Estonian Museum Association
Veski 32, Tartu, phone 735 0412
Info in Tallinn: Pikk 70, phone 641 1410
Peter van Mensch „Towards a methodology of museology” (PhD thesis, University of Zagreb, 1992)
Purpose of understanding
Although within the diversity of opinions concerning the cognitive intention of museology some groups can be distinguished, one can hardly speak of 'schools'. Typically 'schools' have been formed around the purpose of museological understanding rather than the object of knowledge. Diverging views concerning the aims and purposes of the discipline even lead to a schism in the museological community. In 1985 members of the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM) founded the Movement Internationale pour la Nouvelle Muséologie (MINOM).
As has been mentioned in Chapter 2 one of the basic criterions to decide whether museology is a genuine academic discipline is the degree in which the discipline is able to fulfil a social need. In this respect distinction should be made between the relevancy of the practical work in the museological field, i.e. museum work, and the relevancy of museology as theoretical frame work of that field. If museology is to be accepted as academic discipline, it must be made clear what kind of contribution it will make to the general knowledge; if museology is to be accepted as the theoretical frame of reference of museum work, it must be made clear to what extent museum workers may profit from it. Especially concerning this last point different views have been expressed. An analysis of these views gives the following basic approaches: the empirical-theoretical approach, the praxeological approach, the philosophical-critical approach.
These approaches do not exclude each other. While the empirical-theoretical approach is mainly heuristic and the praxeological approach designs strategies of behaviour, the philosophical-critical approach wants to develop a definite point-of-view with resulting guidelines. The philosophical-critical approach in museology in relation to the empirical-theoretical and praxeological approaches.
Rationality [note 1]
The empirical-theoretical approach aims at substantial rationality, i.e. the ability to see signifying relationships between different phenomena in reality. Its aim is mainly descriptive. It tries to understand museological phenomena in their historical and socio-cultural contexts. Its usefulness is primarily heuristic. The praxeological approach focuses on functional rationality. Functional rationality is the ability to develop adequate means (methods, techniques, procedures) to realise ends that have been defined beforehand. Its aim is applicability. It should give very concrete answers to very concrete questions. In connection with the (museum) institute distinction can be made between cultural content and structural form. Cultural content concerns values and norms, meaning and role, i.e. the museum as institution. Structural form refers to the division of labour, hierarchy of functions, etc., i.e. the museum as organisation. Structural form is characterised by functional rationality, while cultural content can be characterised by substantial rationality. The empirical-theoretical approach in museology tends to focus on the cultural content (i.e. substantial rationality), while the praxeological emphasises the structural form of the museological phenomena (i.e. functional rationality) [note 2].
Both approaches do not exclude each other. As Vinos Sofka states, the aims of museology are to investigate, analyse and study the museum and its activities and thereby procure knowledge and experience that can be generalised and arranged within a system of museum theory having methods and a uniform terminology of its own, as well as to draw up objectives, to work out methods and suggest means for the museological activity and to solve its various problems and create a basis for its continued evolution (Sofka 1980). Burcaw, on the other hand, clearly aims at functional rationality. He expresses the point of view that the nature of museological knowledge should on the whole be pragmatic: '...museology describes how museums came to be what they are today, prescribes what museums ought to be in regard to society (ethics), and defines the particular organizational and procedural structures ...' (Burcaw 1983). In his pragmatism museology is seen as normative. It should describe 'a desirable organization'. Burcaw's norms, however, are of a practical nature, or, at any rate, meant to be so. He rejects axiological norms (see below). Benes also emphasises the technical nature of museology: 'The application of general museology to specific conditions does not concern the essence of the museum, it only means a modification in the forms of work to suit the available means and social needs. (...) The fears of undesirable manipulation or abuse of museums against the interests of the nation should not be addressed to museology (but to enforced cultural politics)' (Benes 1988). Similarly, Desvallées distinguishes the museological point of view (both theoretical and practical) from the socio-political forces that sometimes mis-use museums for their own ideological aims (Desvallées 1988). In this connection he speaks of 'l'objectivité muséologique trahie pour des raisons politiques'.
