Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb 1992)
Contextual identity refers to the relations between the object and its environment. In the present model context is seen as important aspect of the information structure of objects. In museological literature emphasis is on the 'museological context', i.e. the context of the object as museum object. In order to understand the object as data carrier it is necessary to have a model of the contextual relations before 'musealisation'. Such modes do exist in the fields of archaeology, material culture studies and ecology, but they should be adapted to the needs of museology. 
Contexts can be defined as the specific 'planes' on which the environment, and the sets of relations that construct and are experienced within those environments, are encountered (Gavanagh 1990: 79). A context can be described as a system, having two 'dimensions': a material (physical) and a conceptual one. As conceptual system, context can be understood as 'discursive field' (Buchloh 1991). As to material context, the position of an object can be defined spatially ('stand') and functionally ('niche'). Also the distinction between micro and macro context can be useful, but the borderline between the two can only be arbitrary. Susan Pearce describes micro context as 'the cubic metre of the object's immediate environment' (Pearce 1986: 199).
A material micro-context may consist of closely related objects intended to form a whole. The term artefact set (ensemble) will be used here for that (limited) number of objects that are intentionally connected, like a painting and its frame, a diner service, a violin and bow, etc. Sometimes a material macro (or meso) context may also be considered as an artifact set with a certain degree of autonomy, like a palace, work shop, etc. 
Some objects show a great mobility within their context. A context with a high degree of mobility of its components might be called a dynamic context (or dynamic artefact set). Another form of dynamism is the inflow and outflow of objects. As a result the composition of a certain artefact set can change continuously (instable context/artefact set), while at the same time other sets stay intact for a very long period (stable context/artefact set).
Increasing interest in the contextual level of the information content of objects has lead to an ecological approach in museology. Methodologically there are two approaches: autecological and synecological. In the autecological approach the consideration starts from one object and the relations of that object with its environment is studied. In the synecological approach the consideration starts from the whole, the cluster, the context. From the synecological point of view a group of objects can be considered as object sensu latiore
Three basic contexts 
Primary Context 
In archive administration distinction is made between registry and archive (Dictionary of Archival Terminology, 1984). Records regularly used for the day-to-day affairs of an agency, institution or organisation are called current records or active records. These records are maintained in their place or origin and administered by the registry. After a certain period of time (retention period), usually based upon the estimated frequency of present and future use, the records are transferred to an archive or disposed of. Sometimes there is an intermediate stage, called record centre, where 'non-current' records are temporary deposited. After appraisal the records are either disposed of or transferred to an archive where they are made available for research and (other) cultural use. 
A similar distinction can be made for the museological field as a whole. Several authors have described the initial context in which the object has a use value and an economic value as primary context (Ennenbach 1983: 86; Klein & Wusthoff-Schafer 1990: 11; Cannon-Brookes 1979). This context has also been described as functional context ('Okotypische Zusammenhang', Treinen 1974: 23) and systemic context (Schiffer 1976). In Dutch archive terminology this period in the biography of records is called dynamic period ('dynamische periode'). 
The primary context stands for an ongoing cultural system. The object can be defined as commodity (Kopytoff 1986: 68). A commodity is a thing that has use value and that can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a counterpart. The exchange can be direct or it can be achieved indirectly by way of money. Usually, especially in the western world, money is used as a means of exchange, so a commodity might also be defined on the basis of its saleability. Notable exceptions are gifts where the object is exchanged against an immaterial favour. From a synecological point of view the primary context is defined by the functions: production (procurement, manufacture, preparation, creation), exploitation (use, consumption) and maintenance. In connection with these functions, distinction can be made between production context and functional context. In addition temporary deposit might be mentioned as third type of subcontext. 
The Swedish SAMDOK organisation divides the primary context into eleven distinct sub-contexts (called 'pools'), based on existing classifications of economic activities: agricultural pool, metals pool, timber and paper pool, food pool, textiles pool, construction pool, trade pool, communications pool, services pool, public administration pool, and homes pool (Rosander ed. 1980). Following the system as developed by SAMDOK, Gavanagh distinguishes between four contexts: home and personal, work, public, and commercial (Gavanagh 1990: 79). From a autecological point of view these contexts are functional & conceptual & macro contexts. On this level they serve as a general frame of reference rather than as contextual definition of an individual object. Kopytoff describes another approach to the classification of the primary context, based on 'sphere of exchange' (Kopytoff 1986: 71). One may, for example, distinguish between the sphere of subsistence items (food, utensils, tools), the sphere of prestige items, and the sphere of rights-in-people. These three spheres represent three separate universes of exchange values. Items within each are exchangeable, and each is ruled by its own kind of morality. 
