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


Concern about the position of research with the policy of museums is expressed in a series of articles in international journals [note 1] or even special issues [note 2]. Conferences are organised about the same topic [note 3]. The first comprehensive study of the theory of museology dealt with 'Museums and research' (Neustupny 1968). Considering the point of view that a good museum needs a good collection, and that a good collection needs good scholarship, research in museums was selected as the first main topic to be discussed by the ICOM International Committee for Museology. Reflecting the life-long interest of its first president, Jan Jelinek, ICOFOM's first conference focused on "Possibilities and limits in scientific research typical for the museum" (1978).

Neustupny very clearly distinguishes research and expert knowledge. Expert knowledge refers to identification and classification as part of the primary selection process. It "is not concerned with analyses and the study of interrelations, it does not result in any new conclusions. It is based upon experience gained from the factological study of existing elaborated sources and merely reproduces the acquired experience" (Neustupny 1968: 24). The present chapter deals with research rather than expert knowledge. In the context of this chapter research is understood as the scientific interpretation of the information value of cultural and natural heritage, also called subject-oriented research or simply museum research [note 4].

Importance and role

Generally speaking subject-oriented research is seen as an essential function. In his introduction to the symposium 'The role of the research museum in science' Smith describes the museum as "centre for research, study and contemplation" (Smith 1960: 311). He adds that such centre is "truly a museum, even though it has no function in pleasure and recreation (...), public education, information, or even documentation". A similar view is expressed by Colbert (1961). Such extreme points of view are in fact declared outdated in a series of conference during the first years of the 70s. Nevertheless, many museologists remained of opinion that research has to play a central role: "Without research (...) the collecting, registering and preserving function would be incomplete, as often as not impossible. Nor would there be any knowledge that could be conveyed to the public" (Sofka 1978: 59). Research does improve the scientific quality of the collections and it forms the necessary bridge between the collection and the public. "Permanent neglecting of the scientific activities would lead to the liquidation of the whole work, including the educational work" (Jelinek 1978: 1).

However, the content and role of research in museums is not the same in different parts of the world, neither is it the same in different categories of museums. Traditionally, subject-oriented research hold a dominant position within museological institutions, and especially within museums. Many museums originated as scientific collections either owned by a learned society or by an university. The implementation of the preservation and communication functions was usually seen as derived from scientific interests. Gradually the 'emancipation' of preservation and communication, especially in the post-war period, resulted in a retreat of the subject matter specialist, i.e. the curator (see Chapter 9 and Chapter 17). Research became a 'hidden agenda' (Nevling 1983; Büchner 1989). For example, a recent Swedish state report on museums has declined to accept museums unconditionally as research institutions (Agren 1987). At a meeting of the Netherlands Museums Association on museum research (Leiden 1977) Henk van Os, at that time professor of art history in Groningen, also denied museums a role in research. In his opinion, as well as in the Swedish report, research should take place at universities (Van Os 1977). Mayer even complains that it is the opinion at universities that if as a scientist you chose to move in the direction of the museum, it is detrimental to your academic career, because what you can publish under 'museology' is not recognised as 'tenure track' material (Mayer in Muse 9, 1991, (2): 23).

Such attitude, of course, caused violent reactions from those who see museum work as derived from the subject matter discipline (for example Washburn 1967 and 1985). It was said that the retreat of research in favour of collections management and education, changed museums from active, leading research institutes to passive wholesale agencies of objects and data, for the benefit of university based researchers (Büchner 1989). According to Washburn an early indicator of this change was the re-naming of museum scientists in curators, thus emphasising care and identification of the collections and preparation of exhibitions rather than research and scholarly attainments (Washburn 1967). Another indicator of this change is the fact that the number of museum directors that also are professor at a university is decreasing (Thiel 1989) [note 5].

Rivard, director of the Main State Museum (USA), followed a different course. In 1977 a 'collections first' policy was adopted. His strategy was: hire curators, and collections will be assembled; assemble collections, and exhibitions will emerge from their use; build exhibitions, and the public will be served; serve the public, and the public will support the museum. This restoring of the curatorial perspective and the primacy of the collection has obviously been very successful (Rivard 1989). In a similar way, museologists from the former Soviet Union have always emphasised the role of museums as learned and scientific institutes (Razgon 1978; Schneider 1981: 68, and 83, note 7). But, as Neustupny has pointed out, research as understood by Soviet museologists is concentrated upon classification of collections, inventorying, cataloguing, the preparation of exhibitions and education in general (Neustupny 1968: 17, note 2, and pp. 120-121). In Chapter 17 most of these activities are considered part of the preservation and communication functions. What is left as research can be described as summative research (see below). So, it is relevant to look closer to the 'definition' of research in the museum context.

