Consensus-Oriented Museum Communication

Consensus-oriented museum communication (Fiedler/Harrer 2017) is aimed at consensus between museums and their communication partners. What is at the core of this theory is that the various aspects of museum communication taken together are expected to lead to consensus. Since visitors neither perceive a museum through one single channel nor see it in relation to its channels but rather grasp it as an entity, museums may avail themselves of different media and access points to achieve this overall experience. COMC as a network of different communication partners and communication platforms creates the basis for establishing museums as important institutions for its communication partners and for fulfilling the social mission assigned to them. Consensus-oriented museum communication (Fiedler/Harrer 2017) is a normative theory that affects all (communicative) areas of the museum: leadership, curating, staffing, marketing, public relations, online communication, museum education and mediation.

Influenced by the Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas), the consensus-oriented public relations (Burkart) and diverse approaches of the fields of public sphere theories, integrated corporate communications as well as online communication, the following prerequisites of COMC have been worked out by Fiedler/Harrer (2017): conversational communication, integrated communications, accessibility, and the validity claims. These prerequisites are closely entangled with the qualitative features of COMC which are trustworthiness, respect, transparency, inclusion, and participation. These features influence the operational objectives of COMC—trust, long-term relationships, the museum as a discussion space, and relevance for society. 

Ultimately, a holistic overall experience of the museum space, based on trust as well as mutual understanding, is at the focus of COMC. Moreover, it tries to create a space of inclusion and collective knowledge creation, whether all of it is anchored in the real or digital world.  

Prerequisites COMC

Conversational approach 

COMC requires conversational communication: whether in the form of face-to-face dialogues or through Web applications such as chats and forums which allow for communication sequences similar to dialogues. According to Habermas (1981), only conversational communication can be combined with the concept of communicative action since other forms constitute strategic communication.For COMC, this means that conversational communication must be postulated. Communication approaches may be adopted which build upon conversation in terms of symmetrical two-way communication and which aim at mutual understanding between an organization and its communication partners. Visitors seek opportunities to enter into communication directly.

Integrated communications 

The focus of COMC is on creating a holistic experience on the part of the visitor. The latter continuously moves between different channels and media (offline and online, on-site, and via diverse devices), in a way that is determined by their general communicative behaviour which they take with them to the museum environment and, in turn, expect to find there. The experience of a visit to the museum is not limited to a real, on-site visit but already exists before, during and after the visit (some segments of visitors only appear online and never enter the physical environment of the museum).  

COMC is characterized by the following paradigms of integrated communications (Bruhn 2003): 

  • Paradigm of entity: the museum coordinates its communicative activities and media against the backdrop of a common consensus-oriented communicative experience 
  • Paradigm of consistency: the museum communicates consistent statements 
  • Paradigm of congruence: the museum coordinates its communication and conduct 
  • Paradigm of continuity: the museum communicates continuously via its various channels 
  • Paradigm of unity: the museum creates a unified design in terms of form and content which includes coherence between its diverse channels 

Integrated communications substantially contribute to a museum’s credibility since communicative discrepancies at the levels of media, content, design or time may cause irritation in the target groups and thus lead to a loss of credibility with the communication partners (Bentele 2008).

Ars Electronica Center, Geo Pulse Linz, Jänner 2018
Ars Electronica Center, Linz, Jänner 20


COMC relies on uninterrupted accessibility: serving as ‘memory banks’ of our cultural heritage, museums have the responsibility to make their information resources and conveyance of information accessible to the general public (MacDonald & Alsford 2010).
On the one hand, by way of structural measures (for barrier-free access) in order to facilitate (on-site) access to people with physical impairments, and on the other hand, by providing ‘unrestricted’ (comprehensible) access to contents of the museum (Simon 2010). Due to the changes and developments in communicative behaviour and media literacy as well as aspects of globalization, it has further become common for people to want to communicate anytime, anywhere, and using any device (Devine 2015).

Antiauthoritarian / Democratic Voice

In COMC, the traditionally authoritarian expert voice of museums yields to a diversity of voices of a heterogeneous community of visitors. Museums take into account that they are closely connected with their public spheres and have to cooperate with them if they intend to achieve consensus. They thus enter into a dialogue with their stakeholders in order to build a relationship of equality. 
The dialogue is to be based upon proximity between the communication partners and to enable them to voice needs and requirements or, generally, to be heard. Museums treat their communication partners not as passive consumers, but as colleagues and collaborators. The various parties mutually acknowledge their truthfulness and credibility and do not take advantage of each other’s weaknesses. 

Buratia History Museum, Ulan Ude / RU, August 2019
Buratia History Museum, Ulan Ude / RU, 2019

Validity Claims 


In order to achieve consensus, both communication partners must be able to expect each other to master the rules of their common language, i.e. to be able to express themselves in a comprehensible way. ‘Agreement’ here denotes mutual understanding of an utterance (Burkart 2012).
Experiences in the museum context have shown that comprehensibility can by no means always be taken for granted. A lack of comprehensible texts is a significant barrier to successful communication with visitors. This may take the form of, among others, linguistic incomprehensibility (insufficient knowledge of shared language), incomprehensibility of the content (texts are too academic) and visual incomprehensibility (design difficult to decipher, etc.). 

