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

Museological institutes


The institute is one of the basic parameters in museology. The type of institute in this connection is usually referred to as 'museum'. To many authors museology is 'museum science', the study of museums. Others envisage a broader approach which challenges the definition of museums. In this connection the term museological institute has been introduced (Van Mensch 1987).

The term museum in modern Europe refers to an epistemological structure that from the very beginning encompassed a variety of ideas, images and institutions. Is roots can be found in the late Renaissance culture of the 16th and 17th century. It is strongly connected with the humanistic and encyclopaedic collecting practices of that time. In fact it served as an organizing principle, a combinatorial matrix of types and models incorporating new and diverse paradigms of collecting which arose (Findlen 1989). The term was deliberately chosen as reference to the famous Mouseion of Alexandria which served as a research centre of the scholars of the classical world. Art and science were both activities connected with the Muses. Concomitantly, the 'temple of the muses' was the place for study and contemplation. Significantly, more than the claims of erudition or the revival of classical texts through philology, humanism was structured around objects that served as a basis for most intellectual and cultural activities. Humanism, says Paula Findlen, was primarily an archaeological enterprise in the sense that it reified scholarship by translating vague antiquarian and philosophical concerns into specific projects whose existence was predicated upon the possession of objects (Findlen 1989).

The conflation of museum and collection was a logical outcome of the desire to gather materials for a text. Thus the 'temple of the muses' was the study ('studio' or 'studiolo') of the Humanist scholar, sometimes literally expressed by images of the Muses themselves. As is shown on contemporary illustrations the museum as studio included objects as well as books, like the Mouseion of Alexandria which became more famous as library than as museum [Note 1] . Libraries formed an essential part of collections; rarely did a museum not have a library attached to it [Note 2]. The important role of libraries can still be recognized in the building programmes of the first public museums. A good example was the British Museum until the creation of the British Library as separate institute (in 1972) and the subsequent physical separation of both institutes in the late 1990s.

As such, the museum movement of the 16th century was designed as the most complete response to the crisis of knowledge provoked by the expansion of the natural world through the voyages of discovery and exploration. From mental to textual to actual museums, the structure of the museum helped to underscore not only the fecundity of the universe but the breadth of the human faculties for comprehending and explaining the theatrum mundi (Findlen 1989: 68; note). Until the end of the 18th century museums continued to conjoin art and nature in fulfillment of Pliny's premise that everything in this theatre of the world was worthy of memory. Collections intermingled harmoniously the natural and the artificial, the real and the imaginary, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Despite the imprint of the Alexandrian Mouseion as a paradigm of collective intellectual activity, initially the idea of the museum as studio was predominantly an isolated and isolating process. In contrast to the notion of the academy, one of the most important centres for extra-university intellectual and cultural activity from the 16th century onwards, the museum was at first defined by the domestic, and therefore private, space which it inhabited (Findlen 1989: 69; note 2). Further development of the museum phenomenon shows a gradual transition from private to public, mainly by way of the informal networks of collectors. For example, very few descriptions exist of the famous studiolo of Francesco I de Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence because few people were ever allowed access to it. The studiolo and its contents were for the Grand Duke'e eyes alone [Note 3]. By 1743 when the Galleria degli Uffizi was opened to visitors, the museum as 'galleria' had become the antithesis of the hermetic and individually defined studio. As a consequence 'study' gradually connotes a room for private study with 'museum' as its public counterpart.

The transition from private to public refers to accessibility as well as ownership. When humanist scholar and collector Ulisse Aldrovani (1522-1605) proclaimed that his studio was "for the utility of every scholar in all of Christendom" this not only meant that it was made accessible during his lifetime but also the donation of the museum to the Senate of Bologna (in 1603). However, it lasted till the beginning of the 18th century that the Senate decided to create a real public museum, the first in Italy [Note 4]. The first museum to proclaim full public status in both respects was the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford (opened 1683).


Seen from a historical perspective the development of the museum concept may be characterized by the key-word 'institutionalization'. Institutionalization is the fundamental anthropological process in which individual human behaviour becomes objectified into fixed, more or less normative patterns of behaviour that can continue to exist as collective forms independently from acting individuals. As such these collective forms force the individual on the one hand to act according to certain rules, thus limiting his freedom, but provide him on the other with indispensible stability and certainty (Zijderveld 1974). Characteristic of the process of institutionalization is the development of an existence and regularity of its own (described by German sociologists as 'Eigengesetzlichkeit' and 'Selbstwert'). During the 19th century the process of institutionalization lead to a model which still is the standard for legislation, ethics, etc. (see Chapter 17). As institute the museum provided a constructed reality with a specific identity. From this 'objective' reality the behaviour of individuals (museum workers and visitors) was defined. It is interesting to notice that until recently (and very often still today) museum education aimed at internalizing the institute by a process of socializing [Note 5].