Different types of research in museums

What are the characteristics of subject-oriented research within the museological context? Wolfgang Klausewitz, describing museum specific research, distinguishes three fields of research (Klausewitz 1978: 9-10, and 1979: 16-17) [note 6]:

1. Analysis, description and comparative evaluation of the objects.
2. Cultural, sociological, etc. evaluation of all kinds of objects within the functional framework of their environment.
3. Applied research with regard to conservation, restoration and exhibitions.

Only the first type of research belongs to the field of museum research proper. Both other types of research belong to the field of museological research (see Chapter 7). The second type of research comprise basic museological research while the third type refers to applied museological (= museographical) research. As to the first two fields, Finley makes another distinction, based on the methodology involved and the role of the (museum) object in (Finley 1985: 36). He distinguishes between (a) specific background reading in various reference books etc. in connection with a particular museum program, and (b) research based upon museum collections as an original contribution to knowledge. Similar distinction is made by other authors, like, for example, Neustupny who speaks of applied and basic research (Neustupny 1968: 38-43), and Nevling who speaks of summative and basic research (Nevling 1983: 42-43). This distinction runs parallel to what Hofmann describes as 'individueller und gesellschaftlicher Erkenntnissprozesse' respectively (Hofmann 1979: 88-89). The individual acquisition of knowledge is connected with the object as exhibit, i.e. applied or summative research ('Erkenntnisvermittlung', Jahn 1979). Basic research is described as social acquisition of knowledge, connected with the object as source ('Erkenntnisermittlung', Jahn 1979).

Those who question the role of research in museums rarely argue against summative research. Their point of view is that either museums cannot afford to commit staff and money to basic research or should not need to do so (MacGillivray 1991: 63).

Basic research

It is obvious that, according to Finley, basic research should confer identity to curatorship. During the 1960s basic research was considered the main research orientation in museums (Colbert 1961, Streicher 1962, Neustupny 1968). During the 1980s, however, basic research lost its prominent position. This was the result of a "current trend, which effectively relegates most historical interpretation in museums to mere story telling, based on research that has already been published in books or articles" (Finley 1985: 37). At the conference of the Deutsche Museumsbund on museum research (1989) the same view was expressed by Büchner for art museums and by Thiel for anthropology museums. This same trend is meant by Washburn when he wrote about de re-naming of museum scientists into museum curators. In many museums, especially the small and middle-sized ones, expert knowledge seems to be sufficient, scholarship is not a necessary qualification. In a lecture for Canadian museum workers Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), announced the end of the of the scholar-curator. A modern museum requires new professional qualifications. "A PhD on Guercino will get you nowhere", Strong told his audience (Strong 1988). A few years earlier Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) pointed at the same problem (De Montebello 1984). Whereas Strong seems to advocate this change (or, at least, is cynical about it), de Montebello regrets it. The new management orientation of museum will mean the end of connoisseurship. Or, in the words of Washburn, museology will replace genuine subject matter scholarship (Washburn 1967).

Specificity of museum research

To what extent does object-based museum research (as basic research) differ from other research? According to Neustupny (1968: 40) there is no difference between basic research in museums and that in other institutes dealing with the study of material culture (and nature). The series of scientific and scholarly monographs which are published by various museums are similar to those published by universities on the same type of work, he says. Gluzinski, on the other hand, sees a clear difference (Gluzinski 1980 and 1983). In his opinion, museums represent a different order of cognition, based first off all on the subordinating diagnosis, "classificative or typological, rather than explicative". The "recognising research" of the museum and the "heuristic research" of the university give, according to Gluzinski, two different methods of action. The academic science begins with single statements and constructs general structures upon them, while the museum arrives at single sentences beginning with the general structure of scientific knowledge. "The difference between the research attitude of museums and a similar attitude of particular sciences consists in the fact that sciences (1) form generalisations by means of investigation of individuals, and (2) create classificatory or typological systems on sets of individuals, while museums (1) decide about individuals on the basis of the afore mentioned generalisations and (2) qualify individuals into appropriate classes of adopted systems' (Gluzinski 1983: 27). One can, however, object to this view by pointing at the importance of the scientific work in museums (or private collections) during the 18th and 19th century, especially concerning classification (Ennenbach 1986). Without museum collections the work of Linnaeus, Werner, Winckelmann, and Thomsen would not have been possible [note 7].