Museological Context 
The second basic context is the context in which, after a process of selection, the object has acquired a documentary value (secondary context, Ennenbach 1983: 86; Klein & Wusthoffer-Schafer 1990: 11). This context can be equalled with Gluzinski's museodomain, defined as an integrated system of symbolising and communicative behaviours and its creations (Gluzinski 1980). This is a much wider notion than the museum as institutional context. Therefore, the term museological context will be preferred here. It includes Cannon-Brookes' secondary (private collections, palaces and country houses) as well as tertiary environment (museums) (Cannon-Brookes 1979). It extends to in situ preservation. Foremost, the museological context is a conceptual context, and as such a mental institution (B.Wyss [note 1]). 
Archaeological Context 
The third basic context can be referred to as archaeological context. In general this context refers to the non-behavioural state of cultural materials (Schiffer 1976). It can be understood as a form of temporary or permanent deposit of discarded objects. Usually the term refers to objects in the ground, but - as conceptual contexts - attics, cellars, sheds may also be considered as archaeological contexts. In that case it is necessary to indicate whether, from a synecological point of view, temporary deposit is considered part of the primary context or belongs to the archaeological context. 
Artefact sets 
A group of objects (artefact set) is the result of accumulation processes. Accumulation is related to context transforms. In archive administration accumulation within the primary context is called 'natural' accumulation as distinct from artificial accumulation which is the result of transforms from the primary context to the museological (museum) context. A natural accumulation of objects can, for example, be found in households where the activities of the members of the household lead to the inflow (and outflow) of objects. Such accumulation is not just a random collection. In general an artefact set has a certain composition and arrangement, or, in museological terms, a structural and a functional identity. This identity is the reflection of norms, values, activities, etc. of one person or a group of persons (i.e. the conceptual context). Furnishing arrangements, for example, are virtually inseparable from lifestyle; one creates the other, and one is mirrored in the other. According to Seale arrangements and uses of furnishings represent periods in history even more accurately than do the furnishings themselves (Seale 1979).
Occasionally natural accumulated artefact sets are fossilised, and - depending taphonomic processes - preserved in the archaeological context. Museums may acquire artefact sets as documents of certain natural accumulation processes, but being the result of artificial accumulation, the museum collection itself is an artefact set with a certain identity (a conceptual, as well as a structural and functional identity).
Rubbish Theory 
Michael Thompson's Rubbish Theory is based on the recognition of three categories to which objects can be assigned to and of the controlled transfers between them (Thompson 1979). These 'cognitive categories' coincide partly with the conceptual dimensions of the three contexts described above: transient (primary context), rubbish (archaeological context), and durable (partly primary, partly museological context). The categories are not determined by intrinsic physical ('natural') properties, but by the social system, i.e. on the basis of the socially perceived identity. Transient objects are characterised by decreasing economic value. Rubbish has no value. Durable objects are characterised by increasing economic value. Thompson relates the transient and durable state of being to the 'region of fixed assumptions', where the category membership of an object determines the way we act towards it, whereas rubbish is related to the 'region of flexibility', a state of indeterminacy where action determines category membership. According to the Rubbish Theory transient objects have to pass through the rubbish state of being to become durable. In terms of René Thom's Catastrophe Theory a 'cognitive category' or context is a morphogenetic field ('chreod'), an island of determinism in an ocean of indeterminacy. Each context transfer is a passage through a moment of indeterminacy. 
Context transforms
One way to look at objects and their 'behaviour' within the primary context is elaborated by Appadurai and Kopytoff (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff 1986). Key concept in their model is the object as commodity, briefly defined as any thing intended for exchange. Being a commodity is a phase in the social life of objects. Some objects are commodities by destination, that is, intended by their producers principally for exchange; other are commodities by metamorphosis or by diversion, that is, placed into the commodity state though originally not intended for this. The commodity state is related to context transforms. Context transform means that an object is moved into and out of the commodity state (described as commoditization). 
