Vesting Objects and Experiences With Symbolic Meaning Summary of a Special Session (With Discussant's Remarks)


Robert F. Kelly (1993) ,"Vesting Objects and Experiences With Symbolic Meaning Summary of a Special Session (With Discussant's Remarks)", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 232-234.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 232-234


Robert F. Kelly, University of British Columbia


This special session was housed in the theatre-gallery of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.




Grant McCracken, Royal Ontario Museum

This paper considered the contemporary museum first as a "meaning maker" and then as "meaning taker." Meaning making occurs when the museum changes the cultural significance of its objects and publics. Meaning taking occurs because the museum is endowed with meanings by its publics. Publics are divided into "old wealth," "new wealth," and "the politically correct." Old wealth demonstrates the justice of its social standing; new wealth is "laundered;" and the politically correct seek to impose "a reappropriation model" so that each ethnic group may tell its own story rather than accept that offered by the museum.




Robert M. Schindler, Rutgers University-Camden

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

This paper reviewed an ongoing program of research exploring the idea that there is a component of nostalgia behind a wide array of human preferences. The method developed for this research could be called the "dated-stimulus technique." Using this technique to study a product category involves collecting a set of such dated, briefly popular stimuli that span the past sixty or more years and asking respondents of widely varying ages to rate the appeal of each stimulus in the set. A peaking of this function at an early stimulus-specific age constitutes evidence for an enduring effect of early experience on preferences. Early-experience effects have been found, thus far, in popular music, clothing and hairstyle fashions, movies, and movie stars. In the latter two studies they have evidence of "nostalgia proneness."




Annamma Joy, Concordia University

Using an ethnographic approach this paper examines the process of negotiations through which social meaning is vested in art objects and artifacts. This process has been highly political with the artist and the public having less power than museums, the government, or other cultural institutions. Recently, however, this balance of power has shifted. The power the museum has to represent other societies and cultures has come under much scrutiny since the questions that are asked have to do with whose interests are being served. Any claim to cultural authenticity is suspect. Museum practices are to be continuously evaluated and perpetual deconstruction seems to be the most viable principle in guiding the activities of the museum. Deconstruction, however, does not merely refer to the collection of more artifacts but involves an active dialogue with the communities that they serve.




Robert F. Kelly, University of British Columbia


My very first inquiry involving symbolic consumption occurred here in the Museum of Anthropology well over a decade ago... what I observed exemplifies the power symbolism may exercise over the members of any society and serves as an illustration of the means by which, in any social system, objects, experiences, and settings take on meanings which may have little or nothing to do with the purposes for which they were originally created.

Asked by Director Michael Ames and Ethnology Curator Marjorie Halpin (our hosts today) to examine the nature of their visitor populations and discover motives and reactions to a visit, I began by sitting in the foyer watching parties of visitors descend from their tour buses into the museum. I charted where they went, for how long, and what their apparent reactions were based on their behaviours. Subsequently, I did pre- and post- visit interviews and observed visitor behaviours in the various spaces that comprise this museum. What I observed amazed me then and continues to amaze me today despite having observed the same phenomena in the Met and MOMA in New York, the Royal Academy and the British Museum, The Louvre, MusFe D'Orsay, The Rijksmuseum, and the National Museum of Thailand. Specifically: A significant minority of museum visitors, averaging around thirty per cent, never enter the galleries one would assume they came to visit despite travelling some distance (often from out-of-country), despite being in the museum in question for the first time, and, last but not least, despite having paid a substantial sum to be brought on a tour of this museum. To further compound the mystery, many of those interviewed did not ordinarily visit museums in their home cities.

Seeking a logical explanation for the behaviour just described introduced me to the literature of a number of related disciplines and, eventually, to the realization that I was not the first to observe this visit-the-museum-but-not-the-collection behaviour. While "wading in the shallows of other disciplines," as Doyle Weiss once characterized it, I discovered a number of possible explanations for non-collection-based visiting. All such explanations centre around the importance of having been to a museum rather than from having seen some item in its collection (although that too can have symbolic value). Because of time/space limitations, I am going to confine my remarks today to those who seem interested in "collecting" museums but not necessarily in viewing museum collections.

Museum visiting as pilgrimage

One possible explanation for museum collecting comes from the literature on pilgrimage. Pilgrimage provides an illuminating analog to the type of museum visiting described in the preceding section; "having been" may constitute a transformation, a rite of passage, the attainment of new, elevated status to the individual museum visitor. To carry this analogy even further, there are liminal effects (i.e., one modifies ones behaviour once over the threshhold and into the sacred precincts), one tends to observe dress and behavioural codes consistent with the setting, there are areas of sacred visitation where the holiest of the icons are on display (e.g., the Mona Lisa at the Louvre), and sacred relics may be purchased and taken back to ones own community to signal that one has become the museum visitor equivalent of Haji.

