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Museums as Places: Two review cases and a transdisciplinary perspective

Nina GJOCI et Joshua D. ATKINSON


Dans cet article, nous théorisons les différences et ressemblances entre les approches rhétoriques et de géographie culturelle attachées aux lieux de mémoire à travers l’étude d’un exemple : les musées. Nous utilisons deux recherches en études muséales pour illustrer nos conclusions. Nous démontrons que l’étude de la relation entre mémoire et lieu montre une différence d’approche majeure : l’opposition entre une lecture verticale et une horizontale. Le mot « lecture » renvoie à la variété de pratiques employées pour étudier le lieu. La lecture verticale découle essentiellement de l’emphase portée par les rhétoriciens sur une hiérarchisation du sens, alors que la lecture horizontale provient essentiellement de la priorité accordée par les géographes à la représentation et la flexibilité. En dépit de ces différences, ces deux disciplines ont de nombreux points communs, conceptuellement et dans leur approche. Étudier les musées comme lieux demande de croiser les deux approches, car il faut analyser comment le lieu est créé (approche géographique) et ce qu’il fait (approche rhétorique).

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Notes de l’auteur

Disclosure statement: There are no conflicts of interests.
Funding: This work is not supported by any funding agencies.

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1Memory plays an important role in discussions about place. It is important to rhetorical scholars like Dickinson, Ott, and Aoki (2006, 2011), Ott (2011), Davis (2013), and Woods (2013), as well as to cultural geographers like Cresswell (2015), Till (2005), Hoelscher, Alderman (2004), and Foote (1997). Across disciplines, the memory-place relation is well recognized (Halbwachs 1997, Nora 1996, Hayden 1995, Casey 2004). The increased interest in memory studies have promoted interdisciplinary collaboration and provided new perspectives for theoretical and methodological advancements (Olick, Seroussi, and Levy 2000, Brown et al 200, Hill 200, Clarke 200). Scholars across various disciplines recognize that memory and place are intertwined (Hill 200, Clarke 200, Creswell Till). However, the question of how to define and conceptualize the relation between memory and place remains. The aim of this analysis is to theorize differences and similarities in the ways rhetoricians and cultural geographers conceptualize memory and place, and the methodological implications of these differences for the study of memory places.

2Rhetoricians and geographers conceptualize memory similarly but with different emphases and goals. Geographers are concerned with place and see memory as a tool for the process of placemaking, as it is the place that calls for memory. Inversely, rhetoricians are concerned with memory and see place as an important vehicle to understand how memory works. For rhetoricians, the destination is memory; places are powerful tools for understanding how the past and present meet.

3Scholars of memory have suggested the importance of investigating the paths from the past to the present in order to resist reification (Olick, Seroussi, & Levy). Investigating memory and place relations helps to identity these paths, particularly because memory places play an explicit role in forming these paths. Moreover, debates about place and space have shaped cultural and political life (Hubbard and Kitchin 2011). Interdisciplinary dialogue is therefore needed to better understand the ways in which public memory is manifested and investigated (Phillips 200).

4It is important to understand how different theoretical assumptions about memory and place render a wide range of practical approaches when studying memory places. This is especially the case in the study of museums, as transdisciplinary research is embedded in the classical roots of rhetoric and the foundation of cultural geography (Anderson and Harrison 2010, Smith, Wetheral, and Campbell 2018, Carbonell 2012, Geoghegan 2016, Bennett 1995, Vergo 1989, Munro 2014). Museums embody collective, personal, communal, state and academic efforts to establish institutions of remembrance and cultural heritage through collection, arrangement, and display. As secondary data, therefore, we will use two case studies to illustrate how the differences and similarities between rhetoric and cultural geography approaches play out in the study of museums as memory places. First, we introduce the case studies. Second, we explain how the difference in the memory-place relationship produces a different range of practices when studying places of memory. After a brief description of similarities, we explain how one function of the memory-place relation can be explained by reference to the idea of vertical (rhetorical) versus horizontal (geographical) readings.

