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Reference: André Desvallées and François Mairesse (Eds.). Key Concepts of Museology. 2010. Available in 9 languages from http://icom.museum/professional-standards/key-concepts-of-museology/


n. – Equivalent in French: muséologie; Spanish: museología; German: Museologie, Museumswissenschaft, Museumskunde; Italian: museologia; Portuguese: museologia.

Etymologically speaking museology is the ‘study of the museum’ (or museum studies), and not its practice, which is museography. But the term museology and its derivative museological, accepted in its wider sense in the 1950s, now has five clearly distinct meanings.

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1. The first and most commonly accepted meaning applies the term museology to anything relating to museums and generally listed, in this dictionary, under the heading museal. Thus one might speak of the museological departments of a library (the reserved section or the numismatic cabinet), museological questions (relating to museums) and so on. This is often the meaning used in Anglo-Saxon countries, which has even spread from North America to Latin-American countries. Thus, where there is no specific recognised profession, such as in France where the general term curator (conservateur) would be used, the term museo- logist applies to the entire museum profession (for example in Québec), in particular to consultants given the task of drawing up a museum project or creating and staging an exhibition. This use is not favoured here.

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2. The second meaning of the term is generally accepted in many western university networks and is close to the etymological sense of the word: museum studies. The most commonly used definition is that proposed by Georges Henri Rivière: “Museology: an applied science, the science of the museum. Museology studies its history, its role in society, the specific forms of research and physical conservation, activities and dissemination, organisation and functioning, new or musealised architecture, sites that have been received or chosen, its typology and its deontology” (Rivière, 1981). In some ways museology contrasts with museography, which refers to the practices attached to museology. Anglo-Americans are generally reluctant to accept the invention of new ‘sciences’ and have favoured the expression museum studies, particularly in Great Britain where the term museology is still rarely used to date. Although the term has been increasingly frequently applied inter- nationally since the 1950s, along with the increased interest in museums, it is still rarely used by people who live with museums on a daily basis, and the use of the term remains limited to people who observe the museum from the outside. This use of museo- logy, widely accepted by professionals, has gradually established itself in Romance countries from the 1960s, replacing the term museography.

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3. From the 1960s in Central and Eastern Europe, museology gradually came to be considered as a genuine field of scientific research (albeit a developing science) and an independent discipline examining reality. This view, which greatly influenced ICOFOM in the years 1980-1990, presents museology as the study of a specific relationship between man and reality, a study in which museums, a phenomenon set in a specific time, are only one of the possible manifestations. “Museology is a self-differentiating, independent scientific discipline the subject of which is a specific attitude of man to reality expressed objectively in various museum forms throughout history, an expression of and a proportionate part of memory sys- tems. Museology, by nature a social science, pertains to the sphere of mnemonic and documentary scientific disciplines, and contributes to the understanding of Man within society” (Stránský, 1980). This particular approach, freely criticised (the determination to impose museology as a science and to cover the whole field of heritage seemed pretentious to more than one), but it is nonetheless fertile with regard to its implica- tions. Thus the object of museology is not the museum, since this is a creation that is relatively recent in terms of the history of humanity. Taking this statement as a starting point, the concept of a “specific relation of man to reality”, sometimes referred to as museality (Waidacher, 1996), was gradually defined. Thus following in the wake of the Brno school which prevailed at the time one could define museology as “A science studying the specific relation of Man to reality, consisting of the purposeful and systematic collecting and conservation of selected inanimate, material, mobile, and mainly three-dimensional objects documenting the development of nature and society” (Gregorová, 1980). However, the likening of museology to a science – even under development – has slowly been abandoned in so far as neither its object of study, nor its methods, truly correspond to the epistemological criteria of a specific scientific approach.

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4. The new museology (la nouvelle muséologie in French, where the concept originated) widely influenced museology in the 1980s, first gathering some French theoreticians and then spreading internationally from 1984. Referring to a few pioneers who had published innovative texts since 1970, this current of thought emphasised the social role of museums and its interdisciplinary character, along with its new styles of expression and communication. New museology was particularly interested in new types of museums, conceived in contrast to the classical model in which collections are the centre of interest. These new museums are ecomuseums, social museums, scientific and cultural centres, and generally speaking, most of the new proposals aimed at using the local heritage to promote local development. In English museum literature the term New Museology appeared at the end of the 1980s (Virgo, 1989) and is a critical discourse on the social and political role of museums – lending a certain confusion to the spread of the French term, which is less known to the English-speaking public.

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5. According to a fifth meaning of the term, which we favor here because it includes all the others, museology covers a much wider field comprising all the efforts at theorisation and critical thinking about the museal field. In other words, the common denominator of this field could be defined as a specific relation between man and reality, which is expressed by documenting that which is real and can be grasped through direct sensory contact. This definition does not reject a priori any form of museum, including the oldest (Quiccheberg) and the most recent (cyber museums), because it tends to concern itself with a domain which is freely open to all experiments in the museal field. Nor is it limited to people who call themselves museo- logists. We should note that if some protagonists have made museology their field of choice, to the point of presenting themselves as museologists, others tied to their professio- nal branch who only approach the museal sphere on occasion prefer to keep a certain distance from “museologists”, even though they have, or have had, a fundamental influence in the development of this field of study (Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Dagognet, Debray, Foucault, Haskell, McLuhan, Nora or Pomian). The guidelines in a map of the museal field can be traced in two different directions: either with reference to the main functions inherent to the field (documentation, collecting, display and safeguarding, research, communication), or by considering the different branches of knowledge which examine museology from time to time.

With this last view in mind, Bernard Deloche proposed defining museology as museal philosophy. “Museology is the philosophy of the museal field which has two tasks: (1) it serves as metatheory for the science of intuitive concrete documentation, (2) it provides regulating ethics for all institutions responsible for managing the intuitive concrete documentary function” (Deloche, 2001).

Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse
And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology

Main image and for social networks: Beer at Spritmuseum by Form Us With Love


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