The conceptual understanding of museums as ‘contact zones’ has been widely appropriated in the museum literature and beyond. But the discussion lacks empirical insights into actual experiences: What does ‘contact’ mean for the person experiencing it? How is it lived, negotiated and contested? Drawing on a long-term narrative study of global visitors to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa), this paper offers an empirical interrogation and theoretical refinement of the ‘contact zone’. It moves beyond the more usual focus on museological production by shedding light on the meanings made by museum visitors. This paper augments current normative and theoretical approaches with an ethnographic study of processes of intercultural mediation during cross-cultural encounters, translation and dialogue. This is done through a hermeneutic analysis of visitors’ acts of interpretation that facilitates an understanding of ‘cultural action’ in ‘contact zones’ as an interpretive ontological endeavour of the shifting Self within a pluralist cosmopolitan space.
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