transforms them into significant symbols. In the first, perceptual, stage, the visitor must perceive an invitation to engage with some possible world. In this future-oriented phase, what Peirce (1931-66) called "firstness" is dominant, with the object's iconicity signalling various possibilities for interpretation and action.

Assuming that the consumer accepts the invitation to engage the world represented by the object, the second, manipulatory stage is marked by the interaction of the consumer with the object, during which he or she experiences its "otherness." Here, in this emergence in the present, "secondness" reigns, as the consumer explores the indexical aspects of the exhibit, its links to "reality" and existence.

As a result of his or her preceding acts of interpretation, in the third, consummatory stage the consumer translates the exhibit into a symbol, or conventional sign. In this, past-oriented phase, "thirdness" (habit, law, or rule) predominates. The symbols that emerge in this third phase are the stuff of the visitor's habitus, and inform future acts of interpretation.


In the study of the Passport to the World gallery of the Indianapolis Children's Museum, 41 visitors were randomly chosen from among visitors approaching the gallery. Ranging in age from 5 to 75, 21 subjects were male, 20 female. They were asked to visit the gallery in any manner that they felt was natural for them and their partner(s). They were then tracked through the gallery, with an observer noting on a floorplan where they went, paused, and stopped, as well as what they did and said. When visitors indicated that they had completed their visit to the gallery, they accompanied the observer to a nearby room where they were interviewed. The first part of the interview consisted of survey questions eliciting demographic and lifestyle information about them and their families as well as queries concerning their overall visit to the museum. Subjects were then asked to "draw a map" of the gallery on a plain, 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper. Following this, the observer initiated an open-ended interview, based on the model presented in McCracken 1988, which was structured around the visitors' narrative account of their trip through the gallery.

A first, sociosemiotic analysis was made of the maps and interviews. This included a structural-generative analysis, described in detail in CourtTs 1991 and Floch 1988, 1990, for verbal texts, and in Semprini forthcoming, for the maps. A pragmatic discourse examination of these texts according to a model described in Fouquier 1988 was also made. For a more complete description of the methods used, see Umiker-Sebeok 1991. On the basis of these analyses, visitors were classified into four major groups, representing four primary reception themes or strategies, as described below.

With this classification in hand, each of the 54 permanent gallery exhibits was analyzed according to which types of visitors were attracted to it and which were not, and whether or not it provided different types of visitors with something approaching an optimal experience (as judged by their descriptions in interviews). Using the same sociosemiotic methods used for the analysis of interview narratives, a cross section of exhibits of varying degrees of attractiveness and success in providing optimal experiences was analyzed in detail in order to provide an explanation of visitor interpretations and experiences in terms of the three stages of the collapsed act. In other words, how successful were exhibits in attracting one or more groups through the three stages of interaction, and why?


The 54 permanent exhibits showed a wide range of levels of attraction and engagement, from those at which none of the visitors in the study stopped to one where 73% stopped. Less than half (24) of the permanent gallery exhibits attracted 50% or more of one or more types of visitor (as described below). Of these, twelve attracted 50% or more of only one of the four groups, five 50% or more of two groups, two 50% or more of three groups, and five 50% or more of all four groups. In all, only 10 exhibits attracted 50% or more of all visitors. Thus, most of the gallery permanent exhibits appear to have lacked the semiotic structures required to engage visitors, especially two groups (utopian and pragmatic), which constituted 61% of the visitors. Only 10 of the 54 permanent exhibits in the gallery attracted 50% or more of all the subjects, and only five provided an experience that might be called one approaching "optimal". 50% or more of the critical group-the smallest of the four groups-found fully 20 exhibits attractive, and the next largest, utopian group, was attracted to 11. The largest, diversionary group was attracted to only 7 exhibits, the next largest, practical group to only 9.

As Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has reported, people can create optimal experiences through a wide variety of activities, and individuals are not limited to one source of such experiences. The same was true in the gallery under study, where visitors reported peak experiences in interaction with a number of diverse exhibits. On the other hand, from examination of the habitus visitors brought to bear on their gallery experiences (described fully in Umiker-Sebeok 1991), it was found that individual visitors tended to employ fairly consistently one of four basic strategies of reception - called pragmatic, critical, utopian, and diversionary -, each of which structures the gallery visit in a different manner. It is assumed that, given the socially-situated nature of all interpretation, a given individual might change his or her strategy in different contexts, depending on a number of variables such as the social relationship he has with his or her companion(s), his or her personality, mood, amount of time already spent in the museum, types of preceding and anticipated experiences in the museum, and so on (see Umiker-Sebeok 1991 for a discussion of these factors).

