A phenomenon of thought : liminal theory in the museum

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DeLosso, Lisa Christine

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This thesis was planned as a cross-case study of three docent-led museum tours, examined through the lens of liminality. The liminal, as identified by anthropologist Victor Turner, is an ambiguous and transitional state that is “betwixt and between” normative structures. When applied to the art museum, I argue that the liminal is a zone of negotiation that can assist in transformation and personal meaning making through a phenomenon of thought.

This study centers on the following questions: How can liminal theory, as applied to museum education, illuminate the relationships between gallery teachers, visitors, and objects? And, in what ways does liminality allow for visitors’ personal meaning making to occur?

These questions were answered through the planned observation of three docent-led museum tours at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin. Video and audio recordings, as well as observational field notes, occurred in one museum gallery and focused on one artwork, Cildo Meireles’ Missão/Missões (How to Build Cathedrals). Data was collected from narrative transcripts of the aforementioned video and audio recordings, exit interviews with docents, observational field notes taken during each tour, and observations and notes made while analyzing the video and audio footage. Two of these three tours fit within the parameters set by the researcher and, therefore, one tour was eliminated from the research findings.

Content analysis is utilized in this study. This type of data analysis placed information into three categories modeled after Arnold van Gennep’s rites de passage: separation, the liminal, and aggregation. Four subcategories were subsequently discovered during this analysis: observation, connection, realization, and transformation. Conclusions determined after the analysis of this data revealed fluidity between these stages. Additionally, liminal theory illuminated the relationships between visitors, objects, and museum educators in a way that stressed that the negotiation of the artwork, meaning making, and the process of transformation are part of a collaborative journey, and that the spaces “betwixt and between” are valuable for the advancement of museum education.



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