University of Leicester
2019QuigleyOPHD.pdf (2.41 MB)

Engaging object visitor encounters at the museum: a phenomenological approach

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posted on 2019-06-14, 16:08 authored by Oonagh Quigley
The focus of this PhD is engagement. In museum studies literature, there is a problematic absence of substantive analysis of immediate visitor responses to objects. To address this gap, I propose the investigation of object visitor encounters using a particular phenomenological approach. Centred on semi-structured interviews undertaken in a museum, the thesis: 1) explores and develops the consideration of engaging object encounters from a phenomenological, and specifically a Heideggerian, stance, and 2) examines whether or not ‘engagement’ can be characterised from fieldwork-derived descriptions of an exhibition experience. Beginning with an argument for the relevance of a phenomenological research approach, the process of creating an interview instrument for museum visitors inspired by phenomenology is outlined. In particular, Martin Heidegger’s arguments on object manifestation and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on embodiment are applied. A phenomenological lens combined with grounded theory is used to analyse 30 interviews undertaken with visitors at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. I found that a phenomenological investigation was useful for exploring visitor engagement. While a Heideggerian approach was not directly applicable in the field, the phenomenological approach was successful in revealing characteristics of engagement in object encounters. I also found that engagement descriptions can be partially derived from fieldwork-derived descriptions of an exhibition experience. The characteristics that the research demonstrated to be associated with an engaging object encounter include: the object manifesting in a way that evokes reflection from the visitor; the visitor feeling positive about touching the object; and the visitor imagining embodiments of the object, specifically how it was made, how it was used, or the people that interacted with the object. Finally, the potential application of these characteristics to museum practice is explored. Throughout the thesis the use of phenomenology is reflected upon, and its application in the museum field is considered. This thesis contributes to research-led practice as it encourages application of the characteristics of engagement in an effort to create exhibitions that will enhance real-life visitor engagement.



Dudley, Sandra; Knell, Simon

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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