Figure 1 presents a schematic representation of these four reception strategies are described briefly below.


29% of visitors, ranging in age from 7 to 75 (average age = 21), were classified as relying predominantly on the pragmatic reception strategy. The group was evenly divided between males and females. The average time spent in the gallery was 28 minutes, with visits varying from 6 and to 70 minutes.

For the pragmatic strategy, the primary figure of reception is utility, and optimal experience is defined as the efficient accumulation of a store of either new information which can be applied outside the museum setting, or new applications for existing facts. Utilitarian values are a key part of this strategy, with the gallery as a type of (work)shop for the acquisition of discrete skills or ideas.

For this group, the first, perceptual stage of interaction with an exhibit must be marked by the perception of the potential for the optimal experience, defined, again, as the acquisition of a useful idea or skill. Not only this "content" must be present, but it must be communicated in a way that is efficient and promises a timely manipulative stage, for this group of visitors will not "invest" time in interacting with an exhibit unless they can judge, during the perceptual stage, that there will be a concrete "payback" for spending time at the display. The musical displays in the gallery, for example, attracted this group by promising experience in learning to play a tune or communicate through music, an underwater scene through providing information about solutions to polution, or a storytelling performance by furnishing examples of the skill of storytelling.

During the second, manipulatory stage, this group favors a rational verbal and visual presentation of easily-identified "information" or training in a practical skill, with emphasis on concrete problem-solving applications. The experience at this stage should be challenging, but with easy-to-reach and easy-to-operate exhibit elements. This group likes to engage in practice aimed at achieving a defined goal, or manipulations which result in the concrete application of information to problem-solving.

If the first two stages have been successful, the pragmatic visitor will come away with the satisfaction of knowing that he has acquired a new piece of useful information, a new skill with which to solve the problems presented by the world. The experience of the exhibit will have become, within their narrative schema of the trip to the museum and gallery, a generalized symbol of a rational, utilitarian approach to life, with the visitor playing the hero of the drama and the museum the role of helper-instructor.

While space limitations make it impossible to describe in detail the interactions between the features of exhibits and their reading by different groups (for this, see Umiker-Sebeok 1991), we may briefly summarize some of the dominant elements of this type of reception framework (see Fouquier 1984):

The preferred image of the message sender (called the constructed message sender) (i.e., the positions the sender attributes to himself and including the relationship between the sender and what is said) is that of a experienced (but not necessarily professional) instructor.

The preferred image of the message receiver (called the constructed receiver) is that of problem-solving learner or apprentice. The preferred figure of enunciation (specifying the relation(s) (e.g., pedagogical, ludic, persuasive) within the message between the constructed sender and the constructed receiver) is pedagogical. The preferred figure of the world as represented in the message (i.e., the constructed world) is that of a reality to be controlled through the application of appropriate methods. The preferred figure of modalization (representing the type of relationship existing between the constructed sender and the reality about which he/she speaks) is that of a person who has mastered control of a part of the world. The preferred figure of implication (characterizing the relations that the constructed receiver is supposed to establish with the reality being shown in the message) is that of mastery of means-ends relationships with the world. The preferred figures of expression (translating the relationship that the sender maintains with his own message as a formal product (e.g., as the implied author, paid presenter of a message authored by someone else, etc.) is that of implied author or a professional communicator talking about someone else's mastery. The preferred figure of perception (constructing the relations between the constructed receiver and the message as an ensemble of signs, e.g., active vs. passive message reception) is that of passive receiver of information but in the interest of actively using the information outside the museum context. The preferred figures of representation (including the different "manners" or "forms" the message adopts in order to present reality (e.g., direct vs. indirect, as narrative or analytical discourse) are direct, factual descriptions and demonstrations with possibility for repetition by the visitor.




17% of visitors, ranging in age from 10 to 49 (average age = 28 years), were classified as relying predominantly on the critical reception strategy. This was the only group where males constituted a significantly greater percentage (71%) than females. The average time spent in the gallery was 40 minutes, with visits ranging from 10 to 74 minutes.

