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Critical Museology

A Manifesto

Anthony Shelton

Synthesizing work carried out by the author over the past twenty-five years, this article proposes a tentative disciplinary definition of critical museology, distinguishing its related methodological interdictions and describing its distinctiveness from what is here defined as operational museology. The article acknowledges the diverse intellectual sources that have informed the subject and calls for a reorientation and separation of critical museology from the operational museologies that form part of its area of study. Critical museology, it is argued, is not only an essential intellectual tool for better understanding museums, related exhibitionary institutions, fields of patrimony and counter patrimonies, and the global and local flows and conditions in which they are embedded, but is also crucial for developing new exhibitionary genres, telling untold stories, rearticulating knowledge systems for public dissemination, reimagining organizational and management structures, and repurposing museums and galleries in line with multicultural and intercultural states and communities.

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More Than Souvenirs

Lady Annie Brassey’s Curated Collections

Alison Clark, Catherine Harvey, Louise Kenward, and Julian Porter

Lady Annie Brassey (1839–1887) was a well-known Victorian travel writer who was also a collector, photographer, ethnographer, zoologist, and botanist and who traveled around the world aboard the privately owned yacht the Sunbeam. During these voyages she amassed a collection of approximately six thousand objects. Much more than tourist souvenirs, the collection shows a rigorous academic understanding of the disciplines she was collecting within. The ethnographic material, which makes up one-third of the collection, has gained little attention. Using her travel writing as a primary source, this article will interrogate Brassey’s role as the maker of this collection, someone whose class allowed her to travel and to pursue museum collection, curation, and education to a near-professional level. Through three case studies this article will consider how she collected and curated her own museum and used her collection for public benefit.

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Sandra H. Dudley and Kylie Message

Museum Worlds: Advances in Research represents trends in museum-related research and practice. It builds a profile of various approaches to the expanding discipline of museum studies and to work in the growing number of museums throughout the world. It traces major regional, theoretical, methodological, and topical themes and debates, and encourages comparison of museum theories, practices, and developments in different global settings.

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Piazzas or Stadiums

Toward an Alternative Account of Museums in Cultural and Urban Development

Lisanne Gibson

Over the last twenty-five years or so there has been a ‘cultural turn’ in urban development strategies. An analysis of the academic literature over this period reveals that the role of new museums in such developments has oft en been viewed reductively as brands of cultural distinction with economic pump priming objectives. Over the same twenty-five year period there has also been what is termed here a ‘libertarian turn’ in museum studies and museology. Counterposing discussions of the museum’s role within urban development with discussions from within the museum studies literature on the ‘post-museum’ reveals the dichotomous nature of these approaches to the museum. This article proposes instead a consideration of the phenomenotechnics of new museum developments. This approach presents a way of taking account of both technical and symbolic conditions and characteristics and in doing so, it is hoped, provides a way of analyzing the ‘realpolitik’ of the role of museums in urban development.

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Heterotopia or Carnival Site?

Rethinking the Ethnographic Museum

Jen Walklate

This article seeks to explore the Bakhtinian carnivalesque in relation to museums generally and to ethnographic museums in particular. The Bakhtinian carnivalesque is based on antihierarchicalism, laughter, embodiment, and temporality, and it has the potential to move museums away from a problematic association with heterotopia. Instead, the carnivalesque allows ethnographic museums to be recognized as active agents in the sociopolitical worlds around them, offers a lens through which to examine and move forward some current practices, and forces museums to reconsider their position and necessity. This article also reflects on the value of transdisciplinary approaches in museum studies, positioning literary theory in particular as a valuable analytical resource.

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Tanya Zoe Robinson

On 1–2 April 2014, the Institute of Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, Australia (UWS), hosted Museums, Collecting, Agency: A Symposium, in partnership with the Museums and Heritage Studies Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand (VUW). Held at the Australian Museum (AM) in Sydney, the event brought together an outstanding lineup of speakers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, the United States, and Britain to explore questions of agency in relation to ethnographic museum collections and museum-like practices of collecting, with an emphasis on the histories and legacies of colonialism. In doing so, the speakers and audience (mainly academics, museum professionals, and museum studies students from Australia and the Pacific) ably brought these issues into the present through varied histories and practice-based case studies that ensured a very “living” approach to this growing research area.

