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 In English / Professional development / Literature on museology / P. van Mensch „Towards a methodology of museology" / 07 Museological research

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

Museological research 
(last updated September 1997)

If museology is to be considered an academic discipline, what is its content and methodology, and to what extent can it be distinguished from other disciplines? These questions were discussed from the very beginning of the foundation of the International Committee for Museology. Actually its first symposium (1978) dealt with this topic. Subsequent symposia tended to focus on the relationship between theory and practice, i.e. the use of museological theory for day-to-day museum practice.

Different levels

The term museological research is not used univocally. During the ICOFOM symposium 'Possibilities and limits in scientific research typical for the museum' (Warsaw 1978), the term museological research was often used, but not always with the same meaning. In his contribution to this symposium Wolfgang Klausewitz, for example, used the term in a wide sense as synonym to 'research work within the museum', including analysis, description and comparative evaluation of collections as well as (applied) research with regard to conservation, restoration and exhibitions (Klausewitz 1978). Doing so, Klausewitz fails to distinguish between research in the museum (i.e. research as a museum function) and research of the museum and its functions. In this respect Razgon and Sofka made a more adequate and useful distinction between subject-matter oriented research and museological research. Subject-matter oriented research belongs to the so-called subject-matter disciplines, i.e. the disciplines that have an interest in the collections. As such, subject-matter research is synonymous to 'museum research'. Museological research follows from the cognitive orientation and purpose of museology as discipline. The relationship between museology and the subject-matter disciplines is one of the central issues within the museology discourse. This relationship can be studied on different levels:
  • Level 1: the relation between museology and other academic disciplines in general (meta-museological level);
  • Level 2: the relation between museology and subject-matter disciplines within the museological field (institutional level);
  • Level 3: the relation between museology and subject-matter disciplines on the level of day-to-day museum work (museographical level).
If museology has its own object of knowledge it is then by definition distinct from other academic disciplines (level 1). On a lower abstraction level, the institutional level (level 2), the relationship between museology and other disciplines is not always clear and much discussed. The crucial and most convincing distinction lies on the level of daily routine and concerns the handling of objects and collections, the preparation of exhibitions, etc. (level 3).

Meta-museological level

It is clear that views on the relationship between museology and other academic disciplines (level 1), as found in museological literature, depend on the concept of museology as a science. Nevertheless, it can be stated that to a certain extent museology as well as the subject-matter disciplines are both determined by the use of collections. Subject-matter disciplines elicit new scientific knowledge from objects. They focus on the information content of objects in relation to the specific needs of the discipline. Usually there is an exclusive relationship between the museum collection and one subject-matter discipline. As such, priorities and methodology of the relevant discipline(s) are reflected in the contents and structure of the collections. Concerning the use of collections museological research has another orientation.

In his analysis of the position of museology as a science, Volkert Schimpff puts it very concise: museology studies the 'how' of museum work, the 'what' of the subject-matter disciplines stays outside the scope of its interest (Schimpff 1986). Other authors, however, tend to emphasise the 'why' of museum work as key-element in museological research by referring to the value of objects in relation to the social role of museums. This point of view is reflected in the works of, for example, Hofmann (Hofmann 1983), Maroevic (Maroevic 1983), Schubertova (Schubertova 1982) and Stransky (1974). These authors clarify the different orientations of subject-matter research and museological research on the basis of the distinction of two aspects of the (museum) object, described by Maroevic as scientific and cultural information. Subject-matter disciplines make use of scientific information (Hofmann: 'Fachwissenschaftliche Sphäre'), whereas museology makes use of cultural information (Hofmann: 'Museologische Sphäre'). The different levels of interpretation of the information potential of objects is analysed in a similar way by Schubertova. Following Stransky she makes a clear distinction between the object as part of a museum collection (in German: 'museale Sammlungsgegenstand') and the object as 'musealium' (German: 'Musealie'). The 'museale Sammlungsgegenstand' provides the data needed for subject-matter disciplines. Relevant to museology, however, is the recognised museality which distinguishes a 'museale Sammlungsgegenstand' from a 'Musealie'. To recognize this museality is part of museological research and can in this line of thought even be the very subject-matter of museology itself. In this respect Maroevic and Stransky see museology as one of the disciplines within the sphere of documentation, together with informatics, documentation science, archive science and library science.

The model as elaborated by Maroevic helps us to clarify the position of museology and the specificity of museological research in relation subject-matter research from the metamuseological level down to the museographical level, especially in connection with the position of the collection as research object. As to the position of the activities related to preservation (collection, documentation, conservation, restoration, registration) as specialised research object there is little competition in the field of sciences. There are several academic disciplines concerned with communication and education as well as with cultural institutions. The specificity of museology follows from the specificity of the exhibition and the museum (and related institutes) as research objects. In general it can be said that the rationale of museological research is the recognition of cultural information and the realisation of its social relevance on the institutional and the museographical level.