On the other hand, academic science has gradually developed beyond this preliminary, descriptive forms of cognition in which development the museum did not always follow. "The community of arts scholars consists of two groups - one may say two parties. The University chairs are mostly occupied by people who like to call themselves historians, and in the Museum offices you meet the experts. The Historians strive generally from the general to the particular, from the abstract to the concrete, from the intellectual to the visible. The experts move in the opposite direction, and both mostly never get further than half-way, incidently without meeting each other" (Friedländer, quoted in De Salas 1970: 95). A characteristic difference between university research and museum research is that museum researchers also publicises the results of their research through public exhibitions and displays (Daifuku 1960: 68). But, perhaps even more important is the reflection of research in the registration files and catalogues. To Neustupny this type of applied research is, in fact, the main task of museum specialists.


Keywords of museum specific research are observation, comparison and repetition (Rietschel 1989). It is descriptive rather than experimental. In this respect Schäfer states: "Le lien avec l'object signifie une limitation de la liberté d'approche scientifique" (Schäfer 1970). In his paper, Schäfer gives an outline of a museological methodology, i.e. a research methodology applicable to all sorts of museums. His methodology preludes the models proposed by Fleming, Finley, Pearce and Maroevic.

Artefact (and collection) research methodologies as applied in museums do not only involve subject-oriented research, but also examination as research component of preservation. Examination is defined as "the preliminary procedure taken to determine the original structure and materials comprising an artefact and the extent of its deterioration, alteration and loss [note 8]. The scope of this research is different from subject-oriented research in a limited sense. The term conservation science has been introduced to make a clear distinction from subject matter discipline. Lodewijks (in Lasko & Lodewijks 1982: 32) distinguishes between three main orientations in conservation science:

1. the study of the history and technology of the objects;
2. the improvement of conservation techniques;
3. the search for the best conditions under which to preserve the collection.

The first orientation comes close to subject-matter oriented research, and offers, in fact a rather neglected contribution to it. The fundamentals of such methodology has been discussed in Chapter 12. It is important to note that the study material for museum specific research is the object as museological object, i.e. including its documentation. Without its documentation the physical object has only very limited scientific value (Thiel 1989, Hofmann 1979), but it also leaves the conservator with the dilemma of knowing what needs to be done in technical terms in order to preserve the visual fabric of whatever remains of the object on one hand, and not knowing how these treatments will effect the integrity of that object on the other (Losche & Walston 1982: 34).

While emphasising the role of research and the importance of museums as research institutes, the reliability of the information potential of museum objects and museum collections is often exaggerated. "Artifacts and scientific specimens provide an objective basis for our knowledge of the earth and other bodies in the solar system, the origin and development of life on earth, and the achievements and aspirations of mankind. Museums attempt to select, secure, and preserve as unbiased, complete and representative samples as possible of those objects and specimens. (...) The objective of such collecting is (...) to allow significant comparisons to formulate questions and seek answers concerning ourselves and our natural and man made environment. While the questions that are asked are influenced by such factors as cultural and other biases and by the limits of present understanding, the material object offers the soundest foundation on which to base our knowledge. The three-dimensional object represents something real and actual from which we can make hypotheses and interpretations of meaning" (Smithsonian Institution, CPM report: 2.2-2.3). This, of course, is not true. Collection and preservation policies are as biased as the interpretation. Thus, an artefact research methodology should include the relationships of the collection to the original reality. Stransky speaks this respect of 'structural conformity' as requirement (Stransky 1984: 148).

While most authors emphasise the key role of the object as data carrier, Deloche holds a different view. He advocates the use of copies as "outil d'une nouvelle science de l' art" (Deloche 1985). Copies will free objects from their aura (see Chapter 16) and consequently make their information content better accessible. "Avec le recours aux substitutes, on est passé du musée pré-scientifique, naivement réaliste, au musée scientifique compris non plus un lieu ou un bâtiment mais comme un système de connaissances rationelles".

Museums as research institutions

Different types of museum have different traditions as to the role of museum research. Some examples might be given here rather briefly.