Korff rejects the idea of museology as an autonomous academic discipline on the level of philosophical knowledge [note 3].He considers museology as 'Theorie der Praxis' concerned with (1) reflection on museum work, (2) supporting the development of museum work, and (3) optimizing museum work. Following Hegel Korff sees museology in connection with the concrete: 'Wer Museologie betreibt, handelt mit den Konkreten und sieht darin alles'. In other words, Korff emphasises the primacy of the praxeological approach.
In his dichotomy of theoretical and applied museology Zbynek Stransky distinguishes between three levels of knowledge within the field of theoretical museology: empirical, theoretical and philosophical knowledge (Stransky 1983). The initial level is represented by empirical knowledge. In Stransky's view empirical knowledge is not identical with knowledge based on sensory perceptions. Though based on facts, empirical knowledge refers to a system of notions. Through this system we gain access to the level of theoretical knowledge. Patterns that are not directly discernible on the empirical level can be recognised and analysed on the level of theoretical knowledge. The level of philosophical knowledge is concerned with the fundamentals of museology and a higher degree of synthesis.
The distinction between the empirical-theoretical and praxeological approach follows Gluzinski's distinction between Postulated and Real Museology (Gluzinski 1983). In the present stage (Real Museology) 'factographical' and practical matters prevail. As such the praxeological approach in museology is, according to Gluzinski, an expression of a mechanistic conception of the activity of museums (museum as tool), while it diverts attention from the problems of museum's essence and sense whose study and explanation should be the main task of his Postulated Museology. The main contribution of museological as academic discipline should thus be in the direction of what has been called the empirical-theoretical approach. Only when museology is able to evolve into the level of empirical-theoretical thinking, it can contribute to the improvement on a practical level. Similar views are expressed by a wide range of authors, like Neustupny, Stransky, Russio, and Maroevic.
The third approach towards museology concentrates on the development of a critical social orientation. In this respect Stransky speaks of 'programme orientation' instead of 'cognitive orientation' (Stransky 1988). It is often suggested that the prevailing attitude among museologists is one of non-commitment (Sola 1991). This criticism concerns museums, the museum profession, as well as museological theory. Views as to a more active social role of museums initiated some explicit opinions concerning the programme orientation.
One of the most eloquent critics of traditionalist museology is the Croatian museologist Tomislav Sola. In view of the present degradation of our environment and other global problems, the traditional museum - even if it looks modern - is in his opinion a 'temple of vanity' (Sola 1992). Object-centered, technologically perfectionist, traditional museums are unable to respond to new needs. Museologists as theoreticians too often help reformers by focussing on pragmatic solutions. The world, says Sola, needs a new philosophy, i.e. a new programme orientation. In this respect post-war museology has offered three main schools of thought: marxist-leninist museology and new museology, and critical museology [note 4].Marxist-leninist museology is a very normative approach, where axiological norms are applied leading to a rather strict system of rules. New museology and critical museology advocate an attitude rather than the application of rules. As it was stated at one MINOM conference: 'Il n'y a pas qu'une seule methodologie de la nouvelle museologie. Il y en a donc plusiers qui se construisent et s'appliquent dans des projets qui repondent ses principes et qui ont pour base des realities sociales particulieres' (Conclusions de 4e Atelier International de Nouvelle Museologie, Saragosse 1987; quoted by Desvallées 1988: 134). A similar attitude of/in museology is advocated by critical museology. Theorisation should have the role of questioning, more than defining the frame for a systematic and systematising work. As such the philosophical-critical approach in museology is connected with what has been referred to as 'the revolution in museum work' (see Chapter 2).