Museology does not intend to replace subject-matter disciplines within the museological context (level 2), but forms a necessary complement ('Komplettierungsforschung', Razgon 1977). The concept of museological research as complementary research involves interdisciplinarity. The question of interdisciplinarity in museology was briefly touched upon during the ICOFOM Mexico City 1980 symposium and elaborated in MuWoP 2 and at the ICOFOM Paris 1982 symposium. However, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the papers that were published. Part of the papers focus on the relationship between museology and other academic disciplines (the meta-museological level), while others discuss the relationship between museology and subject-matter disciplines on an institutional level.

At this point distinction should be made between the subject-matter disciplines - referred to by Stransky as 'sciences represented in museum affairs' - and disciplines that are used to improve museum practice - 'sciences applied in museum affairs'. This last category of disciplines, like sociology, chemistry, semiotics, pedagogic, management, etc., are usually described as 'support disciplines' or 'auxiliary disciplines'.

Obviously referring to the meta-museological level, Waldisa Russio mentions interdisciplinarity as the methodology for museology (Russio 1983: 121). It is, however, not clear from her paper what is meant. There may be some connection with Bernard Deloche's concept of 'muséologie comme logique de l'interdisciplinarité' (Deloche 1987). Deloche considers the museum as the frame work for the interaction of a wide range of disciplines. Possibly this point of view comes close to Jahn's. Ilse Jahn interprets the interdisciplinary character of museology as the ability, or rather the task, of museology to interlink subject-matter disciplines with support disciplines (Jahn 1981). In this respect she speaks of museology as 'Querschnittdisziplin'. The same point of view has been expressed by Jiri Neustupny who considers the field of museology an aggregate of scientific disciplines bound by the theory of museology (Neustupny 1968).

The apparent conformity of above mentioned ideas is probably based on a different use of the term interdisciplinarity. Throughout MuWoP 2 and other ICOFOM publications the term -disciplinarity can be encountered in many forms: inter-, multi-, etc. Usually no attempts are made to define the used terms. Gluzinski considers the claim of interdisciplinarity to be unjustified, because what we have in museology is only multidisciplinarity (in Museologicke sesity 9: 29). This approach is also found among authors that do not accept museology as distinct and coherent discipline (see, for example, Kavanagh 1992). This is, however, not necessarily in contradiction with the ideas of other authors. The relevant point is not the juxtaposition of disciplines, but the degree of integration on the institutional level as well as on the museographical level. Some authors tend to equal museology as academic discipline with the museological field, but in practice the present professionalisation trend brings about a multidisciplinary segmentation of the museological field instead of an integration of approaches.

In order to speak of 'real' interdisciplinarity it is necessary to have causal or genetic relations. This is far from being realised as yet. Instead there are, as Gluzinski states, only 'accidental, pragmatic relations of a teleological nature' in museum work. However, the example he uses to prove this, may also be used to prove the true interdisciplinary character of museum work (and museology). Gluzinski states, for example, that the scientific description of collections and the routine conservation work on the same collections are two different and separate phenomena, involving two different sets of methods, but as is shown elsewhere there is a connection between both activities which can be expressed by some basic conceptual models (Van Mensch 1990). The same models show that there is also a connection between the group of activities referred to as preservation and those referred to as communication.

Basic and applied research

The use of the term 'museographical research' precedes the use of 'museological research'. The gradual emergence of museology as academic discipline introduced the term 'museological research' not as synonym but as an extension of the concept of 'museographical research'. Starting from this point of view, Sofka divides museological research into basic museological research and applied museological research (Sofka 1980). The first category deals with issues that are common to all museums and that are not within the sphere of activity of any other branch of science. The second category (1) draws the attention of other branches of science to the museum and its activities, (2) initiates research on questions pertaining to the museum and its activities, and (3) applies the results of other branches of research to its own object of study. This approach echoes Neustupny's concept of 'museological disciplines'. In this concept applied museological research is not museological research proper. Museology sensu stricto plays the role of co-ordinator.

Teather's definition of basic and applied research differs from Sofka's (Teather 1983). She considers basic research to consist of original investigation undertaken to acquire new knowledge, with the primary purpose of contributing to the conceptual development of the field or adding to already accumulated, objective and systematic knowledge. Applied research consists of original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge with the primary purpose of applying knowledge to the solution of practical or technical problems. This approach comes close to Stransky's distinction of three levels of knowledge within the field of theoretical museology. Basic research thus refers to the levels of theoretical and philosophical knowledge, while applied research is related to the level of empirical knowledge and the field of applied museology. The distinction between basic and applied research runs parallel to the distinction made between the empirically-theoretical approach and the praxeological approach in museology. In this sense applied research is synonymous to museographical research, while basic research refers to the study of the cultural information of objects.


