- Peter van Mensch
methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb
- Purpose of understanding
- Although within the diversity of opinions concerning the cognitive
intention of museology some groups can be distinguished, one can hardly speak
of 'schools'. Typically 'schools' have been formed around the purpose of
museological understanding rather than the object of knowledge. Diverging
views concerning the aims and purposes of the discipline even lead to a schism
in the museological community. In 1985 members of the International
Committee for Museology (ICOFOM) founded the Movement Internationale
pour la Nouvelle Muséologie (MINOM).
- Three approaches
- As has been mentioned in Chapter 2 one of the basic
criterions to decide whether museology is a genuine academic discipline is the
degree in which the discipline is able to fulfil a social need. In this
respect distinction should be made between the relevancy of the practical work
in the museological field, i.e. museum work, and the relevancy of museology as
theoretical frame work of that field. If museology is to be accepted as
academic discipline, it must be made clear what kind of contribution it will
make to the general knowledge; if museology is to be accepted as the
theoretical frame of reference of museum work, it must be made clear to what
extent museum workers may profit from it. Especially concerning this last
point different views have been expressed. An analysis of these views gives
the following basic approaches: the empirical-theoretical approach, the
praxeological approach, the philosophical-critical approach.
- These approaches do not exclude each other. While the
empirical-theoretical approach is mainly heuristic and the praxeological
approach designs strategies of behaviour, the philosophical-critical approach
wants to develop a definite point-of-view with resulting guidelines. The
philosophical-critical approach in museology in relation to the
empirical-theoretical and praxeological approaches.
- Rationality [note
- The empirical-theoretical approach aims at
substantial rationality, i.e. the ability to see signifying relationships
between different phenomena in reality. Its aim is mainly descriptive. It
tries to understand museological phenomena in their historical and
socio-cultural contexts. Its usefulness is primarily heuristic. The
praxeological approach focuses on functional rationality. Functional
rationality is the ability to develop adequate means (methods, techniques,
procedures) to realise ends that have been defined beforehand. Its aim is
applicability. It should give very concrete answers to very concrete
questions. In connection with the (museum) institute distinction can be made
between cultural content and structural form. Cultural content concerns values
and norms, meaning and role, i.e. the museum as institution. Structural form
refers to the division of labour, hierarchy of functions, etc., i.e. the
museum as organisation. Structural form is characterised by functional
rationality, while cultural content can be characterised by substantial
rationality. The empirical-theoretical approach in museology tends to focus on
the cultural content (i.e. substantial rationality), while the praxeological
emphasises the structural form of the museological phenomena (i.e. functional
- Both approaches do not exclude each other. As Vinos Sofka
states, the aims of museology are to investigate, analyse and study the museum
and its activities and thereby procure knowledge and experience that can be
generalised and arranged within a system of museum theory having methods and a
uniform terminology of its own, as well as to draw up objectives, to work out
methods and suggest means for the museological activity and to solve its
various problems and create a basis for its continued evolution (Sofka 1980).
Burcaw, on the other hand, clearly aims at functional rationality. He
expresses the point of view that the nature of museological knowledge should
on the whole be pragmatic: '...museology describes how museums came to
be what they are today, prescribes what museums ought to be in regard
to society (ethics), and defines the particular organizational and
procedural structures ...' (Burcaw 1983). In his pragmatism museology is seen
as normative. It should describe 'a desirable organization'. Burcaw's norms,
however, are of a practical nature, or, at any rate, meant to be so. He
rejects axiological norms (see below). Benes also emphasises the technical
nature of museology: 'The application of general museology to specific
conditions does not concern the essence of the museum, it only means a
modification in the forms of work to suit the available means and social
needs. (...) The fears of undesirable manipulation or abuse of museums against
the interests of the nation should not be addressed to museology (but to
enforced cultural politics)' (Benes 1988). Similarly, Desvallées distinguishes
the museological point of view (both theoretical and practical) from the
socio-political forces that sometimes mis-use museums for their own
ideological aims (Desvallées 1988). In this connection he speaks of
'l'objectivité muséologique trahie pour des raisons politiques'.
