Practical ontology: Collaborating and communicating with concept maps

Seema Rao, Cleveland Museum of Art, Patty Edmonson, Cleveland Museum of Art, USA, Brad Baer, Bluecadet, USA, Ashley Weinard, Eduseum Consulting, USA


Concept mapping is a technique rooted in the constructivist theory that learning is an active process that happens through the interaction of experience and new ideas. In the how-to session associated with this paper, attendees learn how to create concept maps as a tool for effective communication in museums both internally and with visitors. Presenters share three examples of how they used concept mapping in the development of digital projects, collaboratively create a concept map to demonstrate process and benefit, and lead a concept mapping session. Objectives of the session include that participants learn how to create and facilitate a collective concept-mapping experience. Participants reflect collectively on the value and application of concept mapping as a way to see a familiar idea “sideways,” from new perspectives and depths; visualize thinking; identify common ground across collaborators; and collect, organize, and share ideas. Participants also brainstorm and explore possible internal/external applications.

Keywords: collaboration, content, digital, web, education, curatorial

1. Introduction

Concept mapping is a technique rooted in the constructivist theory that learning is an active process that happens through the interaction of experience and new ideas. Joseph Novak developed his visual method for presenting, understanding, and clarifying knowledge at Cornell University in 1972, and K–12 educators have used his method to assess understanding for decades (Novak, 2008). In 1998, John Falk introduced the Personal Meaning Map as a constructivist tool to measure changes in a museum visitor’s understanding of a topic over time (Falk, 1998). However, concept mapping has applications in the museum beyond assessment.

2. Concept mapping as a collaborative learning tool

Ashley Weinard, former educator at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) and currently principal consultant at Eduseum, uses concept mapping to connect with, support, and co-create content with a variety of museum audiences. At NCMA, she used mapping to assess prior knowledge about collection content and chart the way K–12 educators see collection works connecting to real-world issues, curriculum concepts, and personal experience. Hands-on workshops in concept mapping were used to prototype an online concept mapping tool and facilitate team collaboration among educators. 

Here is a snapshot of the process: A group of science, language arts, social studies, math, and art teachers gathers around chart paper and some markers. They are creating a map around the concept of problem solving. As participants draw, they chat about what the concept means in their work and personal lives, and in their students’ experiences. Ideas are sparked not simply by group dynamics and discussion. A work of art by El Anatsui is positioned in the middle of the paper. The bold, patterned wall hanging resonates and prompts the group to talk, remember, connect, and create. Through this exploration, commonality is discovered, trust is built, and creative lessons are planned. 

Groups begin the process by developing a visual definition of a concept and discussing the concept’s relevance to their own lives as individuals and teachers, their students’ lives, and classroom content. Requiring groups to develop an image-based definition for the concept provokes conversation about the concept and allows the group to construct a meaning for the concept that reflects experience and knowledge across the group. Plus, it gives the group practice in the visual analysis of images, which they must do in the second stage of the mapping process when groups select an image that reflects their concepts. While groups forge connections between image and concepts, participants within groups bring different levels of prior knowledge to the works of art. One may write down the titles of literature that connects to the art and concept, while others mention historical events and scientific developments that may have impacted the work. Lines are drawn between observations and questions are posed, leading to the discovery of cross-curricular content and development of essential questions. Standards correlations and ideas for lesson activities are added to the map, and plans for integrated lessons begin to take shape.

Weinard translated this hands-on, image-based approach to concept mapping into the ArtNC Concept Explorer 2.0 (, which allows online users to create a concept map around museum collection works and personal images. It provides audiences with a creative free space to brainstorm personal meaning and share knowledge, while casually building their visual analysis skills and ability to make connections. Teachers tag relationships between given concepts and works of art using an intuitive drag-and-drop interface. The concept maps they create become the starting point for lesson plans. The tool gently guides a teacher’s thinking about the best instructional use of an object, while freely allowing the teacher to determine how an object relates to their own classroom environment. Teachers can share, edit, and learn from other users’ concept maps. These maps not only support site users, but also demonstrate to museum staff how teachers are connecting works of art to classroom instruction, which informs professional development programming and lesson plan content.

