Mairesse and Desvallées (2010) offer five distinct meanings of museology, although they prefer the definition of museology as the entirety of theoretical and critical thinking within the museum field. The ‘new museology’ evolved from the perceived failings of the original museology, and was based on the idea that the role of museums in society needed to change: in 1971 it was claimed that museums were isolated from the modern world, elitist, obsolete and a waste of public money (Hudson 1977, 15). Traditional ideas around museum practice, which were seen to have contributed to this, were functionally based around collections and held curatorship as being central to the museum enterprise. The original idea of a museum as a collections-focused, building-based institution prevailed, with the existence of a general public understanding that the museum is a ‘cultural authority’ – upholding and communicating truth (Harrison 1993).The consequence of this was perceived to be that the interests of a narrow social grouping dominated how museums operated on the basis of a claimed exclusivity in determining the role of museums (Hooper-Greenhill 2000). This exclusivity was, in turn, linked to claims about cultural status and the idea that the major social role of museums was to ‘civilise’ and ‘discipline’ the mass of the population to fit their position within society (Bennett 1995) through differentiating between ‘high’ and ‘elitist’ cultural forms which were worthy of preservation, and ‘low’ or ‘mass’ ones (Griswold 2008), which were not. Therefore, what could be called the traditional museology was seen to privilege both its collections-based function and its social links to the cultural tastes of particular social groups.
New Museum ABC in Madrid by studio Aranguren & Gallegos
The ‘new museology’ is a discourse around the social and political roles of museums, encouraging new communication and new styles of expression in contrast to classic, collections-centred museum models (Mairesse and Desvallées 2010). It has become a theoretical and philosophical movement linked to a shift in focus and intention within the museums world, away from the functional idea of museums. Areas that were suggested for reconsideration in the ‘new museology’ included the position of museums in conservation, the epistemological status of artefacts on display, and the nature and purpose of museum scholarship (Smith 1989, 20–21). The ‘new museology’ has been broken down to changes in ‘value, meaning, control, interpretation, authority and authenticity’ within museums. This also includes the redistribution of power within museums and ‘curatorial redistribution’ (Stam 1993).
The ‘new museology’ also involves a redefinition of the relationship that museums have with people and their communities. This shift includes a drive for wider access and representation of diverse groups (Stam 1993), as well as a more active role for the public as both visitors and controllers of the curatorial function (Black 2005; Kreps 2009). Museums can also be, and have been seen to take, an active role in tackling discrimination and inequality within society (Sandell 2007). There is also a perceived shift in the identity of museum professionals from ‘legislator’ to ‘interpreter’ and towards a more visitor- orientated ethos (Ross 2004).
These developments can be argued to be part of a shift in focus from objects to ideas within the ‘new museology’ (Weil 1990), with language and education now argued to have a central position in museums (Hooper-Greenhill 2000; Message 2006). There has also been an introduction of multiple discourses linking museums to terminologies such as ‘cultural empowerment’, ‘social re-definition’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘emotion’ (Harrison 1993). This progression has come with an awareness of social accountability and social (as well as moral) responsibility in the museum (Heijnen 2010).
The ‘new museology’ – and a great deal of museological literature – assumes that as a result of this rethinking of the purposes of museums, real change has occurred in both the understanding of museum functions and the activities that museums undertake. The ‘new museology’ continues to provide a set of principles that, it is argued, should be enshrined in how these institutions work (cf. the recent arguments in Simon 2010). There has, however, been relatively little analysis of actual museum practice to assess the extent to which changes have actually lived up to the assumptions of the ‘new museology’ across the museums sector as a whole, except in case studies of particular examples of innovative work within individual museums (cf. the essays in Guntarik 2010 and MuseumsEtc 2011), Duncan’s (2004) analysis of some of the larger European museums AQ3 highlighted that there had indeed been a change to public consumption within The Louvre and National Gallery of London. The changes that had occurred, however, were more representative of imposing the ideologies of the powerful onto the masses, which would indicate some limitations to what the ‘new museology’ has actually achieved.
While the ‘new museology’ as an approach is concerned with increased access and representation, for example, some recent work effectively challenges the extent to which these have been put into practice in many museums (Janes 2009). This is particularly in terms of the continuing demands that the management of heritage should be ‘more open, inclusive, representative and creative’ (Harrison 2013, 225) – implying that change has not been universally achieved. For example, Stam (1993) discusses the implications of the ‘new museology’ on museum practice and identifies a range of changes in organisational structure, staffing and management/business practices. Many responses to the ‘new museology’, however, have been ‘suspiciously ad hoc’ and often at odds with the educational purposes of museums. Furthermore, it is noted that the ‘new museology’ is less useful for praxis – museums have been left to find their own routes to link ideas around the ‘new museology’ to what they are actually doing.
This paper takes the ‘new museology’ as a specific ideology and discourse that has affected expectations around the purpose of museums. The above literature demonstrates that the ‘new museology’ includes a wide range of expectations and beliefs. This paper outlines the extent to which museum workers at the ground level have understood these expectations and linked the ‘new museology’ into their everyday roles. The current paper is not based on a statistically representative sample of museums and museum services in the UK, and is not intended to provide a definitive statement about the precise extent to which the ‘new museology’ is embedded in individual cases or how individual museums are living up to the principles enshrined within the approach. Instead, it provides a synoptic overview of factors internal to the museums sector as a whole that have affected the extent to which change has occurred, and identifies the manner in which they have contributed to the partial and inconsistent take-up of the principles of the ‘new museology’ within different countries.
Resources: V. McCall and C. Gray
Main photo: The Museum | Joanne Young Illustration