The museum environment
: Visitor experience and exhibitions of the conflict in and around Northern Ireland

  • Shawn Reming Jr

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis looks at two vastly different museums in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum in Belfast and the Museum of Free Derry in Derry/Londonderry, and questions what they do have in common: their museum visitors. The fieldwork supporting this thesis will provide findings from visitor surveys, in-depth interviews, and discussion groups alongside an exploration of the historical, social, and political framework in which these museums are situated. These exhibits will be framed with the concept of the museum environment to reveal the ongoing and interrelated processes of meaning-making which can be observed. It is the primary argument of this thesis that in order to understand the complicated, interrelated, and numerous processes involved in the museum visitor's experience it is useful to frame the museum as a living environment. In turn this environment is composed of a variety of interrelated ecosystems (Edwards and Lien, 2014) that can be analysed by investigating their constituent parts.

The scholarly lineage of this dissertation begins with sociologist Tony Bennett's (1988, 1995, 2006) exhibitionary complex especially as it applies to how states and other organisations use the museum to communicate ideas of civic, national, and community identity. This framework is further developed by looking at similar structural analyses of the museum, specifically the contact zone (Clifford, 1997; Dibley, 2005; Purkis, 2013; Pratt, 1991; Schorch, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013) and the assemblage/complex (Macdonald, 2013). Following Ingold's (2000, 2007, 2011, 2012) ecological approach and description of physical environments as life-worlds, places where life occurs, it is the aim of this thesis to frame the museum space as an environment comprised of interrelated processes that are lived and observable.

The theoretical framework argued for in this thesis is supported by the results of fieldwork gathered in Northern Ireland at the Ulster Museum in Belfast and the Museum of Free Derry, in Derry. These results include the findings of interviews, surveys, and discussions with visitors to the Ulster Museum and the Museum of Free Derry. The focus on museum visitors is a primary goal of this thesis in order to better understand the interrelated nature of how people function and feel within a particular museum environment, how they influence that environment, and how it influences them. It is the conclusion of this thesis that in order to understand what visitors are experiencing it is necessary to map out and explore the interrelated meaning-making processes that co-constitute both that experience and the environment itself. The personal and individual trajectories of visitors and objects, the policies and practices followed by curatorial staff, as well as the social, political and historical framework in which each is situated is vital to understanding the visitor experience. Framed within the museum environment one may observe these processes as they are lived and as relationships form between each constituent part of that environment.
Date of AwardJul 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorMaruska Svasek (Supervisor) & Dominic Bryan (Supervisor)

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