- Korff rejects the idea of museology as an autonomous academic discipline
on the level of philosophical knowledge [note 3]. He considers museology as 'Theorie der Praxis' concerned with (1)
reflection on museum work, (2) supporting the development of museum work, and
(3) optimizing museum work. Following Hegel Korff sees museology in connection
with the concrete: 'Wer Museologie betreibt, handelt mit den Konkreten und
sieht darin alles'. In other words, Korff emphasises the primacy of the
- In his dichotomy of theoretical and applied museology Zbynek Stransky
distinguishes between three levels of knowledge within the field of
theoretical museology: empirical, theoretical and philosophical knowledge
(Stransky 1983). The initial level is represented by empirical knowledge. In
Stransky's view empirical knowledge is not identical with knowledge based on
sensory perceptions. Though based on facts, empirical knowledge refers to a
system of notions. Through this system we gain access to the level of
theoretical knowledge. Patterns that are not directly discernible on the
empirical level can be recognised and analysed on the level of theoretical
knowledge. The level of philosophical knowledge is concerned with the
fundamentals of museology and a higher degree of synthesis.
- The distinction between the empirical-theoretical and praxeological
approach follows Gluzinski's distinction between Postulated and Real Museology
(Gluzinski 1983). In the present stage (Real Museology) 'factographical' and
practical matters prevail. As such the praxeological approach in museology is,
according to Gluzinski, an expression of a mechanistic conception of the
activity of museums (museum as tool), while it diverts attention from the
problems of museum's essence and sense whose study and explanation should be
the main task of his Postulated Museology. The main contribution of
museological as academic discipline should thus be in the direction of what
has been called the empirical-theoretical approach. Only when museology is
able to evolve into the level of empirical-theoretical thinking, it can
contribute to the improvement on a practical level. Similar views are
expressed by a wide range of authors, like Neustupny, Stransky, Russio, and
- Philosophical-critical approach
- The third approach towards museology concentrates on the development of a
critical social orientation. In this respect Stransky speaks of 'programme
orientation' instead of 'cognitive orientation' (Stransky 1988). It is often
suggested that the prevailing attitude among museologists is one of
non-commitment (Sola 1991). This criticism concerns museums, the museum
profession, as well as museological theory. Views as to a more active social
role of museums initiated some explicit opinions concerning the programme
- One of the most eloquent critics of traditionalist museology is the
Croatian museologist Tomislav Sola. In view of the present degradation of our
environment and other global problems, the traditional museum - even if it
looks modern - is in his opinion a 'temple of vanity' (Sola 1992).
Object-centered, technologically perfectionist, traditional museums are unable
to respond to new needs. Museologists as theoreticians too often help
reformers by focussing on pragmatic solutions. The world, says Sola, needs a
new philosophy, i.e. a new programme orientation. In this respect post-war
museology has offered three main schools of thought: marxist-leninist
museology and new museology, and critical museology [note 4]. Marxist-leninist museology is a very normative approach,
where axiological norms are applied leading to a rather strict system of
rules. New museology and critical museology advocate an attitude rather than
the application of rules. As it was stated at one MINOM conference: 'Il n'y a
pas qu'une seule methodologie de la nouvelle museologie. Il y en a donc
plusiers qui se construisent et s'appliquent dans des projets qui repondent
ses principes et qui ont pour base des realities sociales particulieres'
(Conclusions de 4e Atelier International de Nouvelle Museologie, Saragosse
1987; quoted by Desvallées 1988: 134). A similar attitude of/in museology is
advocated by critical museology. Theorisation should have the role of
questioning, more than defining the frame for a systematic and systematising
work. As such the philosophical-critical approach in museology is connected
with what has been referred to as 'the revolution in museum work' (see Chapter 2).
