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

Museological functions

The special relationship to reality which underlies the concept of museology manifests itself in a series of activities. These activities may be clustered into 'functions' attributed to special institutes. The most important and most characteristic of these institutes is the museum. It should be noted that distinction has to be made between the function(s) of the museum institute and functions as one of the basic parameters in museology, i.e. the museological functions [note 1]. Nevertheless, the museological functions will be discussed here in the context of the function(s) of the museum as institute [note 2]. It should, however, be noted that an analysis which focuses on the functions of the museum cannot also be used as analysis giving answers for the origin and existence of the museum. 'What a system does cannot necessarily be turned into the reason for that system: a museum is not simply the sum of its functions' (Taborsky 1982: 339).

Functional areas

Noble distinguished five basic responsibilities of every museum: to collect, to conserve, to study, to interpret, and to exhibit. 'They form', he wrote, 'an entity. They are like the five fingers of a hand, each independent but united for common purpose. If a museum omits or slights any of these five responsibilities, it has handicapped itself immeasurably ...' (Noble 1970). The same five tasks are found in the ICOM definition of museum, usually considered the most comprehensive museum definition. A few words should be said about a sixth function. The Instituut voor Taxonomische Zoologie (Amsterdam) gives four main functions, in the following order: university training, research, collecting and making exhibitions for a general public. The museum is an university museum. The role in university training, however, reflects an old tradition in museums going back to the 18th century. In that period (art) museums were seen as places to train artist by copying Old Masters.

Generally speaking the key areas of activity mentioned by Noble in 1970 are still considered the basic tasks of museums. There are, however, different opinions as to the grouping of these tasks. These differences in opinion reflect different approaches as to the basic responsibilities of the museum. These different approaches in turn are connected with the evolution of the organization structure of institutes. It is interesting to see that the traditional museum functions have kept their original foundations. What is at issue these days is more the meaning of those functions than their justification (Viel in Côté ed. 1992).

Two models

In contemporary museological literature two different proposals have come to the fore, they will be preliminary referred to as the PRC model and the CC model. The PRC model represents an organisational structure based upon the distinction of , apart from administration, three functional areas: preservation, research, and communication. The CC model is based upon two functional areas: collections management, and communication (plus administration).

The PRC-model already has a long pedigree. In 1956 the PRC model was adopted by the Chinese Association of Museums as the basic structure of museums. It was also given in the final report of the UNESCO regional conference on the role of museums in contemporary Africa in Jos, Nigeria (1964). Furthermore, 'le triplé Recherche, Conservation, Présentation' was the basic structure of the Cours de muséologie génerale contemporaine, directed by Georges-Henri Rivière at Paris (1971-1982). The model has been used in publications initiated by the Reinwardt Academie from 1983 onwards. It provides the basic outline of the museology courses at the Reinwardt Academie. The classification of the Reinwardt museological library and documentation centre is based on the same model.

In this 'triologie indissociable' (Desvallées 1989: 348) preservation encompasses collecting, conservation, restoration, storage, and documentation; research refers to the scientific interpretation of the information value of cultural and natural heritage; communication includes all possible methods to transfer information to an audience, like publications, exhibitions and additional educational activities. Some authors separate collecting from preservation thus suggesting a four-fold model. Rivière, working on the basis of a three-fold model, considers collecting to be a part of research rather than preservation. The distinctive characteristic of the PRC model, however, is the separation of research from the other functions. As such this model refers to scientific museums rather than to art museums.

The CC model is given in the Manual of Curatorship. The twofold model is also used by the Museums Association (UK) in its Policy statement on performance measurement. Apart from operation (defined as 'the management of the museum's resources including buildings, visitor facilities, finances and staff'), this last document makes mention of curation (defined as 'the acquisition, care, conservation, documentation and storage of the collections and the research and scholarly output relating to those collections and the wider role of the museum') and communication (defined as 'the presentation of the collections to the public through education, exhibition, information and publication services').