It is, however, useful to distinguish between institution and institute (Gregorova 1987: 122). An institution is a structuralistic category that empirically only can be observed as a historical and socio-cultural defined institute (Zijderveld 1974). Gluzinski, Gregorova, Russio, and Stransky have attempted to find the characteristics of this structuralistic category (see Chapter 4). Gluzinski, for example, tried to look for the notion of the 'pure' museum in the 16th-18th century, when the present institutionalized form did not yet exist (Gluzinski 1980: 445-450). He focussed on the relationship between museums and science and concluded that the museum is not subordinate to science, but represents a different order of cognition. Museums represent "the order of the intuitional cognition, the inspective one, while science still represents the order of a discoursive and conceptual cognition. The science describes the reality and it constructs its conceptual model, the museum creates the vision of reality from its own elements". This reasoning leads to the same point of view which is expressed by Gregorova and Stransky when they speak of 'the specific relation of man to reality'. Gluzinski refers to the 'M factor', while Russio uses the term 'museum fact'. On a lower abstraction level some authors look for the essence of the phenomenon in a specific set of activities (Benes, Razgon, and Schreiner) or one of them, usually collecting (Hodge, Swauger) (see Chapter 4 for references). Taborsky follows a similar line of thought as Stransky and Gluzinski (Taborsky 1982). She, however, extents her argument beyond the museum institute. She explains that all societies seem concerned with the preservation and production of social images and with the generation of knowledge about these images. But they use different methods for dealing with these social needs. For instance, a society may not store a particular object in a museum, but rather stores a basic abstract image of that object in a myth, and then makes a particular version of it via a song or dance performance of that myth. Museums are just one specific method for dealing with images of social heritage and social consciousness.

The need to distinguish between institute and institution, between narrower term and broader term, follows from the process of professionalization and specialization ('structural differentiation') concerning the preservation and use of heritage. In relation to these processes we can see that forms, means and procedures gradually start to overshadow contents, ends and ideas. Institutes become obsolete, they become empty forms ('Leerformen'). Traditional matter of course runs out; the question of legitimacy is raised (Zijderveld 1974). At this moment three things can happen. Firstly, traditional institutes may adopt new tasks in order to re-inforce their legitimacy. Secondly, traditional institutes may dissolve into a series more or less specialized institutes. Finally, traditional institutes may be replaced by new institutes created on the basis of a new interpretation of the same 'structuralistic category' that stood behind the traditional institute.

The processes of professionalization and specialization and the distinction between three basic orientations of current trends as mentioned above, are to some extent described in many contributions to ICOFOM symposia as well as elsewhere. The wording and systematization might be different, the general pattern seems to be corresponding. During the Espoo 1987 symposium where this topic was intensively discussed, the stagnation in the development of museums, i.e. the loss of legitimacy, is described by Deloche, Kavanagh, Leyten, and Nigam. The adoption or attribution of a new legitimacy is described by Bedekar, Nair, and Zouhdi. The growing diversity of the field is mentioned by Bedekar and Benes, while Desvallees also described the process of 'dissolving'. New institutional forms are described by Hawes, Konare and Masao. In this context the concept of 'ecomuseum' is often referred to. +

Museums and paramuseums

As structuralistic category ('social system') the term museum has a much broader scope than when applied for a historical and socio-cultural defined institute. This dilemma whether to use the term museum for the institution or the institute is reflected in the discussion which types of institutes should be included within the term museum. Definitions are usually rather exclusive, but it is common practice to include a wide range of institutes in directories. For example, the registration scheme of the Museums & Galleries Commission (U.K.) exclude: science centres and planetaria; natural, archaeological, historical and industrial monuments and sites, not having associated museum collections; institutes displaying live specimens; educational loan services; record offices; venues for temporary exhibitions; biological and environmental record centres, while at the other hand the International Council of Museums recognizes that these institutes comply with the definition of museums. A similar approach is found in museum directories. The official museum directory of the United States, for example, lists: exhibit areas, nature centres, and visitor centres. The official directory of Canadian museums and related institutions mentions: forts, science and technology centres, Halls of Fame, nature parks and conservation areas, historic sites, buildings, parks or communities, archives, exhibition or arts centres, planetariums and observatories, botanical and zoological gardens and nature centres. Obviously there is some ambiguity as to the delimitation of concept of museum.