- Marxist-leninist museology
- One might wonder whether one school of thought in museology could be
identified as marxist-leninist museology. The existence of an uniform
marxist-leninist museology was suggested by Stransky when he proposed to
prepare a dictionary of relevant terms (Stransky 1988b). This proposal was
criticised by Hofmann. Hofmann pointed out that a marxist-leninist (i.e.
socialist) museology did not yet exist (Hofmann 1988). Nevertheless, one finds
many similarities among authors from the former socialist countries,
especially concerning the purpose of knowledge. Within the ICOM International
Committee for Museology the marxist-leninist approach was represented by
Razgon (Soviet Union) and Schreiner (German Democratic Republic), and to a
lesser extend by Stransky (Czechoslovakia). Razgon is very explicit in his
opinion that impartiality is a bourgeois fiction that has to be fought (Razgon
1977). Museums are ideological instruments and should, as such, be controlled
by the Party. This point of view is summarised by Zaks in a handbook on museum
exhibitions: 'The methodological basis of exhibitions of museums of the Soviet
Union is the Marx-Lenin doctrine about nature and the society. The ideological
content of the exhibition must be expressed clearly. The selection and
grouping of the presented material and its interpretation must be done in such
a way that the exhibition might contribute to the formation of the Marx-Lenin
world opinion, that it might reflect events and phenomena of the past or
present from the viewpoint of the Party, that it might fulfil the tasks of
communist education' (Zaks 1980: 60). Consequently museology should follow the
lines of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
- In the (former) German Democratic Republic the development of socialist
museology was seen as reaction against the bourgeois museology of the Federal
Republic of Germany [note 5]. This line of thought is, for example, followed by Klaus
Schreiner. To Schreiner the principal objective of museology is 'the
evolvement of special theoretical fundaments and sets of instruments and/or
procedures for convenient practical action (...). Museology is thus becoming a
guide for museum activity, a guide for practical action' (Schreiner 1985: 36).
This sounds non-committal, but it should be noted that Schreiner's position in
museology is defined by his Marxist-Leninist starting point and has, as
subsequently strong political drive as can be found in 'new
- The East-Berlin Institut fur Museumswesen defined the subject-matter of
museology as the relationship between society and museums, as well as the
specific scientific and cultural role of museums. The purpose is the
development of a socialist museum field. As Schreiner puts it: 'As social
discipline museology has class character (in the class society). The world
view and the gnoseological and methodological foundations of marxist-leninist
museology is derived from dialectical and historical materialism' [note 6]. Museology has class character, which means that it is
defined by the ideology of the class using it. In the case of the German
Democratic Republic this meant that museology should help museums to
contribute to the development of a socialist society and the foundation of a
socialist culture [note
- Not by coincidence, this class character of museology
is rejected by the American museologist Burcaw: 'If each political system
(...) is to decree its own museology, it will hurt the museum profession as a
whole, making it difficult to understand where our common ground lies. It
would be better for all of us, world wide, to accept that there is one general
profession and one general museology' (Burcaw 1983: 11). Burcaw advocates a
museology free from ideology. He sees a difference between museums in western
countries and those in socialist countries. In socialist countries 'the
purpose, beyond general education, is to spread Marxist ideology to the
public' (Burcaw 1981: 29). 'In western countries, "service of society" means
giving people what they want, consistent with the museum's serious educational
nature, not what government decides the public should be given' (Burcaw 1983:
12). Burcaw's claims are easily disproved. Museums in western countries are
not clear of ideology, hence museological thinking in western countries is not
free from ideology either [note 8].
- Nevertheless, views as expressed by museologists
like Burcaw have influenced the acceptance of ICOFOM as a committee, as
well as museology as academic discipline in the Western world. As has been
stated before, Burcaw said what many others thought: the international
museology discourse is used to spread communist ideas. The role of
museologists from the socialist countries from East Europe in the
International Committee for Museology seemed to support this opinion
(see Chapter 3). However, at the moment when the political changes in Europe
were settled the most militant supporters of a marxist-leninist museology were
already retired (Hühns, Jahn) or dead (Razgon, Schreiner) [note
- New museology
- The term 'new museology' has been introduced in museological literature at
at least three different times at three different places. The term has been
used by Benoist (1971: 29) in connection with the developments during the
early 20th century when the art museum started to present well selected
masterpieces in a sparse and neutral way (cf 'museum modernization movement').
