Interpretation at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

In 1993 The Minneapolis Institute of Arts formed a joint committee made up of educators and curators to produce this document, which formed the foundation for planning and interpretation during a reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection.

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The Minneapolis Institute of Arts houses over 80,000 objects from diverse cultural traditions spanning 4,000 years of world history. In preparation for a museum-wide reinstallation of the permanent collection, the Interdivisional Committee on Interpretation was formed, made up of representatives from the Curatorial and Educational divisions. The committee worked for over a year to produce this document, which serves the foundation for planning and interpretation within the museum.
The museum’s interpretive program grows directly from an understanding of our visitors’ needs and is intended to promote viewers’ engagement with works of art. This approach emphasizes creating opportunities for discovery and critical thinking rather than simply imparting facts. We are committed to the view that learning is a process, both for ourselves and for visitors to the museum. All forms of interpretation should provoke, stimulate, inform, and delight our visitors.

Pluralism of Audiences

The museum’s interpretive strategies must be varied to serve our diverse audiences. Because individual learning styles differ, multiple approaches to interpretation and a choice of interpretive media are necessary. Certain media may be suited to a particular level of experience or knowledge. The museum must address the needs of both first-time and repeat visitors and also meet the special requirements of visitors with disabilities.

Elements of Visitors’ Experiences

Visitors say they want information. According to educational research, they also want to establish a connection between the work of art and their own lives. Every visitor brings a unique combination of knowledge and experience to each encounter with art objects. Many visitors’ initial responses are subjective. In order to derive meaning from works of art, however, people have to know something about them. Our interpretive strategies must acknowledge initial responses and then enable visitors to move beyond those reactions to discover multiple levels of meaning.
Although seldom considered as elements of a museum’s educational program, the order of galleries and the arrangement of objects are fundamental to interpretation. The sequence and definition of gallery spaces influence our audience’s broad conceptual frameworks. Clear signage establishing chronological and geographical contexts is vital to overall understanding. Some visitors, however, have no framework of information (style, history, technique) in which to place works of art. They are likely to browse through the museum, seldom paying close attention to individual works of art. For such visitors, a thematic interpretive structure is especially useful because it helps focus their attention — the crucial first step in aesthetic experience.
Most museum-goers learn more from contextual or thematic arrangements of art within a chronological or taxonomic groupings. One of our prime objectives is to create installations that give visitors opportunities to compare and categorize works of art and construct frameworks for understanding.
Finally, while ease and comfort are not components of interpretation per se, well-designed signage and plentiful gallery seating will reduce barriers to viewers’ enjoyment and comprehension of works of art.

Attitudes Underlying Interpretation

We assume that every visitor is an intelligent and curious person capable of learning about art. The museum’s interpretive materials should address all audiences without condescending to any. The key question for all of us should be, How can we help visitors develop their understanding of art?
A critical means of support is the tone of our interpretive materials. We understand that tone is created by the writer’s conscious and unconscious attitudes. Respect for the intelligence of the public provides the tone appropriate to museum texts.

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