Monday, 7 October 2013

Cultural heritage: sense making and meaning making

Last week, I was presenting at the workshop on Supporting Users' Exploration of Digital Libraries in Malta. One of the themes that came up was the relationship between meaning making and sense making. These seem to be two literatures that have developed in parallel without either referencing the other. Sense making is studied in the broad context of purposeful work (e.g. studying intelligence analysts working with information, photocopier engineers diagnosing problems, or lawyers working on a legal matter). Meaning making is discussed largely within museum studies, where the focus is on how to support visitors in constructing meaning during their visit. Within a cultural heritage context (which was an important focus for the workshop), there is a tendency to consider both, but it is difficult to clearly articulate their relationship.

Paula Goodale suggested that it might be concerned with how personally relevant the understanding is. This is intuitively appealing. For example, when I was putting together a small family tree recently, using records available on the internet, I came across the name Anna Jones about 4 generations back, and immediately realized that that name features in our family Bible. She's "Anna Davies" on the cover, but "Anna Jones" in the family tree inside. I had not known exactly how Anna and I are related, and the act of constructing the family tree made her more real (more meaningful) to me.

The same can clearly be true for family history resources within a cultural heritage context. But does it apply more broadly in museum curation work?
Following the workshop, we visited St Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat (Malta). 

The audio guide was pretty good for helping to understand the construction of the different kinds of tombs and the ceremonies surrounding death and the commemoration of ancestors. But was this meaning making? I’d say probably not, because it remained impersonal – it has no particular personal meaning for me or my family – and also because although I was attentive and walked around and looked at things as directed, I did not actively construct new meaning beyond what the curatorial team had invested in the design of the tour. Similarly, it wasn’t sense making because I had no personal agenda to address and didn’t actively construct new understanding for myself. So – according to my understanding – sense making and meaning making both require very active participation, beyond the engagement that may be designed or intended by educationalists or curators. They can design to enhance engagement and understanding, but maybe not to deeply influence sense making or meaning making. That is much more personal.

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