Annotated Bibliography: The Rhetoric of Museum Signage

Below is an annotated bibliography of 15 scholarly journal articles. Each annotation is only 65 words on average and is both descriptive and evaluative of the source. Each annotation focuses on the topic of the rhetoric of museum signage, which includes labels on artifacts, interactive displays, maps, and architecture.

Original topic idea

My original goal was to research the educational aspects of the rhetoric of museum signage and displays. Museums have the difficult task of presenting contextually narrow historical information for a diverse user group and must do so in a way that conveys the correct information while being culturally diverse enough to communicate this information to everyone who views it. I am curious to see how well/accurate the information is conveyed while maintaining a common level of understanding for a general audience.

Summary of the research on museum signage

The research on the rhetorical uses of museum signage and displays has remained surprisingly consistent throughout the century. There are of course differing views on certain aspects such as the museum as educational institution versus the museum as a place for personal enrichment. However, most of the research presented consistent findings on how museum displays can aid learning to the diverse audiences that visit them. Even if the audience doesn’t recognize that learning is taking place, and even if the intended meaning is misinterpreted, most researchers agree that there is an opportunity to achieve the desired result (intended meaning learned by all the visitors) even if a universal way of designing displays is not known.

One interesting sub-topic was the child/parent group identified in several studies. The research on the rhetoric of museums often uses this dyad as an example of the diverse learning perspectives that museums have to accommodate.

I am surprised how well my original topic idea held up after annotating all of the articles that I included. The only modifications I would make would be to clarify some terms. For instance, I would include “technical and scientific” along with “contextually narrow historical information” and would insert “intended” to clarify “the correct information”. Besides these edits, the annotations that I included would provide a nice summative overview of this topic if they were arranged in topical order (instead of Chicago’s alphabetical order).

Annotated bibliography: Rhetoric of museum signage

Allen, Sue. “Designs for learning: Studying science museum exhibits that do more than entertain.” Science Education 88, no. 1 (July 2004): S17-S33.

This personal opinion article inquires how a single exhibit can support the diversity of learners who visit a science museum. The author’s postulation is similar to other articles in this bibliography; i.e., the best way to communicate information to visitors is by provoking interest and curiosity as well as challenging and questioning them. However, the more diverse the audience, the more choices that need to be provided to allow for varied personal interpretations.

Bannon, Liam, Steve Benford, John Bowers, and Christian Heath. “Hybrid design creates innovative museum experiences.” Commun. ACM 48, no. 3 (March 2005): 62–65.

This short review of two interactive museum projects explained that many museums still use simple text panels (labels) to provide information to visitors and this doesn’t allow the visitors to engage with the artifacts. These displays don’t encourage the engagement, discovery, or collaboration that other studies show is essential for a museum’s diverse audience, which includes groups and families.

Bitgood, Stephen. “The Anatomy of An Exhibit.” Visitor Behavior 7, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 4-15.

This article analyzes prior research and has similar findings as the Kyungyoun (2008) article. It states that visitors often misunderstand exhibits when display text isn’t provided. The use of language in the text, including how it’s presented (such as its physical structure) and its meaning, is essential for visitors’ learning. Additionally, this research validated that text presented rhetorically as questions aids learning.

Bitgood, Stephen.“The Role of Attention in Designing Effective Interpretive labels.” Journal of Interpretation Research 5, no. 2 (2003): 31-45.

The importance of texts to aid learning is supported by this research article’s analysis. Bitgood is often cited as an authority in this field and his analyses are substantiated by others’ empirical research. He states that labels complement objects rhetorically not only by focusing their interpretive message on the objects themselves but also to the object’s intended meaning. Labels achieve this by the select use of the myriad rhetorical devices for conveying meaning (explicit or otherwise) such as using language that challenges a visitor’s conceptions.

Carliner, Saul. “Modeling Information for Three-dimensional Space: Lessons Learned from Museum Exhibit Design.” Technical Communication 48, no. 1 (February 2001): 66-81.

This article uses a qualitative and observational research method to analyze different learning methodologies and the impact that rhetorical and purposeful design choices have on formal learning in museum exhibits. Carliner supports the notion that other factors contribute to the rhetorical effect museum displays have on learning and says that exhibits must account for the public’s diverse interpretations when designing labels.

Endersby, Jim. “The evolving museum.” Public Understanding of Science 6, no. 2 (April 1, 1997): 185 -206.

This author qualitatively studied an exhibit before and after changes were made to it in order to gauge the rhetorical impact of design decisions and how these are interpreted by diverse audiences. Endersby claims that since audiences can misinterpret an intended message, many alternate methods of communication should be offered and presented in colloquial language. This design approach contrasts with other methods of label design and suggests that diverse audiences need diverse tools for learning.