Each change in the social unit of use or the activity of use involves a re-assessment of the value of the object. At the moment of re-assessment the commodity status of objects becomes manifest. Most of the time, however, when the commodity is effectively out of the commodity sphere (i.e. when it is used), its status is inevitably ambiguous and open to the push and pull of events and desires. From an autecological point of view functional degradation involves de-stabilising the position of the artefact in its context. Re-assessment may involve re-use (PP-transform) or the removal from active use in a given context by discarding (PA-transform) or by preserving (PM-transform). 
The life histories of objects can be described as a process of commoditization - de-commoditization - re-commoditization. In an ongoing cultural system objects are transformed through successive contexts. They may persist through numerous system states by changes in use and significance, and by transfers from one individual owner/user to another.
The usual sequence is: workshop/factory - shop - user. Sometimes the life history is more complicated, for instance when the object is sold by the first owner and re-used by a second one: workshop/factory - shop - user 1 - shop - user 2, etc. Between use and re-use there might be a period of 'temporary deposit' (transitional context). In ordinary households this might be the shed or attic. For certain objects this might be of cyclical nature. The object is physically out of focus and ideologically in limbo (Thompson 1979). Quite often the object formally has to be re-activated or brought to life again after a period of seclusion. Of course, there might be a difference between what people consider to be an ideal career of a category of objects, and the actual biography of an individual object. Whereas a sociologist, or 'material culturist', might focus on the ideal career of objects, from a museological point of view the actual biography of the individual objects is more important. 
PP transforms 
Each PP-transform means the prolongation of the social life of the object. It stays within the primary context, there is a certain functional pertinence. There are, however, different kinds of PP-transforms: recycling, secondary use and lateral cycling (Schiffer 1976: 38-39). Recycling involves the adaptation of the object and the use of (parts of) the object for the production of a new artefact. Often, there is no need for extensive modification to make an object suitable for its new use. This type of process is termed secondary use. Lateral cycling occurs when an object is transferred from one user to another. Lateral cycling differs from recycling and secondary use in that no change in the object (as in recycling) or its use (as in secondary use) occurs, although some repair or maintenance may take place between episodes of use.
Fitch mentions some reasons for PP-transforms: saving time and energy (labour costs for the design and actual production of new artefacts), saving natural and human energy invested in materials and artisanship, and saving kinetic energy of construction and the fuel required (Fitch 1982: 30). There is, however, a category of objects that have a high survival value because of a 'decorative, aesthetic strength' which makes an object 'trans-historic'. Its original significance may erode, but not its specific potential to draw attention (Mertens 1981). The 'trans-historic' character of objects is accelerated or enhanced by placing objects in unlikely contexts, i.e. contexts that are opposed to the primary function of the objects. This usually is a critical phase in which a shift from use value to 'cultural' (documentary, symbolic) value becomes manifest. Such objects belong to the category of durable objects as opposed to transient objects which have a low survival value [note 2]. 
Transient and durable objects may be related to Kopytoff's distinction between commodity spheres. Kopytoff distinguishes between different sphere of exchange within the primary context (Kopytoff 1986: 71). There might exist a moral hierarchy among the spheres. Durable objects belong to the highest moral hierarchy. Transient objects can be converted 'upward'. Converting 'downward' might be considered as shameful. 
PA transforms 
Discard means the deliberate removal from the ongoing cultural systems (PA transforms). Usually this is the result of functional degradation. Special PA transforms involve ritual destruction. 
In general discard involves the social death of the object (it is decommoditized), but not always its physical death. Often it remains as a physical entity, as potential source of information, realised through excavation. In palaeontology and archaeology much attention is being paid to the information loss during PA- (and AA-) transforms. This has led to a special field of study, called taphonomy (Lawrence 1968). Taphonomy is the detailed study of the transition of (animal) remains from the biosphere into the lithosphere (described here as PA-transforms) and thus explores post mortem relations between organic remains and their external environment. Usually AA-transforms are also included in taphonomic studies. In this case the term biostratinomy is used for the study of the environmental effect upon organic remains between the death of animals and their final burial. The term diagenesis is used to describe chemical and physical processes acting upon (organic) remains after their burial. Diagenesis is usually considered to be part of taphonomy. Through archaeological excavations (AP or AM transforms) the object might be recovered and re-introduced into the cultural system (it is re-commoditized). 