The CC model is also advocated by Michael Spock who suggests to divide the museum into two distinct institutes: a scholarly research centre ('curatorial based') and a public museum ('client based') (Falk 1987). As Spock's suggestion makes clear, both models start from the museum institute rather than the theory of museology. Both models list the basic functions of a museum. This is not the same as an inventory of functions in the context of museology as an academic discipline [note3]. The bottle-neck is the role of research. The inclusion of research as museological function is a remnant of the institute-oriented approach in museology. Subject-matter research cannot be considered part of museology. Museology proper is restricted to the preservation and communication functions, to be described as the enhancement of the physical and intellectual accessibility to our material heritage, or in terms of Gluzinski the symbolising and communicative behaviour (Gluzinski 1980).

To overcome the limitations of an institute-based model Stránský introduced the concept of heuristic field (see Chapter 6). He distinguished between three heuristic fields which cover more or less the basic responsibilities of the museum institute: selection, thesauration and communication. Selection includes the same process as referred to with the term collecting in above mentioned models. Thesauration includes the process of collection development (see Chapter 19). Recently, Stránský adopted the term documentation for selection and thesauration. The museum is seen as 'a dialectic unity of documentation and communication', thus reflecting the CC model.

The PRC model emphasises the 'emancipation' of the care for collections at the one hand, and the integration of all public oriented activities at the other. For that reason Stephen Weil described this model as new paradigm in museology reflecting new approaches to the responsibilities of museums (Weil 1990: 57-65). In reaction to Weil's description of the PRC model a New York museum director wrote: 'The "emerging paradigm" Weil suggests chops off two of five fingers [i.e. Noble's model, PvM] and attempts to graft the digits to the remaining ones. As museums enter the 21st century, it's high time their charter purposes and mission statements were purged of outmoded, misunderstood, imprecise, imperative lexicon. "Preserve" is a passive word that best applies to old buildings and fruit jam. "Study" is a weak term that implies self-indulgent investigation without regard for outcome. "Communicate" means simple imparting of information. I believe that successful museums enhance their holdings by increasing their significance, scope, size, and value by the process of planned acquisition, care and conservation, research, documentation, and deaccession. These museums also interpret their collections by revealing their meaning and significance by a variety of appropriate means to various audiences. So instead of detaching digits, I suggest we assume the two-fisted stance of enhancement and interpretation' (Museum News 69, 1990, (3): 98-99). This criticism reflects a semantic and a conceptual problem. Semantic, since it points at a terminology which is partly misunderstood and partly unclear or perhaps old fashioned. Conceptual, since it advocates an active, synthetic approach as opposed to a reflective, analytic approach. Basically the view expressed by this critical letter reflects afore mentioned CC model.


Unfortunately there is no consistency in terminology throughout literature. The Museum Association's definition of curating differs from the definition given in the Arts & Architecture Thesaurus. In this last publication curating is defined as 'superintending or managing the collections, exhibits, research activities, and personnel of a museum, art gallery, zoo, or other places of exhibit ...'. In fact, it includes all institutional activities. Usually the term is used in a narrower sense. The scope of the term is related to the task field of the curator (see Chapter 9).

In the British CC model the terms collections management and curation are used as synonyms. However, the concept of collections management is not unambiguous. The Museums & Galleries Commission of the U.K. uses the term collection (!) management covering acquisition and disposal, documentation as well as conservation. In the Arts & Architecture Thesaurus the term collections management has a more limited connotation. It refers to the administrative managing of collections, including collecting, but excluding conservation.