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Material Proximity

Experimenting with Material Strategies in Spatial Exhibition Design

Ane Pilegaard

A museum exhibition allows for close encounters with material objects. However, the distancing effect of the glass surfaces of display cases, as well as twodimensional text and picture panels, often seems to counteract the visitor’s sense of experiencing the three-dimensional material qualities of museum objects. In order to challenge this distancing effect, this article proposes an approach to spatial exhibition design that takes material aspects of both museum objects and exhibition design practices into close consideration. By developing the concept of material proximity, the article investigates the intimate space between museum object and visitor in which the object’s material qualities can be activated and interpreted. Based on an interdisciplinary bridging between different concepts of materiality from museum studies and architecture, the article concretizes the concept of material proximity through empirical analysis of a series of experimental display designs carried out at Medical Museion (the medical museum of the University of Copenhagen).

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Why Looking at Objects Matters

An Argument from the Aesthetic Philosophy of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten

Adam Bencard

Within museum studies, there has been a recent interest in engaging with objects and their material effects as something other than vehicles for human cultural meaning. This article contributes to this interest by offering a philosophical argument for the value of close sensory engagement with physical things, an argument found in the works of the eighteenth-century German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762), who is famous for fathering the modern philosophical discourse on aesthetics. Baumgarten outlines what he terms sensate thinking, defined as an analogue to rational thinking, and insists that this form of thinking can be analyzed and sharpened according to its own rules. I discuss how Baumgarten’s aesthetics might be useful for how the curator approaches objects in exhibitions and for understanding how visitors’ sensory engagement with the objects can be important beyond the deciphering of historical narratives and conceptual meanings.

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Kylie Message and Sandra H. Dudley

Whether or not museums can live up to the ideal that they provide a public forum has become something of a moot point, if not a stereotype of the past three decades. Museum studies researchers, scholars, and professionals have been proactive in their attempts to understand whether museums can or do provide a physical manifestation of what has been generally considered an aspirational concept or model of practice. Some have been directly inspired by philosophers and sociologists such as Jürgen Habermas (1991), Nancy Fraser (1990), and Craig Calhoun (1992), as well as the critical cultural studies “movements” that have circulated around interdisciplinary journals such as Theory, Culture and Society (http://tcs.sagepub.com/) and Public Culture (http://www.publicculture.org/). Others have drawn on current and emerging directions in disciplines such as anthropology, history, and geography to explore the public sphere concept from the perspective of transnational and postcolonial concerns, and have been influenced by theorists including Seyla Benhabib (1992), Arjun Appadurai (1996), Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000), and Aihwa Ong (2006). Ultimately, of course, much of the museum-focused work—within which we include both the theoretical and the applied (for example, exhibition-based)—has been interdisciplinary. Like the wider critical debates on which it draws and to which it contributes, museum scholarship has been aff ected by ongoing global change, and has reflected—and, in many national contexts, influenced—public policy shifts before and since the new millennium.

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Stefan Berger, Anna Cento Bull, Cristian Cercel, Nina Parish, Małgorzata A. Quinkenstein, Eleanor Rowley, Zofia Wóycicka, Jocelyn Dodd, and Sarah Plumb

War Museums and Agonistic Memory

Within the EU-Horizon-2020-funded project Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Transnational Europe (UNREST),1 one work package (WP4) analyzed the memorial regimes of museums related to the history of World War I and World War II in Europe. An article by Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen (2016) entitled “Agonistic Memory” provided the theoretical framework for the analysis. Drawing on Chantal Mouffe’s work (2005, 2013), the authors distinguish three memorial regimes: antagonistic, cosmopolitan, and agonistic.

Unexpected Encounters: Museums Nurturing Living and Ageing Well

As the world’s population ages, how can museums nurture living and aging well? The conference Unexpected Encounters: Museums Nurturing Living and Ageing Well, organized by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) from the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, set out to interrogate this question, and invited conference delegates to consider how museums unconsciously make assumptions about older people and perpetuate the dominant societal view of aging as a “problem.”