One might wonder whether one school of thought in museology could be identified as marxist-leninist museology. The existence of an uniform marxist-leninist museology was suggested by Stransky when he proposed to prepare a dictionary of relevant terms (Stransky 1988b). This proposal was criticised by Hofmann. Hofmann pointed out that a marxist-leninist (i.e. socialist) museology did not yet exist (Hofmann 1988). Nevertheless, one finds many similarities among authors from the former socialist countries, especially concerning the purpose of knowledge. Within the ICOM International Committee for Museology the marxist-leninist approach was represented by Razgon (Soviet Union) and Schreiner (German Democratic Republic), and to a lesser extend by Stransky (Czechoslovakia). Razgon is very explicit in his opinion that impartiality is a bourgeois fiction that has to be fought (Razgon 1977). Museums are ideological instruments and should, as such, be controlled by the Party. This point of view is summarised by Zaks in a handbook on museum exhibitions: 'The methodological basis of exhibitions of museums of the Soviet Union is the Marx-Lenin doctrine about nature and the society. The ideological content of the exhibition must be expressed clearly. The selection and grouping of the presented material and its interpretation must be done in such a way that the exhibition might contribute to the formation of the Marx-Lenin world opinion, that it might reflect events and phenomena of the past or present from the viewpoint of the Party, that it might fulfil the tasks of communist education' (Zaks 1980: 60). Consequently museology should follow the lines of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
In the (former) German Democratic Republic the development of socialist museology was seen as reaction against the bourgeois museology of the Federal Republic of Germany [note 5].This line of thought is, for example, followed by Klaus Schreiner. To Schreiner the principal objective of museology is 'the evolvement of special theoretical fundaments and sets of instruments and/or procedures for convenient practical action (...). Museology is thus becoming a guide for museum activity, a guide for practical action' (Schreiner 1985: 36). This sounds non-committal, but it should be noted that Schreiner's position in museology is defined by his Marxist-Leninist starting point and has, as subsequently strong political drive as can be found in 'new museology'.
The East-Berlin Institut fur Museumswesen defined the subject-matter of museology as the relationship between society and museums, as well as the specific scientific and cultural role of museums. The purpose is the development of a socialist museum field. As Schreiner puts it: 'As social discipline museology has class character (in the class society). The world view and the gnoseological and methodological foundations of marxist-leninist museology is derived from dialectical and historical materialism' [note 6].Museology has class character, which means that it is defined by the ideology of the class using it. In the case of the German Democratic Republic this meant that museology should help museums to contribute to the development of a socialist society and the foundation of a socialist culture [note 7].
Not by coincidence, this class character of museology is rejected by the American museologist Burcaw: 'If each political system (...) is to decree its own museology, it will hurt the museum profession as a whole, making it difficult to understand where our common ground lies. It would be better for all of us, world wide, to accept that there is one general profession and one general museology' (Burcaw 1983: 11). Burcaw advocates a museology free from ideology. He sees a difference between museums in western countries and those in socialist countries. In socialist countries 'the purpose, beyond general education, is to spread Marxist ideology to the public' (Burcaw 1981: 29). 'In western countries, "service of society" means giving people what they want, consistent with the museum's serious educational nature, not what government decides the public should be given' (Burcaw 1983: 12). Burcaw's claims are easily disproved. Museums in western countries are not clear of ideology, hence museological thinking in western countries is not free from ideology either [note 8].
Nevertheless, views as expressed by museologists like Burcaw have influenced the acceptance of ICOFOM as a committee, as well as museology as academic discipline in the Western world. As has been stated before, Burcaw said what many others thought: the international museology discourse is used to spread communist ideas. The role of museologists from the socialist countries from East Europe in the International Committee for Museology seemed to support this opinion (see Chapter 3). However, at the moment when the political changes in Europe were settled the most militant supporters of a marxist-leninist museology were already retired (Hühns, Jahn) or dead (Razgon, Schreiner) [note 9].
The term 'new museology' has been introduced in museological literature at at least three different times at three different places. The term has been used by Benoist (1971: 29) in connection with the developments during the early 20th century when the art museum started to present well selected masterpieces in a sparse and neutral way (cf 'museum modernization movement'). The term was also used in 1958 by the Americans Mills and Grove in their contribution to De Borghegyi's book The modern museum and the community. In 1980 the term 'muséologie nouvelle' was introduced in France by André Desvallées when he was asked to write an article on museology for the supplement of the Encyclopaedia Universalis. Finally, the term was introduced in Great Britain by Peter Vergo when he published his book The new museology in 1989. The use of the term was always connected with the changing role of museums in education and in the society at large. Current museum practices were considered obsolete and the whole attitude of the professional was criticised. The profession is urged to renew itself in the perspective of a new social commitment.
It is the French concept of 'muséologie nouvelle' that gradually became recognised as one of the main streams within museology. The term has been monopolised by two, related, organisations: the Association 'Muséologie Nouvelle et Experimentation Sociale' (MNES), and the Movement Internationale pour la Muséologie Nouvelle (MINOM). MNES was founded in 1982 in France to united the supporters of the new museology. It criticises the dominant role of curators, of art museums and of the museums in Paris. MINOM was founded in 1985 by a group op people who were not satisfied by the policy of ICOFOM (see Chapter 3).