Research (or scholarship; Bud, Cave & Hanney 1991) in both models refers to what usually is called subject-oriented research, to be distinguished from examination as part of - or rather in preparation to - conservation and restoration. The academic discipline involved in research is usually called subject matter discipline. The interwoveness of subject matter research and preservation is also seen in the United States where during the 1970s the main interest of archaeologists shifted towards cultural resource management ('CRM-archaeology'), which is mainly 'client oriented' conservation archaeology (see contributions of Dunnell and Raab in Green ed. 1984). Especially the use of the terms preservation and conservation provides difficulties. In their Guidelines for a registration scheme (1989) the Museums & Galleries Commission uses the term preservation including 'all aspects of conservation and security', but excluding collecting and documentation. In the present publication the term preservation is used as broad term encompassing all activities concerned with the recording and retrieval of all data embodied in and connected with the object. For this broad concept some authors are inclined to use the term conservation, like, for example, the Arts & Architecture Thesaurus. In its Guidance for conservation practice (1985) the UK Institute for Conservation defines conservation as 'the means by which the true nature of an object is preserved'. This is rather similar to the concept of preservation as presented in the present text, since the true nature of an object is described as 'evidence of its origin, its original construction, the materials of which it is composed of, and information as to the technology used in its manufacture. Subsequent modifications may be of such a significant nature that they should be preserved'. In architecture, however, preservation is connected with individual buildings and conservation with areas (Pevsner in Tschudi-Madsen 1976: 7). In this approach both terms reflect a difference in scale of intervention, rather than a hierarchy of terms.

In the Manual of Curatorship the term visitor services is used as synonymous to communication. Weil proposes to redefine the concept of communication in order to express the purposes for which a museum deals with its public in a far finer and more precise way than we thus far have. In answer to his question some writers suggested interpretation. The term interpretation was introduced in museum terminology in the course of the 1950s as an alternative for education which term was found too much connected with schools (Tilden 1957). However, the precise meaning of the term interpretation is not unambiguous. The Museums & Galleries Commission (U.K.) uses interpretation as broad term covering such divers fields as display, education, research and publication (in Guidelines for a registration scheme for museums in the United Kingdom, 1989).


The process of professionalising the museum world is attended with a growing internal specialisation. A rational analysis of the key areas of activity lead to division of labour. The evolution of the organisation structure of large museums can be described according to the following, generalised scheme:

Phase 1 all functions united;
Phase 2 separation of administration;
Phase 3 separation of communication, at first only the educational function, later also including the display function;
Phase 4 separation of conservation and documentation;
Phase 5 further differentiation into functional sub-systems

According to Jahn the process of separating functions is connected with the introduction of the bi-partite museum model (Jahn 1979: 167). Significantly the introduction of this model coincides with the first stage of professionalisation (see Chapter 2). The decisive developments, however, took place during the last three decades. In the course of the 1960s and 1970s expanding museums hired ever-increasing numbers of specialists. The growing importance of the administrators in museums triggered off Washburn's complaints about museology (see Chapter 2). Expansion, specialisation and professionalisation involved departmentalisation. New types of functions developed with sharper differentiation of functional sub-systems and with a high degree of selfcontainment. Efficient partitioning became gradually formalised into a rigid structure of functional departments.

Expansion, specialisation and professionalisation have influenced the balance between research and communication (curator versus educator), preservation and communication, and more recently preservation versus research. These conflicts involve the hierarchy of functions. Traditionally, the opposition of preservation and communication is experienced as 'a dramatic dichotomy' (Sola in Boylan ed. 1992: 111), or in a more neutral way 'a dialectic unity' (Stránský 1982). The ICOM Code of Professional Ethics considers preservation the main responsibility of museums. However, as almost all authors point out, preservation can never be an aim in itself, it is always connected with other functions. Washburn considers research as the core of museums (Washburn 1967 and 1985). All other activities, including preservation, are to be considered as support activities. This approach has been referred to as 'conservation étude' by Andre Desvallées (Desvallées 1989). On the other hand, Treinen considers preservation and research as 'Operationalisierungen des Zieles Bilden', which means that a museum collects, maintains and researches collections in order to be able to educate (Treinen 1973). This approach has been referred to as 'conservation enseignement' by Desvallées. In this view, preservation - research - communication not only express the three main phases of musealisation but also reflect a hierarchy of functions.

