Uncertainty as Affective State and Critical Engagement Strategy in Museum and Heritage Site Settings
Docherty-Hughes, John R.
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Wallen, L. and Docherty-Hughes, J.R. (2023) ‘Uncertainty as affective state and critical engagement strategy in museum and heritage site settings’, Global Perspectives, 4(1), p. 73071. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1525/gp.2023.73071.
Some pasts have long been uncertain—among those, prehistoric lives in areas where limited archaeological evidence has been unearthed. The Scottish Crannog Centre holds a collection of Iron Age artifacts that have been excavated from the bottom of Loch Tay, jigsaw pieces that are used to tell the story of the everyday lives of crannog dwellers two and a half thousand years ago. The visitor experience at the museum is built on direct interaction with the museum team as the visitors are guided through the site, presenting ample opportunities for critical questions to be raised and discussed about how the past can be understood in the present and how it can inform the future. Facilitating such conversations—and using Iron Age artifacts as points of connection and as conversational prompts—involves a careful balance between fact, interpretation, and imagination; what we know for certain, what is likely, and what we do not, and cannot, know. This paper focuses on how Scottish Crannog Centre museum practitioners employ uncertainty as a feeling, a process, and an engagement strategy in generating critical reflections and conversations among visitors. Drawing on data generated through twenty-five interviews with museum staff, apprentices, and volunteers, as well as ethnographic observations, we explore how the team manages uncertainty, how it is positioned and functions in interactions with visitors, and how uncertainty facilitates a sense of connection to the distant past. In so doing, we argue that uncertainty can be more clearly conceptualized as an affective state and a critical strategy when exploring how prehistoric and present-day life are connected in museum contexts.