How has identity been described in a museum context?

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 19 May 2010

Second post about identity outlining what has been written about identity in the museum context.

Identity has been discussed and researched in recent museum literature (Falk, 2006; Hooper-Greenhill, 2004; Leinhardt, et al., 2002; Leinhardt & Knutson, 2004; Rounds, 2006; Spock, 2006). Researchers have speculated that the museum experience influences identity. It has been recognised that museums can play a crucial role in shaping both individual and national identities through their collections, research and public programs (Gurian, 1999; Rounds, 2006;). A broad and inclusive definition of identity was presented by Fienberg and Leinhardt (2002):
One common conception of identity is that it is comprised of a set of demographic characteristics such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity, characteristics that influence people’s attitudes and behaviour and sometimes influence how they are treated by others in the society. Another conception of identity is that it includes the kinds of knowledge and patterns of experience people have that are relevant to a particular activity. This second view treats identity as part of a social context, where the prominence of any given feature varies depending on which aspects of the social context are most salient at any given time (p.168).

A visit to a museum can influence both a person’s identity and their sense of self (Falk, 2006; Leinhardt & Gregg, 2002; Leinhardt, et al., 2002; Rounds, 2006). The interplay between the backgrounds that visitors bring and their reactions to objects and experiences can lead to subtle changes in views of themselves, their identity and meaning making, both individually and collectively (Hein, 1998; Leinhardt & Knutson, 2004; Silverman, 1995). Ivanova (2003) recognised that a two-way process of exchange occurred between a visitor’s identity and the sense of identity that was present within the content of the museum. She noted that museums both preserved history and memory as well as constructed them. She felt that it was important, then, that ‘… museums in general … understand how they influence the development of identity, explicitly or implicitly’ (p.22).

Museums also have objects which can strongly resonate with a person’s experiences, contributing to both forming and affirming a visitor’s identity (Gurian, 1999; Ivanova, 2003; Leinhardt, et al., 2002; Paris, 2002), as Hooper-Greenhill (2000) noted: ‘Objects are used to construct identities, on both a personal and a national level. Objects can become invested with deeply held feelings and can symbolise powerful convictions through which life is led’ (p.109).

Identity can be shaped by visitors’ interactions with museum objects: ‘… visitors recall meaningful objects during museum visits that elicit feelings relevant to their own personal identities’ (Paris & Mercer, 2002, p.418). In researching visitor’s responses to objects, other manifestations of identity examined by Paris and Mercer were ‘… gender, ethnicity, historical generation, self and family’ (p.418). Hooper-Greenhill (2000) recognised that museums play a key role, not only in maintaining and transforming culture on a broad scale, but also through ‘… the recognition of the significance of objects in relation [to] the construction of the self’ (p.150).

Leinhardt and Knutson (2004) in reporting the work of the Museum Learning Collaborative, suggested that identity could be considered in three ways. The first was through demographic factors such as age, gender and ethnicity; the second being the changing roles people play in relation to others in the group and the activity being undertaken. The third was viewing identity through the ‘… collective past of visitors’ (p.50), including their prior knowledge and experiences, motivations and agendas. They proposed that identity was defined by the individual: ‘I am who I think I am, and we are who we think we are’ (p.51). In relation to a museum visit they suggested that identity is participatory and changing in response to the visit itself. Leinhardt and Knutson concluded that: ‘Identity was measured less by the demographics and more by the details of how the groups were enacting a particular visit, specifically by their level of interest, motivation and curiosity, and by their appreciative and experiential knowledge’ (p.75).

In exploring long-term memory and visits to World Expos Anderson (2003) suggested that sociocultural identity was a critical factor that contributed to people’s memories. In this context Anderson defined sociocultural identity as ‘… the inherent set of interests, attitudes, beliefs, social roles, stage of life and behaviours that collectively define the participants at the time of their Expo experiences’ (p.406). He found that the social dimension of a person’s sociocultural identity elicited the strongest memories of their experiences, more so than specific exhibitions and displays. However, he noted that, not only what a person remembered, but how they reflected on their experiences through the “frame” of their identity and their role in the visit, were important. Anderson concluded that ‘Memories were overwhelmingly dominated and mediated by the socio-cultural identity of the individual at the time of the visit’ (Anderson, 2003, p.409).

Worts (1996) also reflected on the social nature of identity in art museums, suggesting that there were two kinds of identity—personal identity that made an individual unique, and collective identity in belonging to family, friends and community, both culturally and globally. He advocated that identity was experienced by ‘… reaffirming the sense of self, [and] evolving a new or varied sense of self’ (p.128). Worts suggested that identity was a complex notion, both conscious and unconscious, and was the way that people made meaning when visiting a museum: ‘Cognitions, emotion, imagination, intuition and physical interactions all contribute to the experience of an individuals’ sense of identity – either by affirming an existing sense of self, or by providing an impetus for an evolving sense of self. This identity is generally reflected in one’s knowledge, beliefs, taste and skills’ (p.128-129).