Stephen Weil gives a rather pragmatic argument for this last model 'If museums were to be presented fundamentally as a place for learning, then in the competition for public funds, they would find themselves pitted against a broad array of other and often stronger educational institutions. Likewise, if museums were to be presented essentially as centres for scholarship, the competing claims of universities and research centres might be difficult to overcome. (...) Thus, in the competition for public funds, it has made a kind of strategic sense to stress what is most distinctive about museums - that they acquire and care for collections' (Weil 1990). Interestingly, as to the content this point of view echoes the original idea of the Classicist museum as formulated by Wilhelm von Humboldt, but the argumentation is typical of the managerial rationality of the 1980s.

The functional system

Apart from the grouping of functions as mentioned above, a distinction is sometimes made between the internal and external functions, also described as the inner museum and the outer museum. In a letter to the editor of Museum News Humphrey develops the model of a bipartite museum: 'the inner museum consisting of the collections and the people who care for and study them, and an outer museum consisting of all those translational devices used to communicate the knowledge of the inner museum to the public. The inner museum is a kind of scholarly institute. The outer museum is for the entertainment and education of the public' (Museum News 65, 1986, (1): 5-10). The same idea is expressed by Rohmeder, who speaks of 'innere Bereich' and 'Aussenbereich' (Rohmeder 1977: 19). In a Chinese handbook on museology published in 1990 a similar distinction is made between internal and external functions. However, the terms are used in a different way as by Humphrey and Rohmeder. The internal functions are seen as core activities, they include research as well as exhibitions; the external function relates to educational activities.

Above described PRC model represents a different approach to internal and external orientation of the museological functions. Based on the theoretical equality and inseparable interwoveness of the three basic functions it denies hierarchy and separation. The functions have their own place within a network of interrelationships, which we suggest to call the museological system (not to be confused with the structure of museology as academic discipline) [note 4]. The museological system can be described as a system of input-output systems. The output of one subsystem serves as input for another ('intermediate output'). But the input of the subsystem does not necessarily have to be the output of another. Similarly, the output of a subsystem may serve other purposes than providing the input of another subsystem (in this case we may speak of 'final output'). In this way we may distinguish between an internal (i.e. related to the other functions within the museological system) and an external (i.e. related to phenomena outside the museological system) orientation. The internal orientation is system centred, the external orientation is system based.

Internal oriented implementation finds its legitimisation in the other museological functions. In many museums for example objects are only acquired in order to use them in permanent exhibitions. In other institutions acquisition is related to scientific research. All museum displays rely to some extent on scholarly output. In the case of summative research (see Chapter 21) the scholarly activities find their legitimisation in the communication function only. External oriented implementation finds its legitimatisation outside the museological system. In other words, the output is confronted with the market demand. Legitimisation presupposes a market. Sometimes it is a commercial market. For example: works of art tend to become an important object of profitable investment. At sales paintings of famous masters are not bought for reasons of research or communication, but for economical reasons. These paintings are (temporarily) shown in museums, but they are not formally de-commoditized. In this case, the legitimisation for the function preservation is not derived from the museological context but from the primary context. This is, however, a rather exceptional case. More common is the external orientation in case of research. The main external output, of course, is the visitor experience.

Scholarly output usually has its own channels, especially for the results of basic research: articles in scientific journals, papers at conferences, etc. There is a general tendency among museums with a large research potential to institutionalise the final output of the research function. The National Maritime Museum (London) created its Martime Information Centre for specialised users. The Zoological Museum (Amsterdam) founded an Expert Center for Taxonomical Identification.

In addition we may consider the possibility of an autonomous implementation which finds its legitimisation in the function itself. This orientation can be illustrated by following quotation from John Ruskin: 'It is (...) no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them' in: Seven lamps of architecture, 1849).


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

Bud, R, M. Cave & S. Hanney (1991) 'Measuring a museum's output', Museums Journal 91 (1): 29-31.

Côté, M. ed. (1992) Museological trends in Quebec (Quebec).