In his contribution to the ICOFOM London 1983 symposium Burcaw expressed an opinion shared by many museologists: 'I have never thought of museology as having one (methodology)' (Burcaw 1983: 10). Museological practice (and theory) is seen by Burcaw as an amalgam of many methods borrowed from outside the museum field. In his view there is no typical museological methodology, '... or at least not yet'. Other museologists, however, hold other opinions. Throughout the different publications on the theory of museology different views are expressed, ranging from the denial of the possibility of a museological methodology to the proposal of a detailed methodological approach. In order to clarify the apparent contradictions it is useful to distinguish between three hierarchical levels. The highest level of a methodological system is formed by general principles which pervade all sciences. The second level contains methods specific for the cognitive intention of museology, i.e. its basic premises and philosophical foundations. The third level is the level of techniques, i.e. research practice. In this chapter the emphasis will be on the second level.

The complexity of the museological field and the lack of a generally accepted museological methodology gave rise to a wide spread pragmatism as to the level of research practice. 'Pragmatism is the basis for acquiring museographical knowledge. Whatever works is right. What works better is preferable. Experience and evaluation are the means employed' (Burcaw 1983: 17). This pragmatism - or what Judith Spielbauer has called 'useful borrowing' - is found by many museologists. Even those who emphasise the existence of one methodology of museological research, like for example Neustupny and Jahn, accept this borrowing. But if museology exists as a science, it is more than the simple sum of its parts. Museology must provide a broad, encompassing theoretical frame-work in which the interaction of all those different methods is interpreted and understood in explanation of problems and situations characteristic to the museological field. This suggests that within museology the second level of the methodological system is possible.

During the last twenty years, museologists working on the development of a special museological methodology seem to have chosen two different, more or less opposite, directions: a community-oriented and an object-oriented methodology. In modern management terms both approaches might be described as product-oriented versus market-oriented, or supply-oriented versus demand-oriented (Ashworth & Tunbridge 1990: 25), or perhaps more satisfactory as mission-driven versus market-driven (Ames 1988).

The community-oriented methodology is connected with the philosophical-critical approach in museology and has chosen a sociological perspective. This approach is usually museum-centred, but the museum is explicitly seen as a tool enabling the local population 'to understand and to control economic, social and cultural change' (Evrard 1980). In France and the United Kingdom the term New Museology has been introduced to distinguish this so called new approach from the object-oriented approach which is considered traditional or even reactionary: 'While preserving the material achievements of past civilizations and protecting the achievements characteristic of the aspirations and technology of today, the new museology is primarily concerned with community development...' (Declaration of Quebec, 13 Oct. 1984). As such the community-oriented approach is 'market-oriented'. Apart from research techniques borrowed from sociology and marketing, the new museology has not yet provided a research strategy.

Its seems that at least a part of the discussion on the specific methodology of museology, i.e. its basic premises and philosophical foundations ('disciplinary matrix', Kuhn), misses its point as it refers to two different levels: the museographical and the institutional level.

Museographical level

Although rejected by some as being reactionary ('positivistic'), the object-oriented methodology has recently received a good deal of attention among museologists. This approach met considerable support within the International Committee for Museology. The museum object is considered to be the basic unit of the museum working procedures, and the basic parameter determining the complete character of this procedure. The possession of collections is what distinguishes a museum from other kinds of institutions. Consequently the object as key-element has determined the very character of the methodology applied to the museum working procedure. However, 'we do not have museums because of the objects they contain but because of the concepts or ideas that these objects help to convey' (Sola 1986).

Object-oriented methodological thinking has a long tradition especially in the field of conservation. 'There is only one methodology which unites all practitioners of conservation', writes Feilden (1979: 21). In his opinion this methodology should be based on the assumption that 'conservation is primarily a process leading to the prolongation of the life of cultural property for its utilization now and in the future'. Any interventions must be governed by 'unswerving respect for the aesthetic, historical and physical integrity of cultural property'. This underlying philosophical principle provides the framework for the practical work. For example, it means that the interventions must be minimal, reversible and not endangering future intervention. Besides each intervention must be harmonious in colour, tone, texture, form and scale. This approach, as summarised by Feilden, is reflected is most codes of ethics that underlie the museum profession. Nevertheless, there seems to exist a gap between those involved with conservation and its theory and those involved with museology and its theory. For example, in the ICOFOM papers very seldom reference is made to publications in the field of the theory of conservation/restoration. The lack of a consistent museological approach in which the information value of objects is respected and which is clearly distinct from other, subject-matter, approaches, is one of the main reasons of a weak profile of museology as a discipline and as a profession.