Anthropology museums

In the beginning anthropological research was centred on material culture. During the last two decades of the 19th century Pitt-Rivers developed a theory of material culture interpretation, based on Darwin's ideas of evolution. His arrangement of the permanent display in what became the Pitt-Rivers Museum (Oxford, UK) has long been considered as model for scientific ethnography displays, especially in Britain and the United States (Chapman 1991). But, academic anthropology in the period between 1914 and 1950 took a different turn (Pearce 1989: 4). Through the influence of Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski research concentrated on the detailed study of single societies. Thus, the main stream of research shifted from material culture to social processes. Concomitantly universities became the main centres of research at the cost of museums [note 9].

The focus on non-material aspects of culture by social-anthropologists has often lead to haphazard collection of objects (Losche & Walston 1982: 36). Recently, archaeology and material culture studies gave new impulses to the use of material culture as research object.

Art museums

According to Büchner (1989) the importance of art museums as research institutions has grown. He points at the monographs ('Werkmonographien') and the contributions to the history of styles, which form the fundamentals of art history. In addition one could mention the 'catalogue raisonné' ('Oeuvrekatalog') as important outcome of museum research. At the same time, however, Büchner points out that, influenced by a increasing educational orientation of art museums, 'essayistische Kunstliteratur' has replaced the role of scientific studies and art critic, while the museum research proper concentrates on exhibitions (summative research in terms of rather than on basic research. Anyway, to art museums seems to happen what has happened already in other museums at an earlier date: a widening gap between academic art history (referred to as 'new art history') and the type of research traditionally found in museums (Ross 1990). As in other categories of museums, this new approach in research is not longer object-centred, while the results are not easy to present in a traditional, object-based, way.

At the other hand, the professionalisation of restoration and the introduction of conservation science brought about a shift in the perspective on research. This new, scientific research, with its emphasis on physics and chemistry, tends to focus on 'what' and 'how', rather than 'why' (Daley in Beck & Daley 1993: 140). Restorers set the parameters of judgement. Because cleaned pictures are thought to be 'scientifically valid' in their transformed state, (art) historians feel obliged to revise their views. Moreover, the scholar who has based his/her ideas on what was told to him/her by the restorers, monopolises the interpretation of the work of art, since any opponent basing his/her judgement on a pre-cleaned state, must draw on memories or photographs.

Natural history museums

In the field of natural history museums have always played a characteristic role: describing, inventarising and classifying, with emphasis on taxonomy and fylogenetics. The shift to ecology and biochemistry resulted in a decline of the scientific role of museums, or, at least, of a decline of academic support for this role. In the course of the 1980s, however, new environmental awareness gave new legitimisation for the basic task of the natural history museums with 'bio-diversity as the new key term [note 10].

In general, research work in small museums is an exception, or, if it exists it is limited in scope. However, with regard to natural history museums regional and local museums have always played an important scientific role, even though they were primarily established as education centres. As 'spin offs' of the nineteenth century new environmental awareness connected with the new methodology called 'field biology', regional and local museums focused on faunistics and floristics, rather than taxonomy and phylogenetics.

History museums

Pomian (1993) points at the essential difference between history and 'antiquarianism'. Whereas the antiquarian is concerned with objects, their typologies and classification, the historian wants to pass from a set of visible objects to 'invisible ones'. Those 'invisible objects' are: events, persons, institutions, manners. Historical research proper is traditionally based on literary resources. The recognition of material culture as study object for historical research is of rather recent origin. Consequently, proper methods to study material remains and to compare the results of such studies with those based on archival research are wanted. In this respect, Koch speaks of the "... defizitäre Entwicklung in der methodischen Breite universitärer Geschichtswissenschaft..." (Koch 1989: 128). The lack of proper methods prompted museum historians to borrow methods from other disciplines: "So ignorant of material culture are Clio's minions, that history museums were forced either to retrain historians or employ self-trained experts in decorative arts, technology, craft history, and folk studies' (Porter 1981). Speaking about (West) German history museums Koch (1989) too emphasised the necessity to include art history and folk studies in the work of history museums. Strangely enough neither Porter nor Koch refer to archaeology as historical discipline based on the analysis of material remains.