1. Case Studies

5To illustrate the differences and similarities between rhetoric and cultural geography we refer to one research study from each discipline. For a research example from rhetoric studies, we refer to Brian Ott, Eric Aoki, and Greg Dickinson’s critique of the Cody Firearms Museum (CFM) located within the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (BBHC) in Cody, Wyoming (Ott, Aoki, & Dickinson). For a research example from cultural geography, we refer to Karen Till’s analysis of placemaking in the Topography of Terror International Documentation Center in Berlin (TT), as part of the Memory District study in her book The New Berlin (Till). Three characteristics make these two studies suitable for our case illustrations: 1) both museums are part of larger memory structures, 2) both museums commemorate traumatic national histories, namely settler violence against indigenous people and national socialism, and 3) both museums’ displays have similar strategies, the “ cold factual display” (Ott, Aoki, and Dickinson ) of the technological development of firearms (CFM) and “documentation” (Till) of the Gestapo (TT). Both museums constitute landmark developments as memory works; history, architecture, art, and technology are combined to remember the past and to construct the future simultaneously.

1.1 The Rhetorical Case

6The Cody Firearms Museum was officially opened in June 1991, with the mission of “chronicling the technological development of firearms.” From 1976, part of today’s museum had functioned as the Winchester Collection of the BBM, and from 1981 as a collection on its own (Ott, Aoki, & Dickinson). The BBHC in Cody, Wyoming includes the Buffalo Bill Museum (BBM), the Plains Indians Museum (PIM), the Draper Museum of Natural History (DMNH), and the CFM. Dickinson, Ott, and Aoki have researched the BBM (2005) and the PIM (2006). Their research on the CFM builds upon these two previous critiques and offers a rhetorical reading of the Buffalo Bill Museum.

7Ott, Dickinson, and Aoki argue that the CFM functions as a discrete text that, by delimiting intertextual connections, presents a highly visual experience. The intertextual delimitation is a strategy employed by the museum curators to conceal the role of firearms as weapons of war and crime committed against Native Americans. Given that museums are public memory spaces, they suggest that these methods shape how visitors perceive the world. The CFM critique is conducted on notions of presence and absence. Based on what is present (design and display), the rhetorical reading exposes a rhetoric of domestication and sterility that prescribes a particular point of view. Based on what is absent, the reading requires an examination of what is lacking and concealed. The authors argue that, because the visitors bring their experience and cultural context with them, absence is more than just the opposite of presence; it is presence’s barred Other. The authors advance a critical praxis that promotes multiple ways of looking at not only what is displayed but also what is off center.

1.2 The Cultural Geography Case

8The Topography of Terror (TT) was initially opened in the late 1980s and it was a result of years of intense debate and citizen activism initiatives. Following the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, and the coming of Christian Democratic Union of Germany’s (CDU) neoconservative chancellor Helmut Kohl in the federal government in West Germany in the early Auteur0000-00-00T00:00:00A1980s. Several memory-works were initiated and completed during that moment to provide a sense of stability and a positive image of national identity for the young generation, where the TT museum was the first significant moment. Auteur0000-00-00T00:00:00AThe reunification of Germany marked a second momentum. The landscape of post-Auteur0000-00-00T00:00:00Aunification is a memory district in the middle of Berlin comprising three of the most distinguished memory places: The Holocaust Memorial (HM), the Topography of Terror (TT), and the Jewish Museum (JM). Karen Till examines the practices of placemaking of one of the most important historical temporalities of a nation. Berlin was established as the national capital for the third time in history and the government seat was moved there. Confrontation with the past became even more necessary and complex as the geopolitics of the Cold War also had to be addressed. Till suggests that hostility towards the old Berlin indicates unresolved anger about the haunting presence of National Socialism.

9Till’s geographical reading of the Topography of Terror suggests the main meaning of the site to be an “open wound;” this meaning remained constant before and after unification. The guilt of National Socialism is confronted and documented in this place. Till writes that “the wound is kept open as an uncomfortable critical site of experience, interpretation, and meaning” (Till 102). Till’s reading suggests that what persists in the TT is the need of visitors to confront their nation’s violent Auteur0000-00-00T00:00:00Apast. The meaning of the TT comes from its potential to evoke feelings about the past. The distant emotional display of documents about orders and the factual documentary approach of the TT display shock the visitors and evoke various feelings and hauntings about the past.

2. Differences in the Study of Place: Vertical versus Horizontal Reading

10Differences between rhetoricians and geographers stem from differences in their primary goals. Geographers’ primary goal is to study place and understand the role of memory in placemaking. Place is a central concept in geography (Cresswell 2015, Masey 2006, DeLanda 2006 ) and is defined in relationship to space (Tuan 1991, Relph 1976, Agnew 1987). Rhetoricians are primarily concerned with memory and see place as a powerful tool to understand its workings. Memory is one of the canons of classical rhetoric and a central concept in new approaches to rhetoric (Yates 1999, Casey 2004, Blair, Dickinson, and Ott 2011). The varying extent to which rhetoricians’ privilege memory over place, and geographers place over memory, results in a different range of practices in studying places of memory. In what follows, we identify the difference and illustrate it with the above selected case studies. We argue that the main difference in practice between rhetoricians and cultural geographers when reading places is located in their orientation. We refer to the range of practices employed in the study of place as rhetorical and geographical readings.