The philosophy of MNES is expressed by Hugues de Varine as follows: 'Comme mouvement, l'association marque bien son engagement dans la societ‚ contemporaine. Comme rassemblement, elle remet en cause, non pas les techniques du musée, mais ses missions fondamentales, soit pour les valider en precisant leur signification, soit pour les contester en proposant des alternatives'. A similar starting point characterises MINOM. Its supporters are dissatisfied with 'the monolithic nature of the museological establishment, the superficiality of the reforms which it proposes and the marginalization of any experiment or viewpoint which might be described as at all committed' (Mayrand 1986). They express their frustration about 'the museums establishment's delay in coming to terms with a number of contemporary, cultural, social and political developments' in the context 'of world crisis and re-evaluation of all human endeavour' (loc.cit.).New museology does not create new museums (René Rivard at the ICOFOM 1992 conference). Its intention is not to renew the museum institute, it rather advocates a completely new perspective to community development by putting the people in the centre of consideration. Conventional museums are seen as based upon obsession (Bernard Deloche) and as such as 'schools of repression'. Objects should be de-sacralised.
In the statutes of MINOM initiatives in the context of this new museology movement have been attributed following common characteristics:
- their role is to provide a population with access to a better self-knowledge and understanding of the conditions of their existence;
- this museological activity is characterised by an interdisciplinary approach in which the human being is considered in the natural, social and cultural environment. Within this perspective the concepts of 'milieu' and 'context' are essential.
- in this museological activity, methods and practices are used to actively involve the population;
- this museological activity is characterised by flexible and de-centralised structures which are appropriate to the territory and population involved.
MINOM is aware of the relativity of the term 'new', but it is clear that in the context of 'new museology' 'new' must not be interpreted only in the sense of modernizing the museum through modern methods of research, documentation, management, animation, etc., but in relation to its objectives, its stance and its initiatives (Statutes art. 5-3). Distinction is made between the 'monolithic' museums in the large metropoles and the local museums in rural and urban communities. Both types of museums should adopt a more active socio-cultural role. Especially local museums are asked to free themselves from rules, institutional structures and financial dependency.
The critical tradition within museology mirrors that within other related cultural fields, although until recently it has shown a distinct tendency to lag behind (Pearce 1992: 7). The term critical museology itself has been introduced by Lynne Teather to characterise the approach to museology as adopted by the Reinwardt Academie (Teather 1983). A similar approach is reflected in Hawes' statement that the museologist must strive for the 'critical museum', i.e. one that raises questions about myths, the national past and directions for the future' (Hawes 1986).The term 'critical' has also been used by Brachert writing about restoration (Brachert 1985: 30-33). He rejects the 'Konservierungspositivismus' of the scientific trained conservator, but also the 'Renovations nihilismus' of some modern conservators. Referring to Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Wille zur Macht) Brachert describes nihilism as the devaluation of the highest values ('Entwertung der obersten Werte'), What is lacking is the purpose; there is no answer to the why of restoration. Brachert's answer is critical restoration.
It seems as if the adjective 'critical' is used as unsystematically as the adjective 'new'. The distinction between 'critical' and 'new' is not clear. In the United Kingdom the term 'critical curatorship' seems to refer to a similar general attitude as advocated under the heading 'new museology'. The term refers to a radically new curatorial practice which starts by engaging a non-specialist audience. However, whereas new museology as community museology emphasises positive imagining, critical museology aims at critical imagining. Such inversion of priorities in, for example, art curatorship is considered necessary to cope with issues like censorship, racism and internationalism [note 10].
The term critical has also been used in the United States in relation with museum work. Davis and Gibb emphasise the role of history museums to teach critical thinking (Davis & Gibb 1988). In this case, however, the critical attitude refers to the aims of the museum rather than its policy. Nevertheless, teaching critical thinking presupposes a critical attitude of the museum itself. In this respect Susan Pearce sees clear relationships between post-modern thinking in material culture studies and museum theory as part of a critical cultural theory (Pearce 1992). According to her, the critical evaluation of the whole museