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 In English / Professional development / Literature on museology / P. van Mensch „Towards a methodology of museology" / 01 Introduction

Peter van Mensch „Towards a methodology of museology” (PhD thesis, University of Zagreb, 1992)


Already at the first new style symposium of the ICOM International Committee for Museology (London 1983) John Hodge exclaimed: 'What we need is someone to outline a theory in finite terms which we all understand. Its philosophy, its statement of propositions used as principles of explanation for phenomena etc. needs to be clearly stated with concrete examples so that there is no misunderstanding of what is meant. Only then will we be able to have progressive discussion' (Hodge 1983: 61). During the past nine years attempts to summarise the ongoing museology discussion, as well as to outline the theoretical concepts have been scarce. It is hoped for that the present work meets the need as expressed by Hodge. It analyses the discussion about the identity of museology as academic discipline against the background of the characteristics of the museological field. In addition the publication presents the basic outlines of a theory and methodology of museology.

The 1983 symposium as a whole showed very clearly the conceptual and terminological chaos within the profession. This was in fact the immediate cause for an attempt to inventorise and analyse the different concepts in museology. One of the weaknesses of the museological field is the fact that apart from historical overviews and technical handbooks, there is no English textbook on the theory of museology. The bulk of the theoretical material is in the form of articles in a wide range of periodicals. Many museological topics are found in the publications of the many subject-matter disciplines. Although between 1983 and now a growing number of general and specialised textbooks have been published, the main problem still exists. Most articles are general, or even superficial treatments of topics. Cycles are evident as topics dealt with in earlier periods are returned to every ten or twenty years. This general treatment of topics combined with the cyclical return to subjects contributes to the repetitious and superficial aspects of museum periodical literature. This includes the publications of the International Committee for Museology. For these reasons Teather emphasises the need of preliminary research, i.e. a general survey of the field by means of library bibliographic search techniques, and the location of previous research in the identified topic in non-library sources, like archives, letters, diaries, unpublished investigations, etc. Investigative tools for research in the field have to be developed. Only after this work has been done have the necessary conditions been fulfilled to conduct basic research, which consists of original investigation undertaken to acquire new scientific knowledge (Teather 1983). An additional problem follows from the characteristics of the museum phenomenon. The museum field is a multidisciplinary field par excellence. Much has been published on the theory of museum work from the perspective of various disciplines. Not only this added to the dispersed literature, but also to the conceptual and terminological inconsistencies.

In his book on museum education Jürgen Rohmeder states that, in general, history museums are led by historians, natural history museums by biologists, art museums by art historians, etc. (Rohmeder 1977). This might be necessary to keep control of the subject matter aspects of the museum, but, as Rohmeder concludes, it is not enough to make a museum a public institution. Considering museums primarily as educational institutes, Rohmeder suggests to take communication science as starting point and frame of reference. As will be shown hereafter this shift of perspective is typical for the second stage of development of museology as a genuine academic discipline, when museology is seen as an aggregate of theories and methods derived from other fields. The present work, however, follows a third - and supposedly more advanced - route. It starts from the presumption of the possibility of a specific museological approach.

The transitory phase of development is reflected by a big terminological confusion. Sometimes the term museology is limited to the theoretical approach. For example within the International Council of Museums, the International Committee for Museology deals with the theory of museum work. Similarly, at the Reinwardt Academie (Amsterdam, Netherlands) the courses in the theory of museum work are indicated as 'museology', while the courses in the field of practical museum work are distinguished by specialism, like conservation, registration, etc. Elsewhere, however, the term museology can be found indicating the practical dimensions of museum work. For example, one of the departments of the National Museum of Finland (Helsinki) is called the Department of Museology. This department is responsible for practical museum work, especially the organisation of exhibitions. At the Museu de Arte Moderne (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) the Department of Museology concentrates on conservation and registration. The Department of Museology at the Museu Lasar Segall (Sao Paulo, Brazil), however, is responsible for all activities concerning conservation, registration, exhibition and education, but also for research. Finally, the Department of Museology at the Moravian Museum (Brno, Czechoslovakia) does not concern itself with practical museum work but works out general concepts and acts as discussion partner rather than executor. The term museology is thus used on different occasions as describing either a defined field of activity, or the totality of knowledge about this field of activity, or even both at the same time.

The central questions this work attempts to answer are:

  • what are the characteristics of museology as a science;
  • what factors determine the number and nature of theoretical variants;
  • what factors and considerations determine which intellectual variants win acceptance, to become established in the body of ideas. 

From 1977 onwards the ICOM International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM) has been the main platform for discussion about concepts in museology and the status of museology as academic discipline. Little has been published on the theory of museology that is not in some way or another connected with this committee and its members. The present study is based on the materials produced during the period 1977 (the year of the committee's foundation) till 1989 (when Vinos Sofka resigned as its chairman).

At the end of the 1980s, however, a new group of German museum theoreticians appeared quite 'suddenly'. Although they do not form a structured group, their ideas are very similar, not the least since they refer to the same basic material. In general there is affinity to post-modern thinking. Their main sources of inspiration are Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Henri Pierre Jeudy and Hermann Lübbe. An important influence was Jeudy's Parodies de l'auto-destruction (1985) which was translated into German and published as Die Welt als Museum (1987). Key-term in this publication is 'musealisation' which concept became the corner stone of contemporary German museological theory. It is not surprising that the only 'ICOFOM participant' they quote is Zbynek Stránský. The most important authors are Wolfgang Ernst, Gottfried Korff, Gottfried Fliedl, Eva Sturm, Wolfgang Zacharias, Klaus Weschenfelder (see for example Fliedl ed. 1988; Rüsen, Ernst & Grütter eds. 1988; Sturm 1991; Zacharias ed. 1986 and 1990). The 'group' has the appearance of a school of thought as they frequently participate in the same conferences and contribute to the same books. The members of the 'group' frequently refer to each others publications. A remarkable feature is the lack of references to non-German museological literature, neither is their work translated into English or French. Because of this and because of the fact that no member of this 'group' has ever participated in ICOFOM activities, the influence of the 'group' is restricted to the German-speaking part of Europe. The publications of this 'group' of German museum theoreticians are not dealt with in the following chapters.

Neither will be dealt with a similar 'group' that arose at the same time around the Department of Museum Studies at Leicester. Like the German-group the Leicester-group relies heavily upon French structuralist and post-modernist thinking. In 1989 Susan Pearce was appointed director of the Department of Museum Studies of Leicester University. Within a few years an impressive series of monographs and conference reports was published by the department's main staff members: Susan Pearce, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill and Gaynor Kavanagh. At the conference 'Breaking new grounds', organised by the department in April 1990, it became obvious that staff and students/graduates share a basic orientation to museum work, based on the one hand on some French philosophers (Foucault, Barthes, Bourdieu) and emphasising on the other hand a critical stand (Kavanagh ed. 1991a, 1991b). The 'Leicester-group' has participated in many publications (for example Vergo ed. 1989, Lumley ed. 1988). The title of one of these publications: 'The new museology', suggest a clear connection with the French 'muséologie nouvelle' movement. Apart from Susan Pearce's view on the object as data carrier this emerging post-modern museology is not discussed in this study. Like the German-group the Leicester-group does not seem to be interested in museology as academic discipline.

Another important development concerns the theory and practice of the care of monuments and sites. New terms have been introduced which overlap the term museology: heritage management and cultural resource management. Both terms arose in the USA during the 1970s, especially in connection with the preservation of archaeological sites (see for example the contributions of Dunnell and Raab in Green ed. 1984). The World Archaeological Congress at Southampton (Sept. 1986) contributed to the introduction of the terms in Europe (see Cleere ed. 1989). During ICOFOM meetings the link with these developments has never been made explicit. In this study the link will also remain implicit rather than elaborated.

