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Narratives of Transformation: Reframing and naming the impact of activist museum practice on visitors

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posted on 2019-02-19, 12:33 authored by Jennifer L. Bergevin
This thesis considers the long-term impacts of activist museum practice on visitors. Activist museum practice refers to an approach to museum work which advocates for positive socio-political change including the advancement of civil and human rights. Drawing from the fields of emancipatory learning, transformative learning, and clinical psychology, I advocate for a reframing of impact which contextualises and situates the museum experience within a wider framework of transformative experiences. The narrative of transformation allows us to better understand the process of transformation, the role of the museum visit within this process, and the relationship between museum visits and other transformative experiences. Here I consider the experiences of visitors to two case study sites – the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, UK and the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, US. Through a series of interviews, visitors shared their museum experiences and their interpretations of the impact of those visits on their attitudes, understandings, and ways of being in the world. They also reflected on other experiences both related and unrelated which informed their beliefs, attitudes, and actions in the world. The findings suggest that museum visits play a role in the narratives of transformation for many visitors. Visitors who reported a high level of emotional and empathetic engagement – affective connectedness – were more likely to assign the museum a transformative role. Visitors were also able to situate the museum visit amongst other transformative experiences including formal education, experiences with media sources such as books, films, and news programmes, visits to similar heritage institutions, and direct personal experiences. For some visitors, the museum visit played a highly significant transformative role while for others it acted as one ‘nudge’ amongst many along their unique transformative journey.



Sandell, Richard; Vavoula, Giasemi

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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