Language barriers are differences in the linguistic communication intentions of two or more communication partners at the verbal (differences in symbolic capacity) and/or the intersubjective levels (linguistic utterances are not even perceived as such (Badura 1971). To counteract misunderstandings at the verbal level, relevant terms must be explicitly standardized. Active engagement with the communication partner is the only way in which important interpretation patterns can be detected and relevant personal background information gathered.
In the case of misconceptions at the intersubjective level, the relationship between the communicating parties—the image they have of each other and their expectations towards one another—is to be studied, and attempts must be undertaken to redefine it. From the social point of view, mutual expectations and the body of standards are decisive: only as a result of mutual expectations are they both able to define the communication situation and perform adequate speech acts (Burkart 1998).

Truth—objective world 

The validity claim of truth refers to the objective world of circumstances and facts. Agreement between the communication partners here consists in the shared knowledge of contents and facts (Habermas 1981). Since their establishment, museums have been connected with the validity claim of truth. The scientific handling of objects of cultural value makes them trustworthy keepers of our cultural heritage and confers on them an accepted cultural authority.
In connection with the claim of truth, COMC needs to adhere to the following guidelines: present relevant circumstances and topics, do so in an objectivizing form, state source and author details truthfully, and provide precise object data. 

Truthfulness—subjective world 

Truthfulness refers to the subjective world of emotions. This validity claim is fulfilled by means of actions. Agreement over actions at this level leads to mutual trust.
Habermas (1981) also links truthfulness with authenticity and credibility. For if there is doubt over the degree of truthfulness of contents or the comprehensibility of utterances, the communicating party’s credibility or that of the medium will be impaired (Burkart 2004). Particularly when museums are considered information brokers, the institutions‘ credibility and the authenticity of the contents conveyed are of fundamental importance. Since the emergence of the social Web, participation models, etc., a central role has been assigned to the validity claim of truthfulness because it is responsible for maintaining the authenticity of a museum’s store of knowledge. 
Regarding the validity claim truth, one has to indicate that this claim cannot be completely fulfilled in reality, because museum as institutions of society cannot be entirely neutral. The communicative museum is itself utterly aware of this difficulty, but tries to balance this fact by interlinking the validity claim truth with the demand for diversity.      

Legitimacy—social world 

The validity claim of rightness or legitimacy of some action is anchored in the social world. It concerns the motivation for and legitimacy of a particular action. Legitimacy signifies the acceptance of and adherence to social norms. It denotes a certain experience of validity: the conviction that social systems are legitimate (Habermas 1981).
Especially since the end of the 20th century, demand for social responsibility of organizations, termed ‘corporate social responsibility’, has grown.To achieve legitimacy, organizations need to give reference groups insights into their actions and account for and justify their decisions publicly. In the museum sector, above all ICOM and associations such as the American Association of Museums and the Museums Association have concerned themselves with defining and implementing ethical standards. 

Qualitative Features of COMC 


By integrating their visitors into the production and discourse of knowledge, museums manage to strengthen their role as public forums (Simon 2010). Participation permits to gain different perspectives on a topic/a collection, and it promotes the individual cognitive processes of those involved. Consequently, participation as a means of COMC can consolidate the truthfulness/sincerity claim of, and relationship of trust with, the museum. User-generated content in the digital museum space, in particular, can contribute to establishing a link of trust between the museum and its users.


COMC must be respectful – towards both contents and people. Respectful treatment of communities and their cultural heritage is a prerequisite for museums which strive to fulfill their social functions and be pioneers of cultural and social inclusion. The more respectful the various parties are when interacting and the more frequently this is the case, the stronger consensus orientation will be. Respect has come to be a central concept in museum literature, too. We refer to the ICOM Code of Ethics, for instance.McManus (1989) demands an ‚appropriate social tone‘.  Rand (2000) suggests in the ‘Visitor’s Bill of Rights’ that visitors should be accepted the way they are: ‘Accept me for who I am and what I know’.  


COMC must be transparent, i.e. museums make their knowledge and knowledge processes transparent and maintain a communicative approach to discrepancies, conflicts and diverging interests between themselves and their stakeholders. This way, visitors can participate in decision-making processes, internal structures and the institutions‘ insider perspectives. Transparency is primarily associated with the digital realm. Websites lay open many aspects of museum work through ‘pull-back-the-curtain moments’.

Brooklyn Museum, NYC, January 2020
Brooklyn Museum, NYC, 2020


Inclusion is one of the main political requirements on museums: they are expected to address diverse social groups and to invite them into their communication space. Inclusion takes place at different levels. On the one hand, museums must offer various approaches to knowledge transfer (from introductions to in-depth research and reflection) in order to reach diverse groups and to enter into a dialogue with them. On the other hand, inclusion refers to the change in personnel structures, i.e. the representation of minorities in the museum staff (Sandell 2007). These aspects require a fundamental change in how museums work and what they work with.  