This ambiguity concerning a broad or a narrow use of the term museum is expressed by the introduction of terms like protomuseum (Sola 1985: 80 and 1988: 196; Hawes 1987: 136) or pre-museum (Bedekar 1988: 81), as well as postmuseum (Bedekar 1988: 81), and the use of concepts like total museum (Sola 1991: 131) on the one hand and anti-museum (Sola 1985: 81; Van Praet & Galangau 1989: 42) on the other. In 1975 the American Association of Museums accreditation scheme was extented to types of institutes that do not both own and utilize 'tangible objects of intrinsic value'. It was argued that institutes like planetariums, science and technology centres, and art centres agree with museums sensu stricto in their social purpose. Following the same line of thought the term paramuseum was introduced in 1982 (Van Mensch 1982) [Note 6].

Although the term museum is widely used for paramuseums (for example: wax museums), the term centre seems to be considered a more appropriate term, as in cultural centre, science centre, visitor centre, nature centre, art centre, and heritage centre. As such, the term centre and the group name paramuseum refer to institutes that focus on communication rather than preservation and research [Note 7]. They tend to favour abstract exhibits and narrative displays, with a strong preference for a evocative or didactic approach with many dynamic (interactive) devices.

Whereas there appears to exist some ambiguity as to the delimitation of the concept of museum with regard to the communication function, there are rather strict boundaries on the basis of categories of objects. Botanical and zoological gardens care for living organisms; 'historic preservation' provides the institutional framework of the care for buildings [Note 8]; libraries care for books; and archives care for documents. In this division of tasks museums care for movable, tangible artefacts.


An intrinsic problem of the museum phenomenon is its immense diversity caused by the processes referred to above. The use of the term 'museum' suggests some commonality, but the proposition that all museums 'are created equal' may well be questioned: "Museums differ, they differ enormously and some of these differences - particularly in scale, in discipline and in relationship to the community - are not merely differences in degree. They are differences of kind" (Weil 1986: 20). As such, "the word museum contains a considerable quantity of dynamite" (Hudson & Nicholls 1975: vii).

Diversity among museums can be found on different levels. In two articles Stephen Weil has drawn attention to this. In his first article (Weil 1986) he concentrates especially on the operating budgets of museums. In view of the enormous differences in financial conditions, Weil wonders whether museums can be treated equally. In his second article (Weil 1988) Weil focusses on the size of the collection. Here the extremes are even wider apart, from the 'One-Picture Galleries' in the Soviet Union (Sazonov 1986) to, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) with 3 million objects. Three million one-picture galleries do not make one Metropolitan Museum of Art. Weil concludes that large is not just a multiple of small, and small is not just a reduced version of large. Apart from the unavoidable growth of bureaucracy, there are also museological differences between large and small museums. For example, the greater a museum's total gallery space, the greater also will be the proportion of that space devoted to the display of the museum's own permanent collection. The overall programme of a large museum will, eventually, be more closely tied to its own permanent collection than the programme of a smaller one. We may also expect that such a programme will be relatively static in large museums and more flexible in a smaller museum. Large museums tend to become 'inner museums', while small museums develop into (or rather stay) 'outer museums'. Large museums are, in general, collection-oriented, scholarly institutes, while small museums are more community-oriented, providing education and entertainment.

Another aspect of the differences between large and small museums concerns the subject matter. The large encyclopaedic museum seems to have become obsolete. There is an explosive growth of small, specialist museums, particularly in the field of history and technology. An earlier tendency to specialization can be found among the large encyclopaedic museums. The British Museum, for example, has generated two new museums with part of its collections: the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Mankind, while its collection of paintings is handed over to the National Gallery. The former South Kensington Museum branched off the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Science Museum. The new generation of small, specialist museums is partly the result of initiatives taken by collectors, specialist societies, or certain social groups. Many specialist museums have been founded by social groups, defined by territory (neighbourhood museums and ecomuseums), ethnicity (Afro-American museums, American Indian museums), or gender (women's museums). They are described by André Desvallées as the third generation of identity museums. The question arises where are the limits of the concept of museum (Desvallées 1992).

At the ICOFOM Espoo 1987 conference a rough typology of museums was proposed based on the hierarchy of functions. In line with the CC model (see Chapter 17) the diversity of museums qua function was reduced to two groups: institutes which aims and policy start from the collection ('collection-oriented') and institutes which aims and policy start from communication ('activity oriented'). The discussion focussed on the question whether the term museum should be used for both groups. At the conference two views were expressed: (1) a new definition should be as broad as possible to encompass all new developments (the 'inclusive option'), and (2) a new definition should be limitative (the 'exclusive option'). The second approach is normative as strict criteria have to be developed and applied. The discussion did not arrive at any conclusion regarding the requirements of a new museum definition.

