The title of this intriguing work shows the author’s ambitious aim: Duncan Grewcock seeks to go beyond the boundaries of Museum Studies (which is all too often limited to the practical aspects of museums) to develop museum research through relational, subjective and territorial analysis that incorporates the researcher’s misgivings. A piece of research in the making, the final result is of less importance than the journey it involves. Mark Dion’s exhibition System a Metropolis, held at L in 2007, is one of the central themes of Grewcock’s research. Borrowing the artist’s approach in order to explain his way of visiting and recreating the exhibition, the author uses a kind of ethnographic notebook, based on Dion’s preparatory fieldwork in London’s suburbs.
This presentation is preceded by a chapter which combines notes and photos to illustrate various museum visits (in London, Rome, Sydney, Wellington, Dubai, etc.) that Grewcock made during his research. The “auto-ethnographic” approach that the author takes in the first two chapters may seem disjointed, but it does highlight a number of essential practices in museological research, such as frequent museum visits: physically experiencing them, walking around, photographing or drawing; analysis of their practices; and the importance of examining one’s relationship to the museum. These are tools that are as fundamental as documentary research or public surveys. One might add that the experience of working in a museum every day also radically changes one’s perception of the institution – a dimension that a number of consultants and academics often miss.
The author argues that the journey is more important than the destination, but does his knowledge of the field as applied in this text really enable us to speak of another way of practising museology? In the third chapter Grewcock discusses the different definitions of the discipline and museum studies and practice. Curiously, his approach to museums (which would a greatly benefited from being more international) focuses on a classic conception of them, failing to explore more marginal initiatives in the museum field (cyber museums,museums without collections, shop/museums, etc.).
This new relational approach to museum studies seeks to align the discipline with the contemporary concerns of research and museums, with the latter seen as aplace of relationships and inclusion. In this view,museums must focus on the sensory and the emotional as much as the cognitive, and on processes and performances more than accumulation, etc. Grewcock’s approach to museology is presented through a series of basic tools: going to a museum, taking pictures, telling stories, writing,making lists, making connections and the like, as if we might have forgotten these. In the end, with its description of a sort of museology in action (which bears similarities to Bruno Latour’s analyses on science), the book offers a make shift and subjective vision of research. This risks irritating the reader, who might be disconcerted by the author’s deliberately unfinished argument, which raises at least as many questions and dissatisfaction as it provides answers… but perhaps this is not such a bad thing after all.
Main Photo: Workers at The Louvre, Paris. Photo by Pierre Jahan. 1947.