Leinhardt and Gregg’s research (2002) about trainee teachers’ engagement with a social history exhibition found that their views about civil rights were formed based on an understanding of both who they were (their individual identity) and the tools they had acquired as part of their professional training (their professional identity). Leinhardt and Gregg noted that ‘How the content is understood and appropriated by visitors is a consequence of their own sense of identity, prior knowledge, and exploratory engagements, as well as their uses of the devices and tools built into the museum environment’ (p.142).

Rounds (2006) proposed that visitors use museums for “identity work”, defined as ‘… the processes through which we construct, maintain, and adapt our sense of personal identity, and persuade other people to believe in that identity’ (p.133). He suggested that identity is created and sustained through reflexive actions and wondered how this would be demonstrated through a museum visit, particularly given the dominance of “browsing behaviour” among visitors (Rounds, 2004). He also noted that when studying identity the focus should be not on what a person’s identity is, but what they are doing about it in terms of how their identity unfolds and changes over time. In thinking about the role of museums Rounds advocated that they offer ‘… opportunities both to confirm our existing identity, and to safely explore alternatives’ (Rounds, 2006, p.138), particularly as museums display order that enables visitors to understand relationships between objects and their place in the world.

Falk (2006) observed that ‘… an individual’s motivations relative to learning are closely aligned with that individual’s sense of self and identity … learning expresses identity’ (p.154). He proposed that identity is not fixed, that people have multiple identities, expressed at different times and situated within the realities of the world. Falk emphasised the importance of motivations as a way to describe a visitor’s “entering identity”, under the categories of explorers, facilitators, professional/hobbyists, experience seekers and spiritual pilgrims.


  • Anderson, D. (2003). Visitors' Long-term Memories of World Expositions. Curator, 46(4), 401-420.
  • Falk, J. (2006). An Identity-Centred Approach to Understanding Museum Learning. Curator, 49(2), 151-166.
  • Fienberg, J., & Leinhardt, G. (2002). Looking Through the Glass: Reflections of Identity in Conversations at a History Museum. In G. Leinhardt & K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 167-211). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Gurian, E. (1999). What is the object of this exercise? A meandering exploration of the many meanings of objects in museums. Daedalus, 128(3), 163-183.
  • Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000). Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. London: Routledge.
  • Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2004). Measuring Learning Outcomes in Museums, Archives and Libraries: The Learning Impact Research Project (LIRP). International Journal of Heritage Studies, 10(2), 151-174.
  • Ivanova, E. (2003). Changes in Collective Memory: the Schematic Narrative Template of Victimhood in Kharkiv Museums. Journal of Museum Education, 28(1), 17-22.
  • Leinhardt, G., & Gregg, M. (2002). Burning Buses, Burning Crosses: Student Teachers See Civil Rights. In G. Leinhardt & K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 139-166). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Leinhardt, G., Crowley, K., & Knutson, K. (Eds.). (2002). Learning Conversations in Museums. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Leinhardt, G., Tittle, C., & Knutson, K. (2002). Talking to Oneself: Diaries of Museum Visits. In G. Leinhardt & K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 103-133). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Leinhardt, G., & Knutson, K. (2004). Listening in on museum conversations. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
  • Paris, S. (Ed.). (2002). Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Paris, S., & Mercer, M. (2002). Finding Self in Objects: Identity Exploration in Museums. In G. Leinhardt & K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 401-423). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Rounds, J. (2004). Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor. Curator, 47(4), 389-412.
  • Rounds, J. (2006). Doing Identity Work in Museums. Curator, 49(2), 133-150.
  • Silverman, L. (1995). Visitor Meaning Making in Museums for a New Age. Curator, 38(3), 161-169.
  • Spock, D. (2006). The Puzzle of Museum Educational Practice: A Comment on Rounds and Falk. Curator, 49(2), 167-180.
  • Worts, D. (1996). Visitors Make Their Own Meaning. In G. Durbin (Ed.), Developing Museum Exhibitions for Lifelong Learning (pp. 123-130). London: The Stationery Office for the Group for Education in Museums.

1 comment

sparrowbee - 12.09 PM, 20 September 2010
The demographic conception of identity seems to be more of a 'What am I'? question whereas the knowledge and experience conception seems to be more revealing of a 'Who am I'? identity. These days demographic data seems to be less revealing of a person's identity as our identity (or the extent to which one can participate in society) is less restricted by age, gender, religion, and other demographic markers. (side note - I can't help recalling the Zoolander scene where Derek looks into a spoon to see his reflection and asks 'Who am I?' ... 'I don't know!' whenever I think about identity!)

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