The term was also used in 1958 by the Americans Mills and Grove in their
contribution to De Borghegyi's book The modern museum and the
community. In 1980 the term 'muséologie nouvelle' was introduced in France
by André Desvallées when he was asked to write an article on museology for the
supplement of the Encyclopaedia Universalis. Finally, the term was
introduced in Great Britain by Peter Vergo when he published his book The
new museology in 1989. The use of the term was always connected with the
changing role of museums in education and in the society at large. Current
museum practices were considered obsolete and the whole attitude of the
professional was criticised. The profession is urged to renew itself in the
perspective of a new social commitment.
- It is the French concept of 'muséologie nouvelle' that gradually became
recognised as one of the main streams within museology. The term has been
monopolised by two, related, organisations: the Association 'Muséologie
Nouvelle et Experimentation Sociale' (MNES), and the Movement
Internationale pour la Muséologie Nouvelle (MINOM). MNES was founded in
1982 in France to united the supporters of the new museology. It criticises
the dominant role of curators, of art museums and of the museums in Paris.
MINOM was founded in 1985 by a group op people who were not satisfied by the
policy of ICOFOM (see Chapter 3).
- The philosophy of MNES is expressed by Hugues de Varine as follows: 'Comme
mouvement, l'association marque bien son engagement dans la societ‚
contemporaine. Comme rassemblement, elle remet en cause, non pas les
techniques du musée, mais ses missions fondamentales, soit pour les valider en
precisant leur signification, soit pour les contester en proposant des
alternatives'. A similar starting point characterises MINOM. Its supporters
are dissatisfied with 'the monolithic nature of the museological
establishment, the superficiality of the reforms which it proposes and the
marginalization of any experiment or viewpoint which might be described as at
all committed' (Mayrand 1986). They express their frustration about 'the
museums establishment's delay in coming to terms with a number of
contemporary, cultural, social and political developments' in the context 'of
world crisis and re-evaluation of all human endeavour' (loc.cit.). New
museology does not create new museums (René Rivard at the ICOFOM 1992
conference). Its intention is not to renew the museum institute, it rather
advocates a completely new perspective to community development by putting the
people in the centre of consideration. Conventional museums are seen as based
upon obsession (Bernard Deloche) and as such as 'schools of repression'.
Objects should be de-sacralised.
- In the statutes of MINOM initiatives in the context of this new museology
movement have been attributed following common characteristics:
- their role is to provide a population with access to a
better self-knowledge and understanding of the conditions of their
- this museological activity is characterised by an
interdisciplinary approach in which the human being is considered in the
natural, social and cultural environment. Within this perspective the concepts
of 'milieu' and 'context' are essential.
- in this museological activity, methods and practices are
used to actively involve the population;
- this museological activity is characterised by flexible and
de-centralised structures which are appropriate to the territory and
In new museology the museological objectives are geared towards community
development, hence the term community museology. The objective is to contribute
to the development of a given community by re-enforcing a sense of (cultural)
identity. Presentation and preservation of the heritage are considered within
the context of social action and change. As the communities concerned usually
suffer from a negative self-image, it is necessary to provide positive
imagining. Heritage is a resource to be considered and developed within the
context of community improvements. The people of the community themselves have
to take care of their own heritage, hence the term popular museology.
Key-concept is the 'reappropiation du territoire, du patrimoine, pour
l'autodeveloppement individuel et collectif'. Characteristic is the view that
the concept of museum is not confined to a building. The museum can be anywhere,
and is anywhere and everywhere within a specified territory. For this museum
concept the term ecomuseum has been coined, hence the term
MINOM is aware of the relativity of the term 'new', but it is clear that in
the context of 'new museology' 'new' must not be interpreted only in the sense
of modernizing the museum through modern methods of research, documentation,
management, animation, etc., but in relation to its objectives, its stance and
its initiatives (Statutes art. 5-3). Distinction is made between the
'monolithic' museums in the large metropoles and the local museums in rural and
urban communities. Both types of museums should adopt a more active
socio-cultural role. Especially local museums are asked to free themselves from
rules, institutional structures and financial dependency.