Desvallées, A. (1989) 'Le défi muséologique', in: La muséologie sélon Georges-Henri Rivière. Course de muséologie. Textes et témoignages (Bordas) 345-367.

Desvallées, A. (1989) 'La prospective - un outil muséologique?', in: V. Sofka ed., Forecasting - a museological tool? Museology and futurology. ICOFOM Study Series 16 (Stockholm) 133-143.

Falk, L. (1987) '"Not about stuff, but for somebody": Michael Spock on the client-centered museum', The Journal of Museum Education Fall 1987: 14-15.

Gluzinski, W. (1980) U podstaw muzeologii (Warszawa).

Gluzinski, W. (1990) 'Museen und die Werte', Neue Museumskunde 33 (3): 228-230.

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

Jahn, I. (1979) 'Die Museologie als Lehr- und Forschungsdisziplin mit spezieller Berücksichtigung ihrer Funktion in naturhistorischen Museen. Geschichte, gegenwärtiger Stand und theoretische Grundlagen', Neue Museumskunde 22 (3): 152-169.

Maroevic, I. (1986) 'Muzejski predmet kao spona izmedu muzeologije i temeljne znanstvene discipline [Museum object as link between museology and fundamental scientific disciplines]', Informatologia Yugoslavica 18 (1-2): 27-33.

Noble, J.V. (1970)

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

Stránský, Z.Z. (1982) 'Die Museologie als Wissenschaft', Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Museumswesens (17): 213-232.

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

Tilden, Freeman (1957)

Treinen, H. (1973) 'Ansätze zu einer Soziologie des Museumswesens', in: Soziologie, Sprache, Bezug, Praxis (Opladen) 336-351.

Trottier, L. (1986) 'Quelques exemples de collaboration et de competition dans des experiences muséologiques au Québèc', Musées 9 (3/4): 16-22.

Tschudi-Madsen, S. (1976) Restoration and anti-restoration (Oslo).

Washburn, W.E. (1967) 'Grandmotherology and museology', Curator 10 (1): 43-48.

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Weil, S. (1990) Rethinking the museum (Washington).


1. Different terms are used to identify these areas of activity: functional areas, objectives, purposes, tasks, responsibilities. Throughout the following preference have been given to the term functions (= 'empirische Funktionen', Treinen 1973: 34). This term, as generic term for human endeavors that are conceptual in nature, can also be found in the Arts and Architecture Thesaurus. The combination of the terms 'museological' and 'functions' can also be found among Canadian museologists, like for example Trottier 1986 and Ruddel (in Muse 9, 1991, 2: 3). >back<

2. Deliberately the complex of management and administration is not dealt with in this chapter. The choice has been made to concentrate on purely museological matters without denying the important role of management and administration in the implementation of the museological functions and the role they play in the interrelationship between museum and society. >back<

3. An alternative model is offered by Maroevic (Maroevic 1986). He refers to Tezak's ETAKSA model. This model visualizes the basic relations between emission (E) and absorption (A) of information. Emission and absorption are related to transmission (T), accumulation (Ak) and selection (S) in such way that emission and absorption are the peaks of pyramids, with transmission, accumulation and selection as common basis (see figure). Maroevic 'translates' this model in museological terms. Absorption covers the collecting of objects (input), and emission two basic forms of museum output: exhibitions and publishing. The common basis of the 'pyramids' is formed by the preservation, documentation and research of the objects (throughput). Although the form is different, Tezak's model (in the interpretation of Maroevic) is very similar to the model of the functional triade described above as the PRC model. In Tezak's model the input consist of information in the form of objects and additional documentation, and the output consists of information in the form of exhibitions and publications. The PRC model, however, provides a more detailed elaboration by combining input-output systems on different levels (see hereafter), which makes it possible to describe and analyse museum work and other museological activities in a more precise way. >back<

4. Gluzinski (1990: 228) distinguishes between functional structure and value structure ('axiologische Struktur'). This chapter deals with functional structures only. >back<