PM transforms 
Discard (PA-transforms) and preservation (PM-transforms) are both cultural options. Pomian describes a third cultural option, which, in a sense, can be considered as pre-museological (Pomian 1990). He described the forming of collections of objects that are withdrawn from the exploitation cycle in order to serve as a gift to the death or to the gods. These objects are thus publicly precluded from being commoditized. This process has been described by Kopytoff as singularization (Kopytoff 1986: 75). Pomian mentions the following categories of such collections: grave goods, offerings, tributes and loot, relics and sacral objects, and treasuries ('semiophores'). Kopytoff adds public lands, monuments, state art collections, the paraphernalia of royal power, royal residence, chiefly insignia, ritual objects [note 3]. The basic function of these objects and collections is, according to Pomian, to mediate between the here-and-now (the visible world) and the there-and-then (the invisible world). The main difference between these pre-museological forms of preservation and the museological preservation in a strict sense is the religious character of the former form of transfer which is absent in the latter (Desvallees 1989: 348). 
On a macro-level this transform involves the conceptual as well as the physical context. To store the singularised objects special buildings are constructed, like pyramids, treasure houses, etc. Related to the process as described by Pomian, is the forming of collections of souvenirs by individual people. Apart from kings, etc. no physical transform on macro-level is involved. There is however a characteristic pattern on micro-level. For example there seem to be special places where souvenirs tend to accumulate (mantelpieces are a good example). 
PA transforms, including those described by Pomian, are initiated by the users within the primary context. The institutionalisation of the museological context created a supply-demand (pull-and-push) relationship. PM transforms are not only initiated by the users 'within' the primary context (i.e. supply/push factor), but are also the result of active collecting and selecting by specialists working 'within' the museological context (i.e. demand/ pull factor). Ashworth and Tunbridge distinguish between 'supply-oriented' and 'demand-oriented' preservation (Ashworth & Tunbridge 1990: 25). However, their use of the terms supply and demand differs from the approach given in this chapter. Their distinction comes close to the distinction between an object-oriented and a community-oriented methodology as described in Chapter 7. Their demand-oriented refers to a type of preservation determined ultimately by those whose heritage is being presented. To some extend this agrees with the supply factor in PM-transforms as described in the present chapter. 
To some extent PA and PM transforms can be considered as terminal commoditization, further exchange is not possible (being part of the archaeological context) or precluded by legal or cultural fiat. However, neither PA nor PM transforms appear to be a form of formal decommoditization. Archaeological material continues to have an exchange value which becomes manifest after excavation. Likewise commoditized objects remain potential commodities after musealisation. 
Other transforms 
There are two types of transforms: those within a basic context and those from one basic context to another. The latter involve a more fundamental conceptual change than the former. PP transforms have been discussed already. AA transforms have been mentioned in connection with 'taphonomy'. Construction work may involve the removal of earth with archaeological material; household refuse might be used to fill in ditches; the activities of moles might mix a clay tobacco pipe with roman terra sigillata. MM transforms remain to be explained. The most obvious MM transforms on a macro level concern exchange of objects between museums. An example is the present policy of the Netherlands government to encourage reallocation of objects and collections in order to improve the coherence of the 'Collection Netherlands'. Relevant MM transforms are also the movements of objects between storage and exhibition, and within a permanent exhibition from one show case to another. Such transforms can be the result of scientific or aesthetic revaluation. 
PA and PM transforms have been mentioned already. AM transforms involve archaeological excavations or palaeontological field work. AP transforms involve the economic use of excavated material such as, for example, the use of excavated cat mummies from Egypt as fertiliser. MP transforms do not happen very often. One might consider theft as an attempt to re-introduce museum objects in the primary context. One example is the policy of the Netherlands government to deaccess part of the national collection of contemporary art. Initiatives are taken to donate works of art to public institutions, such as hospitals, old people's homes, schools, etc. MA transforms are even more rare. Very seldom museums are destroyed by natural disasters, but sometimes museums appear to hold objects in such a bad condition that removal is considered. 