During the last stage of the study dramatic changes took place as to the political situation in Middle and East Europe. It is obvious that museological thinking in Middle and East Europe was based on marxist-leninist principles. As these principles were abolished as leading dogmas, East European museology changed accordingly. However, the consequences of these changes are not yet (i.e. 1991 !) visible. Therefore, it was decided to finalise the text disregarding the possible impact of these changes on museums and museology.

The emergence of post-modern museology in Germany and the United Kingdom and the abolition of marxist-leninist museology in the period 1989-1992 unexpectedly added to the significance of 1989 as the end date of a historical period. It also added to the importance to take stock of the achievements of the period before 1989.

To analyse the content and the purport of the museology discussion of the 1970s and 1980s it is necessary to follow the work of ICOFOM. For this reason it is considered useful to start the following study of the museology discussion with a detailed survey of the history of the committee, followed by an general impression of the persons that supported the discussion individually and as a group. The emphasis on the characteristics of the scientific forum of the museology discourse follows from the ideas as expressed by Kuhn concerning the sociological dimension of the progress of science (Kuhn 1976). It is assumed that the cultural and professional background of the participants of the museology discourse has an important impact on that discourse and, as such on the development of museology as academic discipline.

The discussion on the profile of museology as academic discipline took place in connection with a series of symposiums and other meetings. The present study, however, does not focus on the themes of these meetings as such. The papers and discussions are used as a source of approaches, concepts and methods of different museologists. This material is brought together within a pre-conceived structure, which follows from the central questions of this study rather than the content of the papers themselves. Successively the cognitive orientation, the purpose of museological understanding and the structure of museology will be discussed. The aim is neither to define the best, nor the most popular version of museology. The main aim is to establish the number and nature of theoretical variants. In addition some fields will be explored in which the emergence of a specific museological perspective is visible: research, terminology, professionalisation and ethics. It is assumed that either these fields show an increased awareness of museological thinking or might profit from a further development of the theoretical discourse.

The second part of this study goes beyond the museology discourse as it took place within ICOFOM. The aim is to design a conceptual frame work for basic concepts and theoretical assumptions relevant to the museological field. This frame work could to serve as a 'disciplinary matrix'. The heuristic power of this conceptual frame work is not tested empirically. This could be the next phase of the project. This stage of the project is mainly restricted to the stock-taking and analysing of the basic elements of such a conceptual frame work.

As will be argued, one of the drawbacks to the development of museology is the fact that many of the contributors to the museology discourse had a limited exposure to theoretical museological literature, partly because of language barriers and partly because of limited availability. It is hoped for that this publication also facilitates the access to museological sources. 

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Cleere, H. ed. (1989) Archaeological heritage management in the modern world (London).

Fliedl, G. ed. (1988) Museum als soziales Gedächtnis? (Klagenfurt).

Green, E.L. ed. (1984) Ethics and values in archaeology (New York-London).

Hodge, J. (1983) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed., Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 1 (Stockholm) 58-65.

Kavanagh, G. ed. (1991a) The museums profession: internal and external relations (Leicester).

Kavanagh, G. ed. (1991b) Museum languages: objects and texts (Leicester).

Kuhn, T.S. (1976) De structuur van wetenschappelijke revoluties (Meppel).

Lumley, R. ed. (1988) The museum-time machine (London).

Rohmeder, J. (1977) Methoden und Medien der Museumsarbeit (Köln).

Rüsen, J., W. Ernst & H.T. Grütter eds. (1988) Geschichte sehen. Beiträge zur Ästhetik historischer Museen (Pfaffenweiler).

Sturm, E. (1991) Konservierte Welt, Museum und Musealisierung (Berlin).

Teather, L. (1983) 'Some brief notes on the methodological problems of museological research', in: V. Sofka ed., Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 5 (Stockholm) (1-9).

Vergo, P. ed. (1989) The new museology (London).

Zacharias, W. ed. (1986) Musealisierung. Gespräche zum 'Phänomen Musealisierung' (München).

Zacharias, W. ed. (1990) Zeitphänomen Musealisierung. Das Verschwinden der Gegenwart und die Konstruktion der Erinnerung (Essen).

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