The Museum – a Medium?

Debatt, Masteroppgave, Teori

I went to London this week to visit the Natural History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Before and after that visit I have been writing on a chapter of my thesis where I discuss if the museum and the exhibition are media. The reason why I need that chapter is because many who writes about the museum, call it a medium, and I desagree with that. My opinion is that the exhibition is a medium, while the museum is an institution. The exhibition is one of many media the museum can use to communicate with its visitors. Others are for example webpages, cataloges, books. But, the museum is of course also a building. And some museums buildings are more important for the experience of the exhibition than others. The Natural History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are two examples of that. When walking through these museums, the experience of the architecture is almost as important as the paintings or the fossils. When using the term medium as broad as I do in my thesis, architecture is also a medium, like a sculpture or a painting. In that way it is correct to call the museum a medium. But I don’t think those who calls the museum a medium only refer to the building. Here is one example from Roger Silverstone:

«Museums are in many respects like other contemporary media. They entertain and inform; they tell stories and construct arguments; they aim to please and to educate; they define, consciously or unconsciously, effectively or inneffectively, an agenda; they translate the otherwise unfamiliar and inaccessible. And in the construction of their texts, their displays, their technologies, they offer an ideologically inflected account of the world.»(Silverstone 1994, 162).

As I understand this quote he is describing the museum as an institution. Ross Parry, as another example, do focus more on the physical aspects of the museum. «Museums, after all, are a medium – in their most common state a unique, three-dimensional, multi-sensory, social medium which knowledge is given spatial form. However, they are also themselves full of media.»(Parry 2007, 11). This description could fit with the museum building, but Parry do not give any explanation of how he understands the exhibition in relation to this description of the museum.

I would argue that if we want to discuss the museum / the exhibition as a medium it is really important to differ clearly between the museum as institution, the museum building, the exhibition, and the media used in the exhibition. Some weeks ago I introduced the three media categories qualified, basic, and technological media. We can try to apply those on the concepts we are dealing with here. The museum institution, we can skip, it is not a medium. The museum building consists of the basic medium three-dimensional form, the technical medium stone/bricks/wood (building material), and is the qualified medium museum building, or maybe architecture. The exhibition is a qualified medium consisting of many different technical media, and many different basic media, and maybe also different sorts of qualified media. I don’t think I would call the exhibition a technical medium. Because an exhibition is nothing without the content. A TV exists without the content, as do a computer, a radio, the paper of the newspaper. You need several technical media to make an exhibition, but none of those are an exhibition on its own. In that way the exhibition is similar to the opera, the theatre play and the concert. They are all qualified media, a form we can communicate through, build up by a variety of technical media. But then, what makes an exhibition a medium if it is not a technical medium? What makes something a qualified medium? Elleström argues that there are two qualifying aspects that constructs media. These are the contextual qualifying aspect, and the operational qualifying aspect. The first one refers to how historical practices, discourses and conventions form our understanding of a medium, and the second to aesthetic and communicative characteristics. That means what the medium look like and how it communicates, which is not necessarily connected to the technological possibilities. I will try to discuss the contextual and operational qualifying aspects of the qualified medium exhibition in another blog post.


Parry, R., 2007. Recoding the Museum, New York: Routledge.

 Silverstone, R., 1994. The Medium is the Museum: on objects and logics in times and spaces. I R. Miles & L. Zavala, red. Towards the Museum of the Future. London: Routledge.