11The major difference between rhetorical and geographical approaches to the place-memory relation has to do with the focus on vertical hierarchy in the former, and horizontal representation in the latter. By now, we have well established that both disciplines acknowledge that memory places comprise pasts, presents, futures, objects, designs, facts, and emotions. Both Till and Ott acknowledge this in their study; however, their readings differ. They acknowledge that memory places get their meaning from the relationship with their visitors, but they differ in how they describe the nature of this relationship. In the following section, first we illustrate how the rhetorical reading of the CFM prioritizes hierarchy and second how the geographic reading of the TT prioritizes representation.

2.1 The Vertical reading of Rhetorical Approach

12A rhetorical reading of place prioritizes hierarchy. Rhetoricians are concerned with the hierarchy of meaning associated with the elements of place. Not all elements are equally important; some have priority for understanding the workings of memory. The hierarchy associated with the elements of place works to persuade and direct audience perception of past, present, and future – a vertical axis, in the sense that these meaningful elements are not accrued through a spatial horizon, but through temporal sedimentation or deepening. The rhetorical reading digs through place to understand its meaning. Rhetoricians view place as named, bordered, and differentiated through symbolic and material interactions that produce meaning and shape perceptions of the past. Symbolic interaction suggests a hierarchy of meaning, some elements of place matter more, and significantly shape the perception about the place. Rhetoricians observe people’s attachment to place to be attributable more to memory than to place.

13The location of meaning contributes to a vertical reading as well. The persuasive force of place is generated at and from place, from activating affective investments stored in memory. This is particularly important when considering why and how memories come to matter, and why some places matter more than others, particularly memory places. The place is there to make a point about something, in our case about memory. In this sense, a rhetorical reading positions the audience outside of place and depending on the hierarchical organization of the elements, it persuades the audience to create meanings about the memory. The rhetorical reading sees through place to understand memory. The focus on the direction at and from place is what produces a subject position of the audience, pointing them to the way this place shapes their perceptions about memory, hence a vertical reading.

14Illustrating the vertical reading on the rhetorical case. Ott’s rhetorical reading acknowledges the interconnectedness of all the elements that make Cody Firearms Museum a place, but these elements are ordered in a hierarchy of meaning. The characteristics of the CFM display are what matters most for this rhetorical reading. The sterile and clean display of arms at the CFM is prioritized as it directs visitors to look at the firearms as pieces of art and technology. The firearms are sterilized as they are displayed in clean shine glass shelves on tables and walls, emptied from bullets, and their artistic and technical properties are emphasized and explained in the descriptions. The rhetorical reading of the CFM suggests that this sterilization cannot be avoided because it positions the visitors to observe the arms in a way that ignores their temporal depth. This in turn works to divert attention from their inherently violent characteristic. Place is used as a tool to construct a certain desired memory of the American West. According to a rhetorical reading, CFM is an instrument of connecting past and present; this affords us a vertical reading, in the sense that place is there to understand and construct the past. Ott suggests that, by domesticating and sterilizing firearms, the CFM functions to legitimize whiteness and hegemonic masculinity. The museum’s intended rhetorical force is part of a bigger picture that strives to maintain and articulate a desired public memory of the West by attempting to dismiss the role that fire arms played in the violence against native people and the long history of racial violence in the United States (Ott 230). The rhetorical-vertical reading brings attention to the erasure of the historicity of objects in the museum.

2.2 The Horizontal Reading of the Cultural Geography Approach

15A geographical reading of place prioritizes representation and flexibility. The focus is not on prioritizing some characteristics of place over others, but to see memory as one of them. For geographers, places “gather,” and memory is only one of the elements. For geographers, this gathering power comes from the ability of places to accommodate just about anything that comes with human life; there is no hierarchy – a horizontal reading. Geographers suggest that place “gathers,” is “mobile,” “global,” and “fluid” (Masey 40). Creswell emphasizes the ability of places to “accommodate” and “gather,” to “pull” and “push,” and to change continually (110). We see this orientation of place as horizontal because it focuses on the wholeness of place, how all parts that make a place fall together and particularly how they move together. The wholeness and the pulling power make places persistent but also adaptive and flexible. As the elements of place (material, symbolic, and emotional) change and adapt, they do so in interaction with other elements, and the place adapts and moves continuously (Creswell 74). Creswell emphasizes the ability of places to “accommodate” and “gather,” to “pull” and “push,” and to change continually. A geographical reading focuses on 1) the place’s ability to pull in, on 2) what the unlimited interaction of the elements produce, and 3) it does not focus on the hierarchical organization of these elements. In this sense, as the place moves together, so do its elements, including memory.

