Museum Studies: What’s It All About?
“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums” (Steven Wright, US comedian).
It’s easy to poke fun at museums. We all know the “typical” museum – a dingy place with “different kinds of bits” in dusty glass cases. Another image is the “nice day out” for families, with fun interactives for the kids and enough factual information to make the experience a little educational (but not too much). Some might ask, why would anyone want to study museums? However, museums have worked hard over the past thirty years or so to challenge these conventional images. The growth in their number over the mid to late twentieth century also means that museums are almost impossible to ignore. They are an integral part of the cultural fabric of most communities, from small, amateur museums, often run solely by volunteers and sustained by community goodwill, to the large, city-based mega-museums that attract huge audiences, blockbuster exhibitions and corporate sponsorship. Museums have been used to kickstart urban regeneration schemes and instil pride in areas of industrial and economic decline. Museums give diverse communities and people a voice, representing nations through to minority groups. From its beginnings as a means of training a more professional workforce, museum studies, as a discipline, has grown alongside the phenomenon of museums, covering all aspects of museum work and impact; how museums are being used and why, and their potential to represent, interpret and even shape the world around us.
Museum studies is for those who are fascinated by the processes behind the museum as an institution. There are now many internationally renowned museum studies courses around the world, training the museum professionals and leaders of the future, and exploring every aspect of the museum. This includes their processes and products, their development and their impact from how to display and care for objects, museum security, marketing and commerce, to issues surrounding the creation of knowledge, interpretation and representation of the world. As museums become more widespread and influential – with the power to reflect the significant culture of a people, a nation, even the world (according to the British Museum) – this has led to increased scrutiny over their impact on society. Understanding how and why museums function as they do provides an important strand of research in museum studies, as does thinking about how museums might be improved in the present and future – whether that is by making them more sustainable, more relevant to their communities, or more economically viable.
A key strength of museum studies is its multidisciplinary nature. Researchers have drawn theories from (for example) history, archaeology, geography, cultural and media studies, and the sciences, in order to understand the processes and impact of museums. There is a refreshing lack of discipline-related snobbery because the wide range of knowledge represented in museums means that almost every discipline is relevant. This freedom and flexibility seems to attract those researchers who like to “think outside the box.” Fundamental to the museum “project” is how museums represent the world, which provides endless possibilities for exploration. How and why are objects chosen for display? What is the significance and meaning of knowledge in the museum context? And how is that significance communicated to and made meaningful for visitors? How do visitors experience the museum? Studying these aspects is important because who and what is represented in the museum inevitably reflects wider social concerns and values. Museums can be used to reflect social norms or challenge them. The controversy over whom and what is represented in the museum, demonstrates that they can promote social and attitudinal change. Museums can engender emotions or foster dialogue with audiences, inspire action or spark a lifelong interest in a theme or topic. Research seeks to understand how museums work, their effects and how their power can be harnessed for specific goals.
For me, the potential for museums to change minds and shape the understanding of visitors is the most important reason for studying them and ensuring that the processes which create the museum are continually explored, understood and refined. Museums have the responsibility to ensure the knowledge and experiences they offer are accurate, balanced (although their objectivity has, quite rightly, been questioned) and challenging for visitors. Too many museums are bland and formulaic in their appearance and function. But museum studies is helping to change them for the better.
Museum studies is important then. Museums would still exist but I think they would be far less interesting places. In order to make museums better for their audiences – and attract new, more diverse audiences – we need to understand the role that museums play in the world, the impact that they have on people (past, present and future), how they shape knowledge and generate ideas, creativity, action…. we need the tools which enable us to study and make sense of the museum’s development and impact, and this is what museum studies provides us with.
Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG)
University of Leicester, UK
Image: Looking down on the entrance to The Liverpool Museum, National Museums Liverpool. Photograph by Ceri Jones.
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