Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Larry Gross


Surprisingly little is known about the processes by which objects in museums come to hold meaning for visitors. Reconceptualizing the museum within a mass media framework in which visitors actively negotiate meaning through talk with their companions, this study explores four questions: 1) What are the kinds of interpretive acts that visitor pairs make in museums? 2) Are there patterns to these responses? How might they vary depending upon museum type and gender configuration of pair? 3) What are the social functions of such talk? 4)What does this suggest about the role of the museum in society?

To investigate these issues, the talk of 60 visitor pairs - 15 male-female pairs and 15 female-female pairs at one art and one history museum respectively - was tape-recorded as these pairs viewed a target exhibit at their own pace. Each visitor completed an individual interview and questionnaire afterward. The content of visitor talk was analyzed and a 7-step qualitative procedure utilized to compare and interweave the three types of data.

All visitor talk in both museums was found to consist of five major interpretive acts - establishment, absolute object description, relating competence, relating personal experience, and evaluation. Visitor pairs combined and emphasized these acts in seven different ways to form interpretive frames - distinct ways of talking and thinking about objects. These frames further collapsed into three major modes of meaning-making - Objective, Subjective, and Combination. In addition to making meaning of objects, visitors' talk was found to communicate several aspects of their individual and relational identities. The invocation of interpretive frame varied most by relationship type, as represented by gender configuration and amount of time pair members knew each other.

In sum, visitor pairs filter their competencies and tendencies through the context of their relationship to produce a shared interpretive approach. The resulting talk constructs and reflects the meaning of objects and of selves operative within the relationship. The museum is concluded to be a modified mass medium, a locus for the negotiation of cultural meaning, particularly identity.