16A geographical reading emphasizes this ability of place to accommodate, its flexibility to include and represent various people, stories, feelings, and perspectives. A geographic reading, focuses on what is in, remains within, and what repeats during in and out interactions. Places include people, emotions, stories, and objects, and it is this inclusiveness that determines their meaning. Places of memory include affective dimensions as well, as Till suggests; they are created to give shape to the felt absences, fears, and desires that haunt contemporary society (Till 182). Places are defined by the outside, but they get their meaning, from within by a process of inclusion and representation. The affective dimension of place for geographers completes the meaning of the memory places.

17The Horizontal Reading of the Cultural Geography Case. Till’s reading identifies all the elements that interconnect to make the TT museum a place, but does not suggest a hierarchy among them. In the TT reading, there are two important distinctions that make it unique; it is the first ever commemoration of the perpetrators and its location is precisely where the Nazi headquarters were. Yet, Till does not prioritize these historical locations. Rather, the topographical mapping methodology is used as an objective spatial process and “a historical inventory of objects and ruins” that offers simultaneously the visualization of the “sites where National Socialist acts took place in Berlin, Germany, and Europe” (Till 138). Till acknowledges that the documentary approach offers “known facts” and is emotionally distanced. Her reading does not suggest that any particular fact takes priority, but she does not see this as a limitation. Instead, she views the cold documentary approach as a possibility for visitors to create their own image and/or relationship to the past. For Till, all the elements of topography contribute in their own way to placemaking, and we view this as horizontal reading based on this ability to accommodate. The TT horizontal dimension is also suggested in its spatial relation to the Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum as part of the Memory District. The geographical reading of the TT as the “site of perpetrators” has meaning only in relationship to the other museums, for there is no victim without the perpetrator. Ambiguity and neutrality of TT display also contributes to this horizontal dimension. Till argues that the TT is impactful because of its neutrality as “it combines different practices of commemoration, critical historical thinking, and pedagogy to create a site of perpetrators” (98). She suggests that the ambiguity of memory places attracts visitors precisely by creating a variety of meanings. Till is interested in seeing how places become complete with the people (visitors) in them. The TT accommodates the visitors’ own various experiences and attachments to the past (Till 147). Topographical mapping, documentary approach, complementary function of other museums, and ambiguity, are all equally important to memory-placemaking in this case.

3. Similarities in the Study of Place

18Both disciplines view place as selective, contested, and partial, with rhetoricians highlighting selectivity more than cultural geographers. For rhetoricians, the selectivity comes from the use of memory for present interests, because memory is “called by the present” and memory “is alive.” (Blair, Dickinson and Ott 15). For geographers, places of memory serve to commemorate the winners of history and to make sure a view of history is remembered. Creswell argues that museums rarely serve to commemorate the groups of people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and that places of memory exclude, literally and figuratively, those memories that are painful or shameful” (43). Both disciplines emphasize the importance of context when reading memory places. Ott and Till clearly specify how memory places are constitutive of national identity. In The New Berlin, Till suggests that as places of memory gained authority as landscape markers of the past, they became powerful because they became traces of the future. Places outlast us; they last beyond their present inscription (Till 48). Ott’s rhetorical reading emphasizes how places are constitutive of identity. Places are consequential and by asking the audience to take certain positions they also ask to “see the world in a particular way” and to identify with projects that were used to “settle the West” and nation building (Ott 230).