In developing new methods historians from the USA have played an important role (Schlereth in Schlereth ed. 1981). Authors like Fleming published methodological papers that gradually gave structure to a new branch of historical research: material culture studies. Nevertheless, Porter speaks of "the historian's disdain for artifacts" and an "academic non-concern" which reached its apex in the USA during the early 1960s (Porter 1981: 32). He concludes that despite the apparent success of material culture studies "material culture specialists are continued to be denied full academic status within the faculties of history and allied departments".

Historians and museologists in former German Democratic Republic have followed their own course. Parallel to the development of material culture studies in the USA, there was a shift from political history to cultural history ('Kulturgeschichte') in East Germany. The history of everyday life ('Alltagsgeschichte') became a main concern. This development was not initiated by museums, but it struck a sympathetic note among museum workers (see, for example Hofmann 1979, 1982a and 1982b). Some interesting research was carried out on the interface between history and museology (for example, Hujer 1986 and 1987). Despite the different socio-political context the similarity between museum thinking in the USA and the GDR is striking [note 11]. However, in both countries a real commitment of historians to museum collections as main resources remained wanting.


It is important to maintain distinction between museum research and museological research. Museum research is subject-matter research carried out by the museum as one of its functions. Museological research is discussed in Chapter 7. There are two types of museum research: basic research and applied (= summative) research. Over the years the role of research in museums has changed. In the course of the 1970s and 1980s different developments caused the decline of the position of subject-matter research. Firstly, the emphasis on the educational role of museums turned the museum institute from a research institute into an educational institute. Accordingly, the research perspective shifted from basic to summative research. Secondly, in several academic fields the main scientific interest has developed away from the descriptive and classifying type of research that was carried out in museums. Universities took the lead focusing on experimental research, or, in case of anthropology museums, emphasising social processes rather than material culture.

At the end of the 1980s some types of museums seem to have been able to reclaim their role as research institutes. In connection with the environmental degradation there is a new need for taxonomic and faunistic/floristic knowledge. Museum research acquired new relevancy. In the field of history museums the growing interest in everyday life of farmers, workers, etc. brought about an interest in material culture research. The professionalisation of restoration and conservation science gave rise to a shift in perspective on research in the field of art history. Whereas most museum types could built upon a long research tradition, historical research was traditionally based on literary resources. New methodologies had to be developed. Material culture studies became an interdisciplinary field were advantage could be drawn from different academic fields with different research traditions.


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1 Finley 1985, McGillivray 1991, Van Mensch 1984, Nevling 1983, Parr 1963, Rietschel 1989, Schneider 1981, Washburn 1967, West 1989. >back<

2 Curator 3, 1960, (4); Museumvisie 8, 1984, (3); Muse 3, 1986, (4); Museumskunde 54, 1989, (3). >back<

3 ICOM in 1968; ICOM International Committee for Regional Museums in 1971; ICOM International Committee for Museology in 1978; the Netherlands Museums Association in 1977; SAMDOK (Sweden) in 1987; Deutscher Museumsbund in 1989; Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (London) in 1990; Association of Art Historians (UK) in 1990. >back<

4 Sofka 1978. Also 'museumsspezifisches Forschen' (Klausewitz 1979). Called 'academic research' by Daifuku (1960) as opposed to 'applied research', which refers to visitor studies. >back<

5 A special position is taken by university museums. Generally speaking these museums owe their existence to academic research. University collections can be seen as hardware for scientific research and training. The decline of the attention for the role of such collections, due to a shift in academic interest resulted in a crisis among university museums. Many collections were considered obsolete in view of present research issues (Kavanagh 1987; see also special issue of Museums Journal 86, 1986, 3). However, they acquired a new value: they present the means by which a scientific development was achieved and they show how earlier become the physical archive of the development of our scientific world. >back<

6 The same distinction is given in the Alberta Museums Association Standard Practices Handbook for Museums (McGillavray 1991). >back<

7 Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778); Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817); Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768); Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865). >back<

8 Definition given by the United States National Conservation Advisory Council, quoted in Clark & Weaver 1982: 21. In this publication examination is considered part of conservation. >back<

9 Thiel (1989) mentions a different cause. According to him the growing number of students during the 1960s and 70s made it necessary to split the responsibilities of the professor-museum director. >back<

10 The responsibility of natural history museums in connection with the rapid destruction and degradation of our natural environment is emphasised by a Resolution adopted at the 15th General Assembly of ICOM at Buenos Aires (4 November 1986). >back<

11 Compare, for example, Hofmann 1982b to Peterson 1988. >back<