Museum visiting as a function of peer group influence

The importance of having been to a museum may be the result of a specific statement of expectation by ones peers (i.e., "significant others") in ones home community: "You're going to Paris? You must go to the MusFe D'Orsay," or the Louvre, or the Rodin, or whatever. What previously constituted a discretionary leisure alternative has been transformed by ones significant others into a visit of obligation. One might have gone before, now one must go. What one does once there is of relatively little symbolic importance, but having been is.

The museum visit as status congruent behaviour

Alternatively, visiting world-renowned museums may have a more general symbolic importance, signalling ones sophistication, taste, and/or social milieu. Pierre Bourdieu argues that this constitutes a public declaration of taste and serves to establish social distance between one and the insignificant others in a society (Bourdieu 1984). Museums are accused by many as being elitist and, notwithstanding the efforts of many in the museum profession, they are elitist based on the demographics of museum visitors. In part, this can be attributed to the educational requirements museum exhibits place on their visitors but, also, society itself has defined museum visiting as a symbol of relatively high status. General status associations apply to a range of museum visiting experiences. Even eating and drinking in museums can have symbolic overtones. The Tate Gallery in London, MOMA in New York, and either the Louvre or the MusFe D'Orsay in Paris all attract large numbers of restaurant patrons who do not visit the museum galleries. No doubt some dine in a museum restaurant simply because they prefer the food over that available nearby; but that is hard to argue in a city like Paris where one passes renowned restaurants in approaching either of the museums named. And, finally, organizations that pay $30000 or more for the privilege of holding a cocktail party in one of the Met galleries is doing more than just hiring a hall, they are making a statement about the importance of their company and the taste and sophistication of their executive group as well.

Whether responding to peer pressure or seeking status congruent discretionary leisure activities, one need not visit a museum collection, need not accomplish any of the tasks set for one by curators and exhibit designers, but one may wish to collect something from the shop that provides unambiguous evidence of having been because, inevitably, one or more sight-marker associations will be placed in the publics mind where objects (i.e, reproductions of the markers) symbolize a visit (MacCannell (1976).

Finally, one need never go again to a museum once having been status is attained. The incremental symbolic benefits are minimal. Once a state of having been is attained, it is never lost. The more widely known the museum in question, the more likely it will serve as a destination for those whose museum visit is of symbolic as well as (or in lieu of) informational significance.

Museums defined as meaningful leisure alternatives

Not only do museums confer meaning on individual visitors, some individuals have the power to vest museums with meaning while themselves receiving symbolic benefits. The UBC Museum of Anthropology, for example, has been visited by many heads of state and a host of other celebrities. Several monarchs, including The Queen, have been here; so too have Jimmy Carter, Francois Mitterand, Deng Jao Peng, the leaders of all the Commonwealth Countries, and, of course, all Canadian Prime Ministers since the museum opened. Reason suggests that all, with the possible exception of woodcarver Jimmy Carter, were here for reasons beyond a simple personal wish to view the collection. I doubt that the Queen (or any other public figure) really wants another museum visit on top of the thousands she has already made. Public figures come here because MOA is a destination of obligation for all worthies who visit Vancouver; because they must be seen to be engaged in meaningful activities while here; the museum qualifies. These public figures convey special status or meaning to the institution in question as well as having their own images enhanced by the museum. The presence of public figures in a museum is made even more special by the media attention such visits attract. If the Queen thinks a museum is worth visiting, then there must be something special there for others as well.

Museum - object interactions

Just as the relationship between visitors and museums can work both ways, so too can the relationship between museums and objects. Few great world museums are perceived independent of at least some item in their collection. The Ryksmuseum is known in part because it contains the Night Watch; and The Louvre because of the Mona Lisa, for example. Everyone who knows this museum is conscious of the "Raven and the First Men" sculpture by Bill Reid that you passed on the way into this session. The object gives meaning to the museum.

The object-museum relationship can work against as well as for the museum, of course. Once one has seen the Mona Lisa, it is not really necessary to bother with the rest of the collection. This reinforces the pilgrimage analogy I discussed earlier. In pilgrimage, there is usually one object/place that, once experienced, completes a transformation; in many museums visitors behave as though their mission were complete after viewing one object (McCannell 1976). With traveling exhibits this may be engineered through promotion. When the Tut exhibit travelled through North America a few years ago, the Tutankhamen death mask was employed in all publicity as representative of the whole exhibit. For many visitors, that led to focussing almost exclusively on the death mask both in viewing and in obtaining evidence of having seen the exhibit (Wall and Knapper 1981).

How do objects get into museum collections?

The fundamental distinction between a piece of junk and an artifact is that one has been chosen and housed within the confines of a museum and the other has been discarded. Curators employ selection models acquired through formal education and passed from generation to generation. The museum itself is designated by society as the place to house both our curators and our heritage.