Recently a growing interest in museology as an information science can be observed. In this approach the object as data carrier plays a key role. As objects are seen as documents, the proper methodological approach is considered to be found in the information sciences. A case in point is the Croatian museologist Ivo Maroevic applying models developed by information scientist Miroslav Tudjman (Maroevic 1993). Their distinction of scientific and cultural information makes it possible to clarify the relationship between museology and the subject-matter disciplines. Museology focuses on cultural information, i.e. the social value. Like Stransky, Maroevic considers the determination of museality as main task of museology. However, Maroevic' concept of museality differs from Stransky's. Whereas Maroevic considers museality in terms of information, Stransky speaks of value.

Although working from a different direction and using different terminology, the American museologist Hawes agrees with Stransky and Maroevic where it concerns the evaluation of the cultural information (symbolic content in his terms) of artefacts: 'Every country has its symbolic artifacts commonly enshrined in museums. It is an important task of museology to identify them, to see how they misshape perceptions of past and present, to determine how they can be used to clarify historical processes that are still going on around us' (Hawes 1986: 139).

As to the methodological orientation in museology one can conclude that the main approach is object-oriented, but that there has occurred a notable shift from a 'muséologie d'objet' towards a 'muséologie d'idée' (Davallon 1993).

Institutional level

On the institutional level the main lines of thought that can be distinguished reflect the three basic museum orientations as described by Gluzinski: (1) orientation on material objects - historical and research orientation; (2) orientation on man - sociological orientation; (3) orientation on values and meanings - cultural orientation. According to Gluzinski each of these orientations is founded on its own particular epistemological basis in the form of knowledge of different sciences, and thus involves its own methodology (Gluzinski 1988). A similar approach is given by Per-Uno Agren. He distinguishes three perspectives: (1) a historical perspective, which seeks to describe and understand the environmental heritage of a certain area and a certain place; (2) a sociological perspective, which studies the institutions and activities which have come into being as the result of the notion of a cultural and natural heritage; and (3) a communicative perspective, which applies to the attempts to mediate the environmental heritage in time and space (Agren 1992).

Following the first view as described by Gluzinski, research within the museological field is considered to be applied research, derived from the subject-matter specialism of the given museum, completed with other relevant disciplines. This approach necessarily implies that there can be no such thing as 'museological research' as each type of collection/museum requires its own research methodology. According to the second view as described by Gluzinski, as well as the three views as described by Agren, museums are seen as socio-cultural institutions. As such an unifying approach is possible. As this methodological approach tends to focus on the museum as institute the methodology of sociology can be adopted easily. This view has been advocated by many museologists.

In this respect an interesting approach can be derived from Kruithof (Kruithof 1985). The museological field is defined by four aspect or elements. Each aspect brings its own methodology: social relevance - sociology, acting subject - psychology, ideological context - cultural science, and ecological (social) context - anthropology . In this way the conceptual frame works of different social sciences are introduced within the museological field. The contribution of these approaches can be studied on three levels: the field of action, the form of action and the pattern of action. The combination of anthropology and sociology (social anthropology) studies the role of preservation and communication in a certain community. By combining psychology and sociology (social psychology) the relation can be studied between the individual member of a community and the social role of preservation and communication, for example socialisation processes. Finally, the combination of cultural science and sociology (cultural sociology) focuses on institutionalisation processes in the context of prevailing ideologies.

Research topics

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.

The most comprehensive lists of research topics are provided by museologists from East Europe, like Gluzinski (1983), Hühns (1/), Jahn (1982), Lang (1978), Levykin (in Grampp et al. 1988), Pishchulin (1980), Razgon (in Herbst & Levykin eds. 1988), and Swiecimski (1981). The Japanese museologist Tsuruta provides a classification of the fields of museological research in relation to his proposal for a structure of the discipline (Tsuruta 1980). In addition some authors mention one task or a few tasks that according to their view is relevant for a given theme, or might be characteristic for museology. The most detailed research proposals are given by the supporters of an object-oriented, where the recognition of the information potential of the object is the prime concern of museological research.

Not surprisingly the research topics as found in literature reflect the basic parameters of the museological field (object, activities, institute), and their interrelationships, within their social context, i.e. including structural form and cultural content. The topics can be arranged according to a matrix based on the four basic parameters on one axis, and the five disciplinary fields within museology on the other. The above mentioned proposals focus on the fields of theoretical and applied museology, with special attention to the activities, i.e. collecting, documenting, conservation, registration, exhibition design, education. 


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