4. Developing a Memory-Place Function using both approaches

19The sterilization approach of the firearms display of the CFM is similar to the cold and factual documentary approach of the TT. However, their outcomes vary. The documentary approach of the TT museum is read, by Till, as a possibility to accommodate the audience to freely experience various feelings and images about the past, while the sterilization of firearms is read by Ott as an instrument to construct a particular view about the CFM. A rhetorical reading of the TT would yield very different results. A rhetorical reading would suggest that the felt neutrality of the factual and documentation approach operates to shape memories about National Socialism. Such a perspective is taken in the CFM case, where it is argued that the sterilization of arms operates to legitimize the hegemony of whiteness. That is because the rhetorical reading prioritizes one meaning, that is most significant, not a variety of meanings. As we have shown, a vertical reading concerns the past-present-future direction of memory and how place enables this thread. A horizontal reading concerns place as a whole and addresses the forces that hold it together. A simple memory-place function can explain how the two different approaches work separately and how they could work together, with memory as the vertical (Y) axis and place as the horizontal (x) axis. According to a rhetorical reading, the relationship between memory and place forms a hierarchy of different elements, which determines the vertical direction. The hierarchy of the element of place determines the degree of the vertical direction when reading the place, as there are various intensities associated with verticality. The higher the rank within the hierarchy, the smaller the number of elements of place that are taken into account to understand how memory works for a given place of memory. This is explained by rhetoricians’ focus on memory and their use of place as a tool to understand public memory. The lower the rank, the greater the number of elements of place, which is explained with the geographers’ focus on understanding place and using memory as an important element of placemaking. A horizontal reading is not concerned with ranking the elements; rather, it counts all the elements that are in place and determines how their unlimited interaction works together to make a memory place.

20For rhetoricians, memory makes claims upon an audience by prescribing perspectives that are generated at and from the place. The geographic reading emphasis on what is in a place and how places become meaningful with people in them contributes to a better understanding of an ever-changing placemaking with inclusivity as a source of power. We suggest that a proper reading of memory places needs both rhetorical and geographical perspectives to better understand what is in place (geographical) and what is generated in the relationships at and from a place (rhetorical).

21An example of this method in use is the analysis of the Bunk’Art Museums in Albania as part of the memory infrastructure of cold war and communism. The cultural geographical reading suggests that the underground museums with their multimedia exhibitions of the military and security developments of Albania in the international context are an attempt to create a massive cultural artifact that is an exotic and distant place for remembering cold war in Europe and Albania’s communist past. As described above, the horizontal reading focuses on what goes in and within place. For the Bunk’Art museums, the interaction of all elements, like the underground structure, the military development charts, visual and audio displays, the cultural artifacts, and the various exhibitions from everyday life under communism, combine to create an exotic and distanced place that is very different from the present. The vertical reading focuses on the interactions that are generated at and from place; it focuses on what about the place shapes the visitors’ perceptions about the cold war and Albania’s communist past. The distant and exotic place created in the Bunk’Art Museums serves to absolve the communist past from its consequences and it plays with the curiosity of international visitors and others who have not experienced communism. The most significant element in the vertical reading, is the compartmentalized exhibitions that serve as a bazaar of communist memory prompts. In combination, this exotic and distanced place with its available memory prompts accommodates a local and international story of cold war.

5. Conclusion

22By their very nature, museum studies embrace interdisciplinarity, and the expansion of the discipline of Museum Studies has been unfolding for decades. Vergo’s New Museology (1989) called for expanding the discipline by approaching museums as cultural authorities. The “critical turn” as “critical museology” (Shelton 17) emphasized study approaches that explore the museums within the power relations in society. Morse, Rex, and Richardson (2018) propose that studying museums as organizations allows for a more inclusive method, where technicalities and arrangements in museums are approached within the power context in which they function (112). Various scholars have focused on researching the role of museums in education for good citizenship in developing democracies (Paynter et al.139). Wetherell, Smith, and Campbell contribute to exploring emotion and affect “when the past is mobilized as ‘heritage’ in the present” (3).

23Geoghegan proposes a museum geography, the geographical perspective taken in the study of museums, and suggests that cultural geography must continue its legacy of openness towards methodological innovation and trans-disciplinary collaboration, characteristics which have enabled cultural geography to “develop theories that allow us to grapple with this interconnected, chaotic, and uneven world” (Geoghegan 381). We similarly encourage more attention on a museum rhetoric, and we argue similarly that employing rhetorical thinking to the study of museums will allow for a better understanding of museums and their role in society.

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Nina GJOCI et Joshua D. ATKINSON, « Museums as Places: Two review cases and a transdisciplinary perspective »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Bowling Green State University
Nina Gjoci (Ph.D. Bowling Green State University) studies the relationship between public memory, international development, and media. She is currently investigating transnational influences on public memory of the communist past in Albania and South-East Europe.


Bowling Green State University
Joshua D. Atkinson (PhD, University of Missouri-Columbia) is a professor in the School of Media & Communication at Bowling Green State University, where he studies alternative media, activism, and political communication.

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