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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: profession; Spanish: profesión; German: Beruf; Italian: professione; Portuguese: profissāo.

Profession is defined first of all in a socially defined setting, and not by default. Profession does not constitute a theoretical field: a museologist can call himself an art historian or a biologist by profession, but he can also be considered – and socially accepted – as a professional museologist. For a profession to exist, moreover, it must define itself as such, and also be recognised as such by others, which is not always the case in the museum world. There is not one profession, but several museal professions (Dubé, 1994), that is to say a range of activities attached to the museum, paid or unpaid, by which one can identify a person (in particular for his civil status) and place him in a social category.

5a9b9d0a63cfd9ad594f663468286339The Creators Project

If we refer to the concept of museology as presented here, most museum employees are far from having received the professional training that their title would imply, and very few can claim to be museologists simply because they work in a museum. There are, however, many positions which require a specific background. ICTOP (The ICOM International Committee for the Training of Personnel) has listed twenty of them (Ruge, 2008).

2f055d3a57d761044592bedf733f3383David Allan Brandt

1. Many employees, often the majority of people working in the institution, follow a career path which has only a relatively superficial relationship with the very principle of the museum – whereas to the wider public, they personify museums. This is the case with security officers or guards, the staff responsible for the surveillance of exhibition areas in the museum, who are the main contacts with the public, like the receptionists. The specificity of museum surveillance (precise measures for security and for evacuating the public and the collections etc.) has gradually throughout the 19th century imposed specific recruitment categories, in particular that of a body which is separate from the rest of the administrative staff. At the same time it was the figure of the curator who appeared as the first specifically museal profession. For a long time the curator was in charge of all tasks directly relating to the objects in the collection, that is their preservation, research and communication (PRC model, Reinwardt Academie). The curator’s training is firstly associated with the study of the collections (art history, natural sciences, ethnology etc.) even if, for several years now, it has been backed up by a more museological training such as that given by a number of universities. Many curators who have specialised in the study of the collections – which remains uncontested as their main field of activity – cannot call themselves either museologists, or museographers (museum practitioners), even if in practice some of them easily combine these different aspects of museal work. In France, unlike other European countries, the body of curators is generally recruited by competition and benefits from a specific training school (Institut National du Patrimoine / The National Heritage Institute).

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2.The term museologist can be applied to researchers studying the specific relationship between man and reality, characterised as the documentation of the real by direct sensory perception. Their field of activity essentially concerns theory and critical thinking in the museal field, so they may work elsewhere than in a museum, for example in a university or in other research centres. The term is also applied by extension to any person working for a museum and holding the function of project leader or exhibition programmer. So museologists differ from curators, and also from museographers, who are responsible for the design and general organisation of the museum and its security, conservation and restoration facilities along with the exhibition galleries, whether permanent or temporary. Museographers, with their specific technical skills, have an expert vision of all the ways in which a museum operates – preservation, research and communication – and by drawing up the appropriate specifications they can manage the information connected with the overall work of the museum, from preventive conservation to the information disseminated to different publics. The museographer differs from the exhibit designer; a term proposed to indicate the person with all the skills required to create exhibitions, whether these are situated in a museum or in a non-museal setting, and from the exhibition designer in that the latter, who uses techniques to set the scene for the exhibition, may also find himself skilled at setting up an exhibition. The professions of exhibit designer and exhibition designer have long been related to that of decorator, which refers to decoration of the spaces. But the work of interior decoration in functional areas pertaining to the normal activities of interior decoration differs from the tasks that are required for exhibitions, which are in the field of exhibit design. In exhibitions, their work tends more towards fitting out the space using exhibits as elements of decoration, rather than starting from the exhibits to be displayed and given meaning within the space. Many exhibit designers or exhibition designers call themselves first of all architects of interior design, which does not mean that any architect of interior design can claim the status of exhibit designer or exhibition designer, or of museographer. In this context the exhibition and display curator (a role often played by the curator, but sometimes by a person from outside the museum) takes on its full meaning, since he or she produces the scientific project for the exhibition and coordinates the entire project.

03e14f0ff3b6fe8492ce7c353e51d0a2Matthieu Belin

3. Assisted by the development of the museal field, a number of professions have gradually emerged and to become independent, and also to confirm their importance and their will to be a part of the museum’s destinies. This phenomenon can essentially be observed in the fields of preservation and communication. In preservation, it was first of all the conservator, as a professional with scientific competences and above all the techniques required for the physical treatment of the collection objects (restoration, preventive and remedial conservation), who required highly specialised training (by types of material and techniques), competences which the curator does not have. Similarly the tasks imposed by the inventory, relating to management of the reserves, and also to the moving of items, favoured the relatively recent creation of the post of registrar, who is responsible for the movement of objects, insurance matters, management of the reserves and sometimes also the preparation and mounting of an exhibition (at which point the registrar becomes the exhibition curator).

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4. Regarding communication, the staff attached to the educational department, along with all the staff who work in public relations, have benefited from the emergence of a number of specific professions. Undoubtedly one of the oldest of these is that of guide-interpreter, guide-lecturer or lecturer, who accompanies visitors (most often in groups) through the exhibition galleries, giving them information about the exhibition and the objects on display, essentially following the principle of guided visits. This first type of accompaniment has been joined by the function of animator, the person in charge of workshops or other experiences coming under the museum’s communication methods, and then that of cultural projects coordinator who is the intermediary between the collections and the public and whose aim is more to interpret the collections and to encourage the public to take interest in them than to systematically teach the public according to a pre-established content. Increasingly the web master plays a fundamental role in the museum’s communication and mediation tasks.

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5. Other cross-cutting or ancillary occupations have been added to these professions. Among these are the head or project manager (who may be a scientist, or a museographer) who is responsible for all the methods for implementing the museal activities and who groups around him specialists in the fields of preservation, research, and communication in order to carry out specific projects, such as a temporary exhibition, a new gallery, an open reserve, etc.

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6. In more general terms it is very likely that administrators or museum managers, who already have their own committee in ICOM, will emphasise the specific skills of their function by distinguishing it from other organizations, for profit or not. The same is true for many other administrative tasks such as logistics, security, information technology, marketing, and media relations, which are all growing in importance. Museum directors (who also have associations, particularly in the United States) have profiles that cover one or more of the above proficients. They are symbols of authority in the museum, and their profile (manager or curator, for example) is often presented as indicative of the development and action strategy that the museum will adopt.

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Main photo: Ann Elliott Cutting Photography