3. Concept mapping as a form of research

The process of concept mapping is a creative and reflective mind game for both the creator and observer. The hard part comes in synthesizing, analyzing, and applying the product. Weinard is currently developing steps, rubrics, and feedback loops to help order, synthesize, and apply concept map responses, so the information that audiences share can inform and change the ways we connect with them, meet their needs, and view and rethink our collections and resources. 

Weinard recently collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution to research how museumgoers interact with music in their daily lives and how they see music’s connection to the world around them. The end goal was to develop new ways to share the Smithsonian’s wide offering of music resources with the public. As part of the study, Weinard and colleague Jeanine Ancelet of Audience Focus, Inc. asked museum visitors to concept map the relationships they saw between music and the four key areas of the Smithsonian collections: Art, History, Culture, and Science. The concept maps demonstrated visitors’ existing knowledge about music in general, their preferences in music, and their depth of understanding about music’s relationship to the four prescribed discipline areas. To identify trends across concept maps, Weinard grouped visitors’ connections under associated umbrella concepts. For instance, a connection related to the American Revolution was categorized as a Time connection. A comment about folk dancing was categorized as a Genre connection. Weinard then mapped the connection categories with supporting comments to see which categories stood out. Several trends were identified. For instance, visitors saw mostly Time, Place, and Genre/Format relationships between Music and History, while Elements of Music and Composition was a key connection made between Music and Science. The Smithsonian can now use these dominant connection categories as broad entry points to help the public connect with access its music resources. 

4. Concept maps and content strategy

At the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), the Department of Intergenerational Learning uses concept mapping as an internal planning construct. Director of Intergenerational Learning Seema Rao and Intergenerational Interpretation Specialist Patty Edmonson create concept maps to prepare content for interactive experiences, during programming brainstorming, and to improve communication. Concept maps can become strategic devices for cross-departmental teams, fostering communication and exemplifying points of confluence and divergence in understanding of content, process, and project goals. 

While creating Gallery One’s thematic groupings, concept mapping highlighted connections and gaps in content, and it allowed their team to build a shared terminology and understanding of the challenge at hand. Rao and Edmonson began their process by working with Chief Curator Griffith Mann and Director of Education and Interpretation Caroline Goeser to identify works of art from the permanent collection that could become part of thematic groupings, such as the Globalism installation. Concept mapping served as a method of articulating ideas and mediating meaning. Practically speaking, concept mapping help the team identify sub-themes, connections, and content areas with depth—that could lead to potential interactive experiences. 

Concept mapping can also serve as a way of revealing unexpected conceptual relationships during ideation. For Globalism, Rao and Edmonson began with the nine objects in the installation, using the “parking lot” method for preparing a concept map (Novak, 2008). In this process, a list of any possible association or concept related to each object is created. Each of the nine artworks in this installation relates to global trade and the spread of ideas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Globalism parking lot included, for example: fashion, geography, faith, imitation, travel, trade, navigation, collecting, value, market, motifs, foreigners, oddities, mounted, porcelain, process, function, and interiors. Ideas are taken from the parking lot and moved, sorted, and discussed until larger themes emerge, and conversely, holes are revealed. Low-tech methods using Post-it notes, Word documents, and PowerPoint allowed the team to work quickly, using these words to draw out ideas and connect artworks during the concept mapping that followed. 

Distillation is one of the key reasons to employ concept mapping. The team was able to refine the broad theme of fashion and desire, connecting it to the Coconut Cup (CMA 1977.77) because of its collectibility, use in cabinets of curiosity, and proof of the owner’s worldliness with a Japanese porcelain vase (CMA 1970.46.1) that wealthy Amsterdam burgomasters emblazoned with their coats of arms in order to display connections of family, trade, and taste. Concept mapping helped reveal that both artworks demonstrate the European transformation of foreign materials or objects; both the coconut and the porcelain vase were altered by Europeans in a method that assumes ownership over the foreign. Concept mapping helped us see that another vase in the installation connected to these two objects in the opposite way: a Japanese depiction of Dutch traders (CMA 1919.837). Although one person might be able to use other methods to make similar conclusions, concept maps were most instrumental to the CMA’s process because they are shared documents of ideas that can be referred to and revisited throughout the process. As described later in this paper, the maps are excellent tools for navigating different types of political situations. 