The critical visitor favors the acquisition of ideas, which are valued for their form or place in an abstract order, whether or not this proves "useful" in any concrete way. The visit is evaluated in terms of non-existential values as well, as a principle of organization or abstraction rather than as a tool. For this form-, collection- and classification-oriented group, visits tend be long and thorough in comparison with those employing other strategies. The metaphor of the gallery as a museum might evoke the interpretations of those employing this strategy. The optimal experience for this group is the production of new models of the world, either in terms of form or content.

During the first stage of interaction with an exhibit, the critical visitor is less concerned about the efficiency of the interaction than that it will involve an intellectual or aesthetic challenge. While the practical visitor might judge the musical displays on the basis of its being identified as a tool of communication or for the opportunity to learn to play a tune, the critical visitor was more likely to be attracted by the promise of identifying the geographical source of the music, the comparison of different aesthetic styles of the music, or for appreciation of the collections of musical instruments (with collections seen as objectival forms of classification). This first stage need not promise an efficient, economical approach to the optimal experience, but it must promise the challenge of ordering information in ways this group finds attractive.

During the second stage of interaction, the task of identifying a "proper" order is more important than the amount of time it takes to do so, within the constraints of the optimal experience as involving "reasonable" tasks, and so visits by this group on average lasted much longer than those of other groups. Critical visitors often spoke as if from the vantage point of a curator rather than that of a visitor, as they tried to relate particular exhibits to the general themes of the gallery in order to divine the overall schema of knowledge they assume the staff intended to communicate. Their manipulations of the exhibits tend to be thorough, doing most of the things that the exhibit suggests they do, including reading long written messages (a rare occurrence outside this group).

If the first two stages have been successful, the critical visitor will come away from an exhibit with a sense of satisfaction in having mastered a subset of knowledge, another chapter of a textbook, and the exhibit has become a generalized symbol of that knowledge as well as the visitor's skill in conquering its subtleties. The ideal visitor in curators' minds, the challenge for this group is to assimilate the order imposed by the curator, rather than finding a person meaning.

The preferred image of the message sender is that of a professional lecturer. The preferred image of the message receiver (constructed receiver) is that of expert. The preferred figure of enunciation is pedagogical. The preferred figure of the constructed world is that of a reality to be understood or modelled. The preferred figure of modalization is that of someone who organizes and focalizes information about the world. The preferred figure of implication is that of evaluation. The preferred figure of expression is that of professional communicator. The preferred figure of perception is that of active organizer of information. The preferred figures of representation are the direct statement of rules or collections that exhibit logical system of classification.


22% of visitors, ranging in age from 8 to 40 (average age = 22 years), were classified as relying predominantly on the utopian reception strategy. This was the only group where females constituted a significantly greater percentage (67%) than males. The average time spent in the gallery was 24 minutes, with visits ranging from 7 to 42 minutes.

The utopian strategy defines the visit in terms of its expression of existential values, with the optimal experience involving an imaginative self-exploration, preferably as a joint achievement with significant others, either companions or friendly gallery workers. While those employing this strategy of interpretation as the gallery visit becomes an act of self-expression, including a kind of group expression in which the visitor and his or her companion are intent on an expression of their social relationship. The metaphor of the gallery as a hall of mirrors is appropriate for this group, and the experience of the gallery itself becomes one of the values sought in the utopian narrative schema.

During the first stage of interaction with the exhibit, the utopian visitor requires a promise of a reality and challenge that can be approached through conjoint effort with his or her companion(s) in the gallery and/or one that offers self exploration through interaction and imagining "the other". Musical exhibits were attractive to the utopian visitor, for example, if they promised a shared listening or communal dancing experience, the possibility of recalling significant, music-related events in the visitor's life, or the exploration of ethnic identity. An underwater scene opened up the possibility of imagining a new and different "world" and thus adding to their stock of experiences with which they may shape their identity through identification of their personal reactions to it.

The manipulative stage for the utopian visitor must provide indices of the visitor's self, and the challenge becomes one of achieving the recall of memories or the creation of self-reflective "other worlds" through acts of imagination. Manipulations of exhibits by this group are quite varied, in keeping with the conception of the gallery visit as a form of self-expression rather than an assimilation of the messages intended by curators. This group, more than any other, engages in the joint manipulation of exhibits.

If the first two stages have been successful, the exhibit has become a generalized symbol of the social identity of the visitor, who plays the hero in a story about extending the bounds of the imagination and self-awareness, the visitor's companions and volunteer workers in the gallery being cast in the role of helpers-communicators.