Considering art museums for a moment, the very fact that a painting has appeared in an art museum lends symbolic weight (and, consequently, market advantage) not only to that painting but to all other work done by the artist who created it. Until one has work in a museum, one is viewed as suspect both as an artist and as an investment.

Museums provide appropriate settings for heritage objects

Museum exhibits are installed in settings that facilitate an appropriate interpretation of the objects it contains. I'm certain most of you will agree that the UBC Museum of Anthropology provides a behavioural space that is in keeping with the objects it contains. That does not happen by accident. To illustrate how a setting conveys (or fails to convey) meaning consider a recent exhibition in Switzerland of "precious Christian objects" in a gallery made to look like the greasy interior of a small town car repair shop. That exhibition violated (intentionally) the elements of exhibit design to make a point about the static quality of museum interpretation. Its designer, Jacques Hainard, was at the centre of a great storm of controversy at a recent meeting of the International Council of Museums because he violated the curatorial code. (Kelly 1987a).

A trickle-down effect in museums

Since curators (or their equivalent) serve as society's arbiters and interpreters of taste and/or ethnological significance, the objects they select are seen as being "authentic," or the real thing. This authenticating process is so powerful that we immediately accept as art any object exhibited in an art museum. Even if deep down it seems like "junk," we are likely to concede that the deficiency is in ourselves rather than in the object in question. Interviewing visitors to a contemporary art museum makes that phenomenon (and the frustration and/or anger that it fosters) dramatically apparent.

We even attribute authenticity to objects sold in museum shops. We presume shop items are an extension of the museum collection or, at the very least, are "authentic museum-quality items," whatever that may mean. This sense of authenticity is strong enough to support the shops of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in Rockerfeller Centre, even though neither museum is housed there. The Met has an internationally-distributed catalog and several non-New York shop locations, including five shops in Japan. If we go back to our earlier discussion about acquiring evidence of having been to a given museum, such shops, catalogues and the like enable one to collect evidence of having been without ever having to go. The value that tendency represents to the Met is $100 million gross this past year - and questions concerning its tax-free status.

There is a limit to the credibility of those seeking authenticity, however. Anthropologists talk about "staged authenticity" and warn that one instance of phoney or staged authenticity can lead to permanent rejection by consumers of a given institution. One famous instance of this occured when cultural tourists on a government/museum-sponsored tour discovered they were witnessing the third burial of the same corpse that day. The burial ritual which had attracted more and more tourists was robbed of its perceived authenticity and the government/museum was relieved of its powers to declare an experience as authentic.

A brief comment about those who love being in museums

What about those who visit museums because they love being there; who return over and over to a museum and its collection? Is there symbolism in their visiting behaviour as well? I believe so. Those for whom the objects in a museum are intellectually and/or esthetically accessible bring with them the information necessary to benefit from whatever interpretation has been given by curators/designers to the objects in an exhibition. They share with museum personnel the "curatorial code" (Bourdieu 1984; Kelly 1987b). Possession of The Code signals taste and sophistication. In Veblen's terminology, they are engaging in conspicuous display or conspicuous consumption. That is, they are demonstrating "... an instrumentally-useless style of consumption requiring many years to learn" (Veblen 1899) Whether one accepts Veblen's explanation or the "parody display" explanation John Brooks provides in Showing off in America, museum visiting constitutes an important symbolic statement of ones sophistication and/or level of educational attainment (Brroks 1981).

Some concluding remarks

Today, in keeping with our setting, my comments have been directed towards museum visitors and museum visiting. Most of those comments could as easily have been directed towards opera going or symphony patronage or ballet subscriptions. After years spent researching the consumption of cultural objects and cultural experiences it has become evident that, for many, the symbolic values associated with a cultural experience exceed the instrumental values it can provide. If anything, symbolic attributes enhance rather than detract from a cultural experience. For the majority of cultural consumers, the instrumental and/or educational values likely outweigh symbolic elements. But, in all cultural experiences, high or low, symbolism is a major motivating factor.


Bourdieu, Pierre (Translated by R. Nice), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press, 1984.

Brooks, John, Showing Off in America: From Conspicuous Consumption to Parody Display, Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Kelly, Robert F., "Culture as Commodity: The Marketing of Cultural Objects and Cultural Experiences," in M. Wallendorf and P. Anderson (Eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIV, 1987a.

Kelly, Robert F., "Museums as Status Symbols II: Attaining a State of Having Been," in Belk, R. (Ed.), Advances in Nonprofit Marketing, Vol. 2, pages 1-38, JAI Press, Inc., 1987b.

MacCannell, Dean, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Working Class, Schockon Books, New York, 1976.

Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class, (New Library Edition, 1963), 1899.

Wall, G. and C. Knapper, Tutankhamen in Toronto, Department of Geography Publication No. 17, University of Waterloo, 1981.



Robert F. Kelly, University of British Columbia


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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