In this instance, these three works of art helped us when working with the designers at Local Projects to ideate interactives such as the “Global Influences” game, which explores how many works of art reflect the influences of multiple cultures. Here, the visitor is presented with an artwork and is asked to guess which two countries on the map influenced the artwork in question. The resulting concept maps and other documents serve as a touchpoint for many conversations. Being able to show concrete connections and ideas helped the team make certain arguments and minimize misunderstandings about the direction of the installation and its interactives. 

Producers and designers at Bluecadet worked with the chief curator of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros to create a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling concept map and corresponding iPad app outlining the conceptual framework for the exhibition La Invención Concreta at the Reina Sofía in Madrid. The exhibition, which is a comprehensive survey of Latin American geometric abstraction, relied heavily on the development and final presentation of the concept map in multiple ways: as a tool to help the curator conceptualize the exhibition; as a way for the curator and Bluecadet to collaborate and communicate with each other; and as a way to communicate with the audience through the organization of the exhibition, the physical concept map, and the iPad app. 

5. Concept maps and shared authority

Concept mapping allows teams with heterogeneous skills and knowledge bases to communicate in constructive ways. The concept map serves as a physical manifestation of ideas that grows and transforms in real time. The process of sensemaking is participatory, with the idea generators often making connections aloud during the process. This egalitarian process allows groups with inherent status differences to collaborate seamlessly. In one program, teens were invited to plan family programming with museum professionals. These teens were new to the museum and its collection, while the museum educators had thirty years of experience between them. Each planning-team participant was invited to share ideas. The facilitator began the process by suggesting that all ideas were valid and useful, and she reiterated that in this situation there was no hierarchy. Through inclusive facilitation, the resulting concept map was developed as a true collaboration between the two groups. 

The tools of concept mapping are often democratic, with all parties receiving equally sized Post-its. Post-it notes can be filled in quietly and individually. In situations where some parties feel uncomfortable with their knowledge levels, the Post-it note can feel anonymous and empowering. Grouping Post-it notes then reinforces the similarities between ideas, often highlighting the collective strength of the group. In one such exercise, teachers and students participating in a school-based multi-visit program were asked what questions they still had about the program and what they didn’t know. These are questions that might be challenging for participants to share aloud. However, in performing this exercise, the resulting concept map highlighted that most people were at the same level of understanding, even if their specific questions might be different. 

Concept mapping can also mediate challenging questions. Engagement programming in museums has a number of pitfalls due to historical perception challenges. Underserved populations perceive barriers, which can be hard for museum professionals in developing programming. Concept mapping between community partners and museum professionals can create a collaborative tenor to meetings and eventually result in shared authority over programming and greater buy-in in community-based engagement efforts. The concept map becomes a productive tool, maintaining structure and mitigating tangential conversations during engagement meetings. But in a larger way, concept maps can serve as shared roadmap for the future, charted collectively. 

6. Conclusion

The concept map serves as an important tool for the modern museum work life. It can serve as a powerful collaboration tool as communication intercessor between heterogeneous work groups. In long-term projects, it can be a roadmap for concept planning and a document of a team’s original vision. In the hands of a capable facilitator, concept maps can be an evaluatory tool. In essence, concept maps can help museums in their efforts to collaborate on projects, both digital and analog.


Falk, J. H., T. Moussouri, & D. Coulson. (1998). “The Effect of Visitors’ Agendas on Museum Learning.” Curator: The Museum Journal 41(2), 107–120.

Maldonado, Roberto Martinez, Judy Kay, & Kalina Yacef. (2012). “Analysing Knowledge Generation and Acquisition from Individual and Face-to-Face Collaborative Concept Mapping.” Concept Maps: Theory, Methodology, Technology. Proc. of the Fifth Int. Conference on Concept Mapping, Valletta, Malta. Available

Novak, J. D., & A. J. Cañas. (2008). “The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them, Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008.” Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

Cite as:
. "Practical ontology: Collaborating and communicating with concept maps." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 31, 2015. Consulted .