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

Towards a methodology

A necessary prerequisite for the possible contribution of the theory of museology to the actual operation of museums in practice is a usable methodology. This, however, is still an underdeveloped aspect of museology. Museological methodology should enable us to describe and understand museological phenomena. It should also provide the basis for (re-)integrating the different specialisms within the profession. As far as conservation and exhibition design are concerned, separate methodologies have already been developed, and the application of methodologies within the field of research derived from subject-matter specialisms is well established. Equally, there is the tradition of applying sociological approaches within museology. A specific museological methodology which encompasses, or at least integrates these methodologies and methods is, however, lacking.


Behind the following proposal of a museological methodology is the 'genetic epistemology', developed by Jean Piaget. This epistemology proceeds from the premise that observable reality is the only knowable reality and that knowledge about this reality is constructed through the interaction between the individual and his/her environment. The constructing is characterised by the development of more and more complex abstractions. Scientific knowledge, as expressed in a scientific theory, tries to translate daily experience into formal constructions to gain more control over observable reality. Such 'symbolic generalisations' form the core of the disciplinary matrix, i.e. the paradigm (Kuhn 1976). The aim is not to propose a scientific theory, but a method(ology). This method(ology) is not intended to develop specific techniques, but aims at an 'art of models', satisfying a fundamental epistemological need.

As Edwina Taborsky has explained, there are two main specific methods for dealing with images of social heritage and social consciousness: the 'oral syntax' and the 'industrial syntax' (Taborsky 1982). In the oral syntax storage of social images and knowledge is not achieved by the abstraction of heritage from daily historical interaction, but is an action performed at the time of usage. The industrial syntax separates (wo)man and heritage by creating a symbol in particular concrete form which is stored. The concept of museology advocated hereafter is based on Taborsky's industrial syntax. This is justified on the axiomatic basis that physical, original, three-dimensional objects have an intrinsic value that transcends representations of them, such as drawings, photographs and replicas.


Although the methodology as elaborated hereafter is strongly 'object-based' the object is not the only basic parameter. It is always the object in relation with the other basic parameters that forms the content of museological consideration.

Despite the apparent diversity as to theories in museology there seems to be a high degree of unanimity concerning the basic parameters. Usually three parameters are given: collection, museum (as institute and/or building) and public (Maure 1988). The basic parameters of new museology are usually presented in opposition to those mentioned before. They are: heritage (instead of collection), territory (instead of institute and building) and population (instead of public) (Nicolas 1984). The long-term program of ICOFOM is also based on the interrelationship of three basic parameters, which seems to be a compromise between traditional and new museology: cultural and natural heritage, museum institute and society. This subdivision follows from the notion that society produces and uses heritage with the museum institute fulfilling an intermediary role.

The traditional museum is by definition an institute in which the preservation and use of heritage is implemented, but only in relation to tangible, movable objects, usually excluding books and other written and printed documents. If we follow Deetz's definition of material culture (see Chapter 12) other institutes come within our scope too. The institutes are depicted by Sola in a 'solar system' type of diagram (Raippalinna 1988). Sola purposely places the heritage in the centre (as 'the sun'), and not the museum institute. Referring to the replacement of the Ptolomean model of the solar system by the Copernian model, he suggests to establish a system of heritage care "in which heritage itself would be at the centre, and with museum institution as just one among equal planets around" rather than putting museums at the centre of the heritage which he considers to be the prevailing spiritual pattern (Sola in Boylan ed. 1992: 103).

The three parameters represent the microlevel (object/heritage), mesolevel (institute/territory) and macrolevel (society) of museological understanding. Following Sola's metaphor of the solar system the levels of understanding can be visualised as a globe with three spheres. However, a more advanced analysis asks for a further distinction between the institute and its functions. Doing so, we can visualise the basic parameters and their interrelationship as a globe with four different spheres. The innermost sphere stands for the object, or by extension the collection or heritage at large. The second sphere refers to the functions. The third sphere concerns the institutional form in which the functions are implemented. All (museological) institutes can, in view of their objectives, be seen as social-cultural organisations. They serve the interests of individual and/or social development. That brings us to the fourth sphere, which relates to society as a whole.