The preferred image of the message sender is that of an empathic facilitator, professional or non-professional. The preferred image of the constructed receiver is that of sensitive companion. The preferred figure of enunciation is inspirational. The preferred figure of the constructed world is that of possible worlds to be experienced. The preferred figure of modalization is that of someone who explores possible worlds. The preferred figure of implication is that of increased awareness and appreciation. The preferred figure of expression is that of personal communicator. The preferred figure of perception is that of active beneficiary. The preferred figure of representation is that of direct, dramatic discourse.


32% of visitors, ranging in age from 5 to 51 (average age = 17 years), were classified as relying predominantly on the diversionary reception strategy. The group was evenly divided between males and females. The average time spent in the gallery was 28 minutes, with visits ranging from 13 to 72 minutes.

The diversionary strategy stresses the non-utilitarian values of the gallery as an amusement park. With sheer enjoyment as the kind of optimal experience sought, the visit is judged according to cycles of individual stimulation. This is the strategy most antithetical to that of most curators, but, at least in this study, characterizes the largest group of visitors.

Diversionary visitors are attracted to the promise of new physical or emotional stimulation. Musical exhibits were alluring to the diversionary visitor, for example, if they offered a chance to move rhythmically, sing, or dance rather than as a means of accumulating new ideas about the world or learning something new about himself. It is not necessary for these experiences to be shared with others. An underwater scene was interesting for its promise of a chance to crawl around under a dock and for the thrill of being in a dark, slightly threatening place.

The diversionary visitor is the least likely to practice the kind of exhibit manipulations desired by museum staff. While the critical visitor seems to be most interested in rules and laws that can be developed from the concrete experiences of the manipulative stage, and the pragmatic visitor is drawn to the practical "objects" or tools he or she can take home as a result of the gallery visit, the diversionary visitor, like the utopian visitor, is interested in the experiences of the gallery for their own sake rather than as paths to the acquisition of something lasting. Unlike the utopian visitor, however, who is constantly re-creating him- or herself through these experiences, the diversionary visitor seems to take fun as simply a sign of itself. The challenge of this stage is to engage in physical experiences of one sort or another, and the forms of manipulation are more or less limited to such experiences. This stage tends to be shortest for this group, since the manipulation will continue only while the "fun" lasts.

This means that for this group the third stage is marked by the creation of the exhibit as a generalized symbol of action. Dancing is a sign of participation in dancing, drumming a sign of drumming, and so on. The visitor has become the hero in a story where success is marked by "getting to do or feel" something enjoyable despite whatever obstacles might have been put in his or her path. The fun is an end in itself, the thing of value to be achieved by the narrative contract.

The preferred image of the message sender is that of an entertainer. The preferred image of the message receiver is that of someone who is the beneficiary of the message (i.e., the experience). The preferred figure of enunciation is that of entertainment. The preferred figure of the constructed world is that of disconnected clusters of activities and spectacles. The preferred figure of modalization is that of professional entertainer. The preferred figure of implication is that of entertainment. The preferred figure of expression is that of professional organizer. The preferred figure of perception is that of active participant in activities and spectacles. The preferred figure of representation is that of nonverbal enactments of activities and scenes (i.e., "spectacles").


As curators are well aware, and this study demonstrates for the one gallery in question, there are a myriad of ways in which a display can fail to engage a visitor. In Umiker-Sebeok 1991, sociosemiotic analysis of a number of both successful and unsuccessful exhibits documents a variety of common errors. These flaws can usually be traced to a failure to take into account the habitus of different visitors, especially their needs concerning achievement of optimal experience. This failure can be total, affecting all of the figures mentioned above as well as many others which space did not permit us to mention. More commonly, only a portion of the message elements are a problem. Sometimes it is a question of adequately expressing the habitus of one or more groups during the first stage of the collapsed act of the artefact but violating it in the second stage.

Visitors act upon the museum, dynamically building meaningful "spaces" in which to move and maneuver to their own advantage. Exhibitors must understand these spaces in all of their complexity if they are to do more than merely try to force their own (typically pragmatic or critical) predilections on reluctant visitors, usually with unwanted results. Different reception strategies stem from as well as construct different perspectives on the world. It is not enough to clarify what these perspectives are, for curators wish also to know how to engage the visitor who approaches with one strategy and invite him or her to adopt another. A clever invitation to adopt an alternative role must start from where the visitor starts, and can only "propose," never impose a new perspective. This is the primary challenge for museum staff, aided by a more highly developed sociosemiotic habitus.


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Jean Umiker-Sebeok, Indiana University-Bloomington


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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