Communication partners are perceived as credible if the expectation or experience exists that their utterances or their entire communicative action are correct/true and consistent (Bentele 2008).
Credibility can be found on a content- and a source- and a context-oriented level. 
Content-oriented credibility assessment refers to the objective world, i.e. a museum’s statement. The criteria are quantitative and qualitative wealth of detail, homogeneity of the statement, and stability in the emotional mode of the statement. Source- and context-oriented credibility assessment refers to the subjective world, i.e. the museum as a communicator (expertise, social status, stable features) and the context created by it. A museum striving for inclusion, for instance, will only be credible in this regard if it employs and presents people of varying backgrounds. Just like trust, credibility needs to be constantly reconfirmed. 

Operational Objectives of COMC 


Trust is at the same time the objective and the foundation of consensus-oriented action. Museums must live up to and maintain the trust which their communication partners have placed in them with all their communicative acts. Trustworthiness cannot be established by way of discourse but it is the result of a bilateral process.
The extent of trust between museums and their communication partners depends on specific factors of trust: expert knowledge, communicative adequacy, consistency and transparency, social responsibility and ethics of responsibility, open, conversational communication (Bentele 2008). Owing to their developmental history and their role in society, museums are predominantly associated with expert knowledge. 
Communicative discrepancies lead to a loss of trust. They may occur between information and circumstances (lie), verbal utterances and actions, different actions in similar institutions, utterances made by different communicators in the same institution, legal and/or moral norms and actions (Bentele 2008). COMC provides for such discrepancies to be minimized. 

Museumsinsel, Berlin, 2019

Long-term relationships 

COMC helps museums to build long-term relationships with their visitors. Two-way symmetrical communication like COMC is an essential characteristic of a good, effective relationship with communities/publics. Other crucial factors are equality (antiauthoritarian communication style, inclusion, participation) and trust. 
Notably, digital communications technologies may be used to maintain, intensify and establish social relationships. Here, the close link to the operational objective of trust is particularly obvious. 
In the best possible case, long-term relationships between museums and their communities eventually become reciprocal and symbiotic and facilitate genuine connectedness.  

Creating discussion space

COMC allows museums to establish themselves as communication spaces for diverse participants. Communicative museums create space for equal discourse and serve as agoras of cooperation. Such discussion space may be found both within museum walls (offline) and in the digital sphere (online). What is required is a disposition to dialogue, an antiauthoritarian communication structure, possibilities of participation, transparency, diversity, inclusion, and the fulfillment of the validity claims. Thus, communicative museums create an almost ideal speech situation for their communication partners which is necessary since it permits changing to the level of discourse in the event of communication problems and there a restoring agreement by way of justifications (Habermas 1981, Burkart 2010). Of course, museums cannot offer opportunities of discourse at all levels, but a communicative museum always points to the possibility of discourse.

Vienna Design Week, 2019
Vienna Design Week, 2019


In the 21st century, museums are expected to create and maintain relevance for existing and new groups of visitors through their contents and by acting as spaces of discourse. COMC offers a major advantage to museums in achieving this goal: owing to its orientation towards visitors and especially its structural and qualitative features, it creates the perfect basis for museums to become a relevant part of visitors‘ life-worlds. 
Throughout the development of the role of the museum visitor, they are not seen as empty vessels which need to be filled, but as individuals who interact against the backdrop of their lifeworld, their gratification of experience and finally, their communicative action. The museum has to consider the lifeworld and the communication behaviour of its visitors to communicate with them in a consensus-oriented and efficient way. 

Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden, 2019

Through the use of different media and access points COMC helps to create an overall experience for visitors. It is, in particular, the combination of off- and online media that allow museums to reconsider their notion of knowledge transfer, but also of knowledge generation, and to position themselves as institutions of active participation in regard of their social mission. 
But most of all COMC allows museums to effectively become relevant within current as well as future structures of society, to function as a seismograph of latest challenges regarding social coexistence and last but not least to serve as a catalyst and field of experimentation for togetherness of a very diverse society.     


The communicative museum represents an ideal situation which hardly can be achieved in its entire scope. However, within their communicative actions and taking the characteristics of their available communication channels into consideration, museums should aim for COMC. It allows them to address diverse groups and individuals of society and to establish themselves as agents of social.
The museum has to be proactive by creating access to its communication space and its various contents. Thereby, it has to ensure that a holistic overall experience is realised that focuses on the communication requirements of the museum’s communication partners and which shows a willingness for dialogue. Solely on this basis, it is possible for the museum to work on the fulfilment of the validity claims regarding its communication partners.
COMC builds the foundation for museums to become relevant institutions in the lifeworld of its communication partners. Furthermore, it supports the museum to fulfil its role in society: supporting integration, social solidarity, building social capital as well as being a forum for different perspectives and a place for dialogues free of domination. 

Museo del ‚900, Mestre, 2019


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