The Museum as Discursive and Dialogical Space
In the chapter “Others and the human world” from the Phenomenology of Perception, (361-383, 2012) the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described how our everyday sense of being self-contained and independent human subjects is in fact fundamentally dependent on an ongoing process of interaction and dialogue with others. This idea suggests a number of important links to the work of other writers, including: the Pragmatist notion of the ‘extended self’ in the work of William James and John Dewey; the process of ‘symbolic interaction’ described by George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer; and perhaps most importantly the idea of the ‘dialogic imagination’ – as well as literary ‘intertextuality’ – inspired by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Merleau-Ponty’s further observations on forms of expression such as painting and language also highlight the role played by cultural objects as evidence of patterns of human behaviour, vital in the important process of what we would now call ‘situated learning’.
Museums offer a particularly rich context in which to explore this three-way relationship, involving the interaction of self, other and object in a specifically learning-centred environment. Against this background, the paper will briefly present and discuss some speculative designs for discursive/dialogic interventions within existing museum and gallery spaces in Ottawa produced by a group of postgraduate students in architecture at Carleton University in January-February 2013. The goal of the studio was to identify existing museums with the potential to become ‘discursive museum spaces’, and to design a series of spatial, material and temporal interventions where multiple dialogues could begin to be experienced – between the institution, the spaces and the objects, narratives and people within.
Lessons drawn from these examples will then be used to provide a critique of the theoretical framework set out at the beginning, suggesting – among other things – that phenomenology as a philosophical method does not necessarily lead to solipsism and isolation from the wider social world. It could in fact still be used to provide a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which the individual self emerges over time, out of an ongoing process of interaction, dialogue and learning – both with objects and with others.