There is a need of a study of context transforms from a museological point of view. Most available studies focus on PM transforms as most important of the processes leading to the accumulation of objects in the museological context. 
Cultural formation processes 
The cultural options that are referred to can be understood as cultural formation processes. In this connection Schiffer speaks of C-transforms (Schiffer 1976: 14). In his model C-transforms concern the materials that are discarded during the normal operation of a cultural system and do not include PM transforms. As opposed to cultural formation processes Schiffer mentions noncultural formation processes (N-transforms) concerning postdepositional changes in site and artefact morphology (AA transforms). 
Theoretically speaking these processes complete each other, but due to intentional selection and 'loss' during the context transforms, the sum total of the material contents of the museological and the archaeological context is never congruent with the material content of the primary context. Despite a considerable loss of information the PP-, PA-, AA- and AM-transforms lead to an accumulation of 'sozialen Erfahrungen, Kenntnisse, Erkenntnisse, Einstellungen, Fahigkeiten, Fertigkeiten, Gewohnheiten, Bedurfnisse, materiellen und geistigen Erungenschaften'. This accumulation has been called social inheritance ('soziale Vererbung') by Schreiner and Wecks (1986, Chapter I, p. 19). More general the term musealization is used as special form of cultural formation process (= patrimonialization, Davallon 1993: 13) [note 4].
The inflow of objects into the museological context is much larger than the outflow. 'The constant flow of works of art from the private sector to the public sector (...) still stands as an unassailed dogma (...) No one so far has challenged what might be described as museum imperialism' (Strong 1988: 19). This 'imperialism' or 'expansionism' has lead to ever growing museum holdings. In ecological terms the primary context can be considered as source, while the museological context functions as sink. In case of non-renewable resources this phenomenon eventually results in 'underdevelopment' at the source-side and 'overdevelopment' at the sink-side. From a synecological perspective each context transform leaves an 'open' niche. Underdevelopment means that the removed object is not replaced or is replaced by an inferior object. 
P-M transforms are controlled by social factors. Kopytoff explains that power often asserts itself symbolically by insisting on its right to singularise an object, or a set or class of objects (Kopytoff 1986: 73). In a similar way, Pomian relates the ownership of semiophores to social hierarchy. Members of the highest social classes are surrounded by semiophores, during their lives as well as in their graves. 'We now know that this did not happen because the inhabitants of palaces or temple had taste lacking with the rest of the population, but because the hierarchical position they had, obliged them to do so. In traditional societies it is not the individual that collect objects they like, it is the social position that generates collections' (Pomian 1990: 46). Similarly Kopytoff states that 'power often asserts itself symbolically precisely by insisting on its right to singularise an object, or set or class of objects' (Kopytoff 1986: 73). 
Pomian describes a tendency to democratisation of the ownership of semiophores. However, despite this democratisation collections are still tokens of superiority and at the same time instruments which enable the owners to exercise a dominant influence on the intellectual and artistic milieu' (see also Sola 1984).
'The language of cultural resource management might be termed the language of cultural capitalism. It is a practice in which a series of individuals assert a hegemonic claim to the past and organise the temporal passage of this cultural capital from its historical context to the present of spectacular preservation, display, study and interpretation. The professional body decides on the basis of its claimed knowledge what is worth either preserving or excavating. After subsequent interpretation or conservation the public, or non-professionals, are informed that this is their past, their heritage, and that it should be meaningful to them' (Shanks & Tilley 1987: 24). Objects belonging to 'inferior' cultures were collected and presented and stripped of their original meaning, confirming the coloniser's power (Araujo & Bruno 1988). 
In themselves museum collections are to be considered cultural artefacts. Pearce points at the importance of 'collections studies' as part of museological research (Pearce 1992). Her suggestion, in fact, meets one of the main shortcomings from her earlier methodological propositions, namely the critical analysis of the genesis of the collection. For most subject matter research the collection is the source of information, rather than the individual object. The documentary value of objects is at least related to the collection of which it forms a part. 