'The Great Convergence'

Whereas museums associations tend to fence off their field by developing accreditation or registration schemes, we witness 'The Great Convergence' of the institutional sector of heritage care (Sola 1991: 130). Museums, archives, libraries, etc. are increasingly considered as related institutes, as manifestations of the same structuralistic category connected with the tendency within society to preserve parts of its material environment. Tomislav Sola gives a list of museums and related institutes reflecting new approaches to heritage care. This list extends the scope of heritage institutes, including for example heritage data banks, media centres, etc. (Sola 1992: 111). The terms museological institution [Note 9], public memory institution (Burcaw 1984: 18) and heritage institution (Barblan 1987: 37; Stevenson 1987: 30) have been proposed as broader term, i.e. the term for the structuralistic category. In addition, Sola (1991: 132) speaks of heritage care unit, Bearman (in Roberts 1990: 7) of cultural repository, and Trottier (1986) of 'option muséologique'. Wyss (1991: 227) returned to Greek for inspiration, and proposed 'Mnemeum'.

This new approach is logically connected with a concept of museology which goes beyond the museum institute as object of study. conclusions The conception of museology as function-oriented discipline (see Chapter 4) inevitably leads to the recognition of a close relationship of a wide range of institutes dealing with the preservation and use of (a selected part of) our cultural and natural heritage, like archives, libraries and museums. In comparison with the other museological institutes, the museum has no clear profile. In many countries, like for example the Netherlands, the legal structure of the field of historic preservation, libraries and archives is better organized than that of the field of museums. Also with regard to theory and methodology the museum field seems to stay behind. On the other hand the concept of museum appears to be more flexible and able to absorb new initiatives. In this respect it is revealing that on a theoretical level only museum theoreticians have attempted to extend their interests beyond the limits of the museum institute. Similar tendencies are not known from historic preservation, library science and archivistics.

The tendencies as described here are reflected in an observation made by Robert Lumley. It seems, he says, as if 'museum' is "a key term in the wider debate over what it means to live in an old continent. Not the museum in the narrow sense of a particular building or institution, but as a potent metaphor and as a means whereby societies represent their relationship to their own history and to that of other cultures" (in Lumley ed. 1988: 2). This is not far from Taborsky's industrial syntax (Taborsky 1982). Following Taborsky, a museological institution might be defined as "a social system concerned with the preservation and production of social images, and with the generation of knowledge about these social images".


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Note 1 The term bibliotheka has the same roots as pinakotheka and glyptotheka. >back<

Note 2 Not by coincidence public libraries in the 19th century were sometimes referred to as 'reading museum' (Dutch: Leesmuseum). >back<

Note 3 This private character is illustrated by Jan Amos Comenius' description of the "Muséum"/"Das Kunstzimmer" in his Orbis sensualium pictus (1654): "Das Kunstzimmer ist ein Ort wo der Kunstliebende abgesondert von den Leuten alleine sisset, dem Kunstfleiss ergeben, ..." (Chapter XCVIII). In some contemporary publications it was suggested to have the studio next to the bedroom. The collector, called by the Muses, retired to his study in the same way that he retired to his bedroom. Paula Findlen noted that the term 'cabinet', as it evolved in 17th century French, connoted the closet beyond the main bedchamber. However, the distinctions between public and private need to be considered with care in order to understand their relevance for the early modern period. A bedroom, theoretically the most intimate of spaces, was not fully private, not for that matter was a museum. >back<

Note 4 The aspect of the study of objects as attempt to explore and interprete the world connected the concept of museum with the concept of theatre. The museum(collection) as theatre was a shadow image of the world as theatre (theatrum mundi). Samuel von Quiccheberg's famous tract from 1565 (see Chapter 2) carried the title Inscriptiones vel Tituli Theatri Amplissimi. But there were also other terms in use. Aldrovani's collection of natural rarities in Bologna was called simulateoulsly museo, studio, theatro, microcosmo, archivo and a host of other related terms all describing the different ends served by his collections and, more importantly, alluding to the analogies between each structure (see P.Findlen 1989: 70). >back<

Note 5 The concept of "museum socialization" is described and studied by Bettenhausen-Verbeij 1977: 15. >back<

Note 6 For the same type of institutes Schneider (1981: 82) proposed the term non-museum, while Coates (1984) speaks of nonce-museum. >back<

Note 7 While some non-collecting institutes prefer to use the name 'museum', some collecting institutes seem to prefer a more dynamic image, which supposedly is expresed by the name 'centre'. The Heritage Motor Centre (openend 1993 at Gaydon, U.K.) houses "the world's largest collection of historic British cars". >back<

Note 8 "Historic preservation is a well-rounded program of scientific study, protection, restoration, maintenance, and interpretation of sites, buildings, and objects significant in American history and culture" (definition used by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, quoted by Burcaw 1975: 159). >back<

Note 9 Used throughout ICOFOM The Hague 1989 conference. Also Dube 1992 and Trottier 1986. >back<