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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: recherche; Spanish: investigación; German: Forschung; Italian: ricerca; Portuguese: pesquisa, investigaçāo.


Museum of Natural History Stuttgart

Research consists of exploring predefined fields with the purpose of advancing the knowledge of these and the action it is possible to carry out in these fields. In the museum, research consists of the intellectual activities and work aimed at discovery, invention, and the advancement of new knowledge connected with the museum collections, or the activities it carries out.jfkmoon4The JFK Presidential Library and Museum

1. Until 2007 ICOM presented research in the French (and official) version of the definition of museum, as the driving force behind its functioning, the objective of the museum being to carry out research on the material evidence of man and society, which is why the museum “acquires, conserves, and exhibits” this evidence. This formal definition which presented the museum as a kind of laboratory (open to the public) no longer represents museal reality today, since a large part of the research such as was carried out in the last third of the 20th century has been moved from museums to laboratories and universities. Now the museum “acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity” (ICOM, 2007). This definition, shorter than the previous one (and with the term “fait des recherches” [does research] in French replaced by “étudier” [study]) nonetheless remains essential to the general operations of the museum. Research is one of the three activities of the PRC model (Preservation – Research – Communication) proposed by the Reinwardt Academie (Mensch, 1992) to define the functioning of museums; it appears to be a fundamental element for thinkers as different as Zbyneˇk Stránský or Georges Henri Rivière, and many other museologists from central and eastern Europe, such as Klaus Schreiner. At the Musée national des Arts et traditions populaires (The National Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions), and more precisely through his works on l’Aubrac, Rivière perfectly illustrated the repercussions of the scientific research programme for all the functions of a museum, in particular its acquisition, publication and exhibition policies.

MARATHON-KIDS-PRINT---SKULLMuseum of the Video Games

2. Aided by market mechanisms which have favoured temporary exhibitions to the detriment of permanent ones, part of the fundamental research has been replaced by a more applied research, particularly in the preparation of temporary exhibitions. Research within the framework of the museum or attached to it can be classified into four categories (Davallon, 1995), according to whether it is part of the operations of the museum (its technology) or produces knowledge about the museum.


The first type of research, certainly the most developed, is direct evidence of traditional museal activity and is based on the museum’s collections, relying essentially on the reference disciplines connected with the content of the collections (history of art, history, natural sciences, etc.). The building of classification systems, inherent to the building of a collection and productive of catalogues, was one of the foremost research priorities within the museum, particularly in natural science museums (this is the essence of taxonomy), but also in museums of ethnography, archaeology and of course fine art.

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The second type of research involves sciences and disciplines which lie outside the realm of museology (physics, chemistry, communication sciences, etc.), pursued in order to develop tools for museum practice (considered here as museal techniques): material and standards for conservation, study or restoration, surveys of the public, management methods, etc.sigmacrocodileSigma Conseil

The aim of the third type of research, which can be called museological (for example, museal ethics), is to stimulate thought about the mission and operations of museums – especially through the work of ICOFOM. The disciplines involved are essentially philosophy and history, or museology as defined by the Brno school.


Finally, the fourth type of research, which can also be seen as museological (understood as all critical thought connected with the museal) addresses analysis of the institution, in particular through its communication and heritage aspects. The sciences mobilised for building up knowledge about the museum itself are history, anthropology, sociology and linguistics, etc.


Main photo: MASP