The critical tradition within museology mirrors that within other related
cultural fields, although until recently it has shown a distinct tendency to lag
behind (Pearce 1992: 7). The term critical museology itself has been introduced
by Lynne Teather to characterise the approach to museology as adopted by the
Reinwardt Academie (Teather 1983). A similar approach is reflected in Hawes'
statement that the museologist must strive for the 'critical museum', i.e. one
that raises questions about myths, the national past and directions for the
future' (Hawes 1986). The term 'critical' has also been used by Brachert
writing about restoration (Brachert 1985: 30-33). He rejects the
'Konservierungspositivismus' of the scientific trained conservator, but also the
'Renovations nihilismus' of some modern conservators. Referring to Friedrich
Nietzsche (Der Wille zur Macht) Brachert describes nihilism as the
devaluation of the highest values ('Entwertung der obersten Werte'), What is
lacking is the purpose; there is no answer to the why of restoration. Brachert's
answer is critical restoration.
It seems as if the adjective 'critical' is used as unsystematically as the
adjective 'new'. The distinction between 'critical' and 'new' is not clear. In
the United Kingdom the term 'critical curatorship' seems to refer to a similar
general attitude as advocated under the heading 'new museology'. The term refers
to a radically new curatorial practice which starts by engaging a non-specialist
audience. However, whereas new museology as community museology emphasises
positive imagining, critical museology aims at critical imagining. Such
inversion of priorities in, for example, art curatorship is considered necessary
to cope with issues like censorship, racism and internationalism [note
The term critical has also been used in the United
States in relation with museum work. Davis and Gibb emphasise the role of
history museums to teach critical thinking (Davis & Gibb 1988). In this
case, however, the critical attitude refers to the aims of the museum rather
than its policy. Nevertheless, teaching critical thinking presupposes a critical
attitude of the museum itself. In this respect Susan Pearce sees clear
relationships between post-modern thinking in material culture studies and
museum theory as part of a critical cultural theory (Pearce 1992). According to
her, the critical evaluation of the whole museum phenomenon is the new paradigm
- - - - - - - - - -
- Benes, J. (1988) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed.,
Museology and developing countries - help or manipulation? ICOFOM Study
Series 14 (Stockholm) 89-92.
- Brachert, T. (1985) Patina (München).
- Burcaw, G.E. (1981) 'Interdisciplinarity in museology',
Museological Working Papers (2): 29-30.
- Burcaw, G.E. (1983) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed.,
Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series
1 (Stockholm) 10-17.
- Carnes, A. (1986) 'Showplace, playground or forum? Choice
point for science museums', Museum News 64 (4): 29-35.
- Davis, K.L. & J.G. Gibb (1988) 'Unpuzzling the past:
critical thinking in history museums', Museum Studies Journal 3 (2):
- Desvallées, A. (1988) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed.,
Museology and developing countries - help or manipulation? ICOFOM Study
Series 14 (Stockholm) 129-136.
- Duncan, C. & A. Wallach (1978) 'The Museum of Modern Art
as late capitalist ritual: an iconographic analysis', Marxist
Perspective 1 (4): 28-51.
- Gluzinski, W. (1983) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed.,
Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 1
- Hawes, E.L. (1986) 'Artifacts, myth, and identity in
American history museums', in: V. Sofka ed., Museology and identity.
ICOFOM Study Series 10 (Stockholm) 135-139.
- Hofmann, E. (1988) 'Ein museologisches Wörterbuch?
Bemerkungen zum Vorschlag Z.Z. Stransky', Neue Museumskunde 31 (4):
- Hoover, A. & R. Inglis (1990) 'Acquiring and exhibiting
a Nuu-Chah-Nulth ceremonial curtain', Curator 33 (4):
- Hühns, E. (1973) 'Museologie. Geschichte, Gegenstand,
Methoden', Neue Museumskunde 36 (4): 291-294.
- Mayrand, P. (1986) 'The new museology proclaimed',
Museum (148): 200-201.
- Mensch, P. van (1987) 'Practice and theory', Museological
News (10): 115-118.