Appadurai, A. (1986) 'Introduction: commodities and the politics of value', in: A. Appadurai ed., The social life of things (Cambridge) 3-63. 
Araujo, M.M. & C.Bruno (1988) 'New trends in Brazilian museology', in: V. Sofka ed., Museology and developing countries. ICOFOM Studie Series 14 (Stockholm) 31-38. 
Ashworth, G.J. & J.E.Tunbridge (1990) The touristic-historic city (London). 
Bazin, G. (1967) The museum age (Brussels). 
Buchloh, B. (1991) 
Cannon-Brookes, P. (1979) 
Davallon, J. (1993) 'Introduction. Le public au centre de l'evolution du musee', Publics & Musees (2): 10-15. 
Desvallees, A. (1989) 'Le defi museologique', in: La museologie selon Georges-Henri Riviere. Course de museologie. Textes et temoignages (Bordas) 345-367.
Ennenbach, W. (1983) 'Das Wesen der Musealien', Muzeologicke sesity (9): 85-89. 
Fitch, J.M.. (1982) Historic preservation: curatorial management of the built world (New York). 
Gavanagh, G. (1990) History curatorship. Leicester Museum Studies Series (Leicester). 
Gluzinski, W. (1980) U podstaw muzeologii (Warsaw). 
Klein, H.J. & B.Wusthoff-Schafer (1990) Inszenierungen an Museen und ihre Wirkung auf Besucher. Materialien aus dem Institut fur Museumskunde 32 (Berlin). 
Kopytoff, I. (1986) 'The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process', in: A.Appadurai ed., The social life of things (Cambridge) 64-91. 
Lawrence, D.L. (1968) 'Taphonomy and information losses in fossil communities', Geological Society of America Bulletin 79: 1315-1330.
Mead, S.M. (1983) 'Indigenous models of museums for Maori museums in Oceania', Museum (138): 98-101. 
Mertens, J. (1981) 'Omtrent musea en concerten', Wijsgerig Perspectief (6): 155-159. 
Pearce, S. (1986) 'Thinking about things', Museums Journal 85 (4): 198-201. 
Pearce, S. (1992) Museums, objects and collections: a cultural study (Leicester). 
Pomian, K. (1990) De oorsprong van het museum. Over het verzamelen (Heerlen).
Rosander, J. ed. (1980) Today for tomorrow. Museum documentation of contemporary society in Sweden by acquisition of objects (Stockholm). 
Schiffer, M. (1976) Behavioral archeology (New York). 
Schreiner K. & H.Wecks (1986) Studien zur Museologie 1. Schriftenreihe Institut fur Museumswesen 27 (Berlin DDR). 
Seale (1979) Recreating the historic house interior (Nashville). 
Shanks, M. & C.Tilley (1987) Re-constructing archaeology (Cambridge). 
Sloterdijk, P. (1991) 'Das Museum als kulturelle Zeitmaschine', Kunstforum (111): 
Sola, T. (1984) '(basic paper)', in: V. Sofka ed., Collecting today for tomorrow. ICOFOM Study Series 6 (Stockholm 1984) 60-69. 
Strong, R. (1988) 'Scholar or salesman? The curator of the future', Muse 6 (2): 16-20. 
Thompson, M. (1979) Rubbish Theory (Oxford). 
Treinen, H. (1974) 'Museum und Offentlichkeit', in: Zur Lage der Museen (Boppard) 
  • - - - - - - -
(1)  Quoted by Sloterdijk 1991: 230. Sloterdijk adds: 'Befor das erste Museum gebaut war, existierte es bereits als Denkform des Evolutionismus und Historismus'. >back<
(2)  Schiffer (1976: 45) also uses the term durable object, but with a different meaning: 'tools, machines, and facilities - in short, transformers and preservers of energy'. Instead of transient object Schiffer uses the terms consumable and energy source.>back<
(3)  The Greek thesauri described by Bazin (1967: 12) belong to this category. Similar treasuries were (and are) found all over the world (Bazin 1976, Chapter 2; see also Mead 1983 for Oceania).>back< 
(4)  The term musealisation shows its German-Czech language background. In English sometimes the term museumization is preferred. Both terms are synonymous to museification which term has a French background. >back<