adj. – Equivalent in French: muséal; Spanish: museal; German: museal; Italian: museale; Portuguese: museal.
The word has two meanings in French (one when it is used as an adjective to qualify ‘museum’ and another when it is used as a noun), but only one in English, where it has been rarely used until now, to qualify a field covering more than the classical notion of ‘museum’. The museal field covers not only the creation, development and operation of the museum institution but also reflections on its foundations and issues. The museal field of reference is characterised by a specific approach, which establishes a viewpoint on reality with regard to the world of heritage (to consider something from the museal angle, for example, means to ask oneself whether it is possible to preserve it for exhibition to the public). Museology can thus be defined as all the attempts to theorise or think critically about the museal field, or as the ethics and philosophy of that which is museal.
1. Museal identifies a “specific relation to reality” (Stránský, 1987; Gregorová, 1980). This places it alongside politics and on the same level as social life, religion, demo- graphics, economics and so on. Each example is a sphere or an original field in which problems will be raised which will be answered by concepts. Thus the same phenomenon can be found at the point where several levels meet or, to speak in terms of multidimensional statistical analysis, it will project itself onto several heterogeneous levels. For example, GMO (genetically modified organisms) can be simultaneously a technical problem (biotechnology), a health problem (risks regarding the biosphere), a political problem (ecological issues), and also a museal problem: some social museums have decided to stage exhibitions on the risks and the issues of GMO.
2. This position of museal as a theoretical field of reference opens considerable avenues to expanded thinking, because the museum as institution now appears to be just one illustration or example of the entire field. This has two consequences: (1) It was not museums that gave rise to museology, but rather museology that founded museums (the Copernican revolution); (2) This allows us to understand that experiences which are of a different nature to those usually identified with museums (collections, building, institution) are part of the same problem, and to accept museums of substitutes, museums without collections, extramural museums, towns as museums (Quatremère de Quincy, 1796), and ecomuseums or even cyber museums.
3. The specificity of the museal field, in other words, that which makes it unequivocal compared to neighbouring fields, lies in two aspects: (1) sensory display, which sets the museal apart from the textual, managed in a library, which offers a documentation relayed through the medium of writing (mainly that which is printed; books) and which requires not only the knowledge of a language but also the ability to read. This procures an experience which is more abstract and more theoretical at the same time. On the other hand, a museum does not need any of these aptitudes, because the documentation it proposes is above all sensory, perceivable by sight and sometimes by hearing, more rarely by the three other senses of touch, taste and smell. This means that an illiterate person or even a young child can always gain something from a museum visit, whereas they would be incapable of using the resources of a library. This also explains experiences of visits adapted for blind or partially sighted people, where other senses are called in to play (hearing and especially touch) to discover the sensory aspects of the exhibits. A painting or a sculpture is made to be seen first of all, and reference to a text (or reading a placard if there is one) only comes afterwards and is not absolutely essential. Thus we can say when of the museum that it fulfils a “sensory documentary function” (Deloche, 2007). (2) Marginalising reality, because the museum “specifies itself while separating itself” (Lebensztein, 1981). Unlike a political field where it is possible to theorise about the management of the concrete lives of people in society through the mediation of institutions such as the State, that which is museal on the other hand serves to theorise about the way in which an institution creates, through separation and de- contextualisation, in short through the putting into images, a space for sensory display “at the margin of all reality” (Sartre). This is the essence of a utopia, that is to say a comple- tely imaginary space, certainly symbolic but not necessarily intangible. This second point characterises what one might call the utopian function of museums, because in order to change the world, one must be able to imagine it otherwise, and thus to distance oneself from it, which is why utopia as a fiction is not necessarily a lack or a deficiency, but rather the imagining of a different world.
Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse
And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology
Main image and for social networks: “Rike-Doepp” by Robert Wunsch
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