- Pearce, S. (1992) Museums, objects and collections
- Razgon, A.W. (1977) 'Zum Prinzip der Parteilichkeit in der
Museumsarbeit', Neue Museumskunde 20 (4): 244-251.
- Schlereth, T.J. (1978) 'It wasn't that simple', Museum
News 56 (3): 36-44.
- Schlereth, T.J. (1980) Artifacts and the American past
- Schreiner, K. (1984) Grundlagen der Museologie.
Einführung in die Museologie 5 (Waren).
- Schreiner, K. (1985) Fundamentals of museology.
Einführung in die Museologie 6 (Waren).
- Schreiner, K. & H. Wecks (1986) Studien zur
Museologie. Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Museumswesen 27
- Sofka, V. (1980) 'Museology is the study of the museum and
its activities', Museological Working Papers (1): 12-13.
- Sola, T. (1991) 'Museums and curatorship: the role of
theory', in: G. Kavanagh ed., The museum profession (Leicester)
- Sola, T. (1992) 'What is museology?', Papers in museology
1 (Umea) 10-19.
- Stransky, Z. (1983) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed.,
Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series
1 (Stockholm) 126-132.
- Stransky, Z. (1988) 'Museologie: Deus ex machina', in: V.
Sofka ed., Museology and developing countries - help or manipulation?
ICOFOM Study Series 15 (Stockholm) 207-214.
- Stransky, Z. (1988b) 'Museologische terminologie', Neue
Museumskunde 31 (1): 12-17.
- Teather, L. (1983) 'Some brief notes on the problems of
museological research', in: V. Sofka ed., Methodology of museology and
professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 5 (Stockholm) (1-9).
- Zaks, A.B. (1980) Podgotovka muzejnoj ekcpozicii
- Zijderveld, A.C. (1983) De culturele factor ('s
-  This analysis is based on Zijderveld
-  A special form of the praxeological
approach in museology is Cyril Simard's economuseology.
-  In a lecture for the
Nachdiplomstudium Museologie at Basel, 13.11.1992. >back<
-  In connection with a
philosophical-critical perspective in museology some other terms are proposed.
For example, Hoover and Inglis speak of 'liberated museology' (Hoover &
-  'Die spätbürgerliche Museologie
vertritt einen Museumsbegriff, der (...) gesellschaftlich isolierten
aesthetischen Genuss propagiert (...) oder zeigt offen reaktionaere und
revanchistische Tendenzen, (...). Da die Museen in der BDR im wesentlichen
Einrichtungen des Staates oder Stiftungen kapitalistischer Unternehmer sind,
wird die Museologie von den Kämpfen der Arbeiterbewegung wenig beeinflusst'
(Hühns 1973: 292).
-  These two sentences are translated
from the original German version of Schreiner's thesis (Schreiner 1984: 37).
They do, however, not appear in the official English version of his work
(compare Schreiner 1985: 34). In general Schreiner's contributions to the
ICOFOM conferences are less dogmatic than his German texts (see also Schreiner
& Wecks 1986, chapter II). >back<
-  'Damit tragen sie dazu bei, das
allgemeine kulturelle Niveau zu entwicklen, das bewusste Erkennen und Nutzen
von Möglichkeiten zur schöneren Gestaltung useres sozialistischen Lebens
anzuregen' (Hühns 1973: 292).
-  See, for example, Carnes 1986, Duncan
& Wallach 1978, and Schlereth 1978 and 1980.
-  An interesting case in point are the
Czech museologists. Despite their age and despite their commitment to the
former socialist regime Benes as well as Stransky were able to continue their
work as lecturers in museology. Notwithstanding the many references to
marxism-leninism and the explicit proposals for a marxist-leninist museology
Stransky denies the political implications of his former ideas. Contrary to
their colleagues from (former) Soviet Union, (former) German Democratic
Republic and (former) Czechoslovakia, Maroevic and Sola (Zagreb) never
referred to marxism-leninism.
-  From a report on a seminar on
curatorship in art museums organised by the City University, London in
November 1985 (Museums Journal 90, 1990, (5): 21). The title of the
seminar, 'Critical curatorship', refers to new curatorial practices that