Fragomeni, Dana. “The Evolution of Exhibit Labels.” Faculty of Information Quarterly 2, no. 1 (March 2010): 1-11.

Fragomeni combines an analysis of prior research with a quantitative case study of two similar museum exhibits. She claims that traditional museum labeling rhetoric excludes most visitors by using authoritative language that doesn’t foster engagement and individual interpretation. Further, she reports that the intent of labels needs to become more casual and open to varied interpretations by the average museum visitor.

Kitalong, Karla Saari, Jane E. Moody, Rebecca Helminen Middlebrook, and Gary Saldana Ancheta. “Beyond the Screen: Narrative Mapping as a Tool for Evaluating a Mixed-Reality Science Museum Exhibit.” Technical Communication Quarterly 18 (March 27, 2009): 142-165.

“Beyond the Screen” is the result of a formative study of a “mixed-reality” museum exhibit. This non-traditional exhibit experimented with non-traditional labeling and its effect on informal learning. The authors demonstrated that “context” is important and that text-based displays function the same as other signage in that they both seek to reinforce learning but just use different methods depending on the context.

Kyungyoun, Kim. “Museum Signage as Distributed Mediation to Encourage Family Learning”, December 10, 2008.

This article is a graduate dissertation reviewed by four professors and provides comprehensive quantitative research on the use of signs as meaning-making tools in museum exhibits. The study focused on the different learning needs of a specific yet diverse dyad–a parent and his or her child. Traditional signage focuses on the parent as the sign reader and the language reflects that particular audience.

Macdonald, S. “Interconnecting: museum visiting and exhibition design.” CoDesign 3 (March 2007): 149-162.

Macdonald’s research reviews other empirical studies and notes the “familiar” strategies of asking questions and providing different levels of communication that both aid in fostering dialogue as well as audience interaction. He also recognizes that visitors’ conceptions of exhibits are sometimes contrary to posted text (labels/signs) and the curator’s intent. This isn’t a reflection of the signage but rather the power of the exhibit as a whole to create strong conceptual ideas regardless of authoritative signage.

McMahon, Michal. “The Romance of Technological Progress: A Critical Review of the National Air and Space Museum.” Technology and Culture 22, no. 2 (April 1, 1981): 281-296.

This critical review of traditional museum exhibits supports the idea that museums’ rhetorical messages are didactic in order to provide context, social and interpretative, for the civic learning of a mass public audience. These traditional museums can serve 50,000 visitors a day and aim to have “mass cultural appeals.” They reflect a national audience rather than the child/parent dyad, school class or other generalized user group as in other articles.

Robertson, Toni, Tim Mansfield, and Lian Loke. “Designing an immersive environment for public use.” In Proceedings of the ninth conference on Participatory design: Expanding boundaries in design – Volume 1, 31–40. PDC  ’06. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2006.

This article discusses the findings of original quantitative research (not presented here). It shows how the rhetorical effects of interactive displays function similar to other traditional rhetorical decisions (e.g., text labels) and aid learning by collaboration and social interaction. The authors discovered that the designs for audiences (based on personas and user studies) varied by museum setting and how the audience expected they were supposed to behave.

Schauble, Leona, Gaea Leinhardt, and Laura Martin. “A Framework for Organizing a Cumulative Research Agenda in Informal Learning Contexts.” The Journal of Museum Education 22, no. 2/3 (January 1, 1997): 3-8.

The authors of this essay discuss the learning challenges of museum audiences and comment that audiences learn concepts by both the social interactions created by the displays and the museum’s rhetorical uses of “tools” (signs, maps, etc.). They support the theory that a museum’s rhetorical message is interpreted differently depending on the audience knowledge, social context and environment.

Simon, R. “Seeing More in Cabinets and Blockbusters: A Rhetorical Study of Museum Exhibits.” Young Scholars in Writing 5 (2008): 87-97.

Visitors determine what messages are learned from a museum exhibit regardless of the intended meaning and motives of the designers. This student’s research study analyzed museum exhibits and hypothesized that “rhetoric” is a construct of each exhibit as much as a physical label or artifact is. Visitors must interpret all messages whether intended or not. This paper comments that a diverse audience consists of both “the public” and scholars and that rhetorical uses of displays are important to help educate the public.

Swartz, Mallary I., and Kevin Crowley. “Parent Beliefs about Teaching and Learning in a Children’s Museum.” Visitor Studies Today VII, no. II (Summer 2004): 1-16.

This summative research study asserts that there isn’t an ideal family to use as a target audience when designing museum exhibit signage. However, this article supports the idea that directing rhetorical messaging to parents is the best method to aid both the parent and child’s learning. This article is a great summation of the other two articles cited above that discussed this topic–McMahon (1981) and Kyungyoun (2008).


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Filed under Article Reviews, Rhetoric, Technical Writing

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