First sphere

The first parameter consists of 'the object', seen as the methodological reduction of our cultural and natural heritage. Heritage is considered as that part of our material environment which our ancestors considered worthy of preservation for future generations. Ashworth and Tunbridge use the term heritage in an explicit meaning referring to both the idea of some modern value inherited from the past as well as a legatee for whom this inheritance is intended (Ashworth & Tunbridge 1990: 24-25). The inescapable implication is the existence of a market. Heritage is brought into being and maintained for a legatee, it implies a type of preservation ultimately determined by those whose heritage is being presented. The same meaning is followed in the present chapter. As Stephen Weil has pointed out, concepts and relationships, and not things alone, lie equally at the heart of museological work (Weil 1990). The specificity of museum work is not object limited, but object based. It is about concepts and relationships in relation to objects. In Chapter 12 a model will be introduced which attempts to combine object, value and relations.

Second sphere

There seems to be a consensus of opinions as to the complete range of activities concerning the preservation and use of our cultural and natural heritage. Opinions differ, however, as to their grouping. In the present publication all activities are grouped into three groups (called basic functions): preservation, research and communication. Preservation and communication are the museological functions , i.e. the expressions of a special relationship between a given community (sphere 4) and its heritage (sphere 1). The concept and content of the museological functions are elaborated in Chapter 17.

Third sphere

The so-called museological functions can be found in different forms in all communities. In many communities these functions are institutionalised. 'The' museum is such institution where a special form of preservation and communication is implemented. It is not the only possible form of institutionalising. Following Sola the third parameter concerns a wide range of 'heritage institutes'. This aspect is dealt with in Chapters 23-26.

Fourth sphere

Humanity at large (in past, present and future) is the general context of museological thinking and museological work. In practice one tends to focus on a more narrowly defined part of humanity, using terms such as society or community. As 'the object' is usually considered being the 'atom' of heritage, 'the visitor' is mostly referred to as the 'atom' of humanity.

Hierarchical positioning

The hierarchical positioning of the parameters, starting from 'the object' is considered to be typical for 'traditional museology'. 'New museology' is based on a reversed hierarchy. According to this approach, any museological methodology should start from the needs of society.

The first sphere is shared with the subject matter disciplines. The fourth sphere is shared with social sciences. The relation between the first and second spheres represents the 'internal debate' in museology, whereas the relation between the second (and third) and fourth spheres refers to the 'external debate'. Roughly speaking, it represents the traditional orientation of collections management or preservation (object-oriented) versus the traditional orientation of communication (community oriented).

However, whether going from 'inside to outside' (i.e. object-oriented methodology) or going from 'outside to inside' (community-oriented methodology) museological theory and practice aim at "the systematic combination of the values of objects [the innermost sphere] and human beings [the outermost sphere]" (Tsuruta 1980: 48). The specificity of museology as theory and practical work lies in the combination of the second (i.e. functions) and third (i.e. institutions) sphere within the polarity of heritage and society..

Integrated methodology

A possible integrated methodology of museology can be based on the following four starting points:

Field of action. There is a special relation of mankind to its physical environment. In connection with objects the term museological context is used, being the particular conceptual and material context in which those objects acquire a special meaning, based on cultural rather than economic value.
Form of action. The museological context materialises in an institutional form, with the museum as typical example.
Pattern of action. The special relationship manifests itself in a characteristic set of activities which form the components of the museological institutes. These basic museological activities are: preservation (including collecting, conservation, restoration, documentation) and communication (including exhibition and education).
Object of action. These activities create and use a selected part of our material environment which we usually call 'heritage' with 'the object' as unit of action.
Purpose of action. The action serves in moulding the consciousness of the society through which it can stimulate communities within the society to link together past and present in the perspective of the future, and to identify themselves with indispensable structural changes and calling forth others appropriate to their particular socio-cultural context.


Ashworth, G.J. & J.E.Tunbridge (1990) The touristic-historic city (London).

Boylan, P. ed. (1992) Museums 2000 (London).

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

Maure, M. (1988) 'Identitet, økologi, deltakelse - om museenes nye rolle', in: J.A.Gjestrum & M.Maure ed., Økomuseumsboka (Tromsø) 16-32.

Nicolas, A. (1984) 'Du musée institutionnel au "nouveau" musée', M.N.E.S. Info (2/3): 1-2.

Raippalinna, P. (1988) 'Vad är museologi?', Museo (3): 17-20.

Taborsky, E. (1982) 'The sociostructural role of the museum', The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship 1, 1982, (4): 339-345.

Tsuruta, S. (1980) 'Definition of museology', Museological Working Papers (1): 47-49.

Weil, S.E. (1990) 'The proper business of the museum: ideas or things?', in: S.E.Weil (1990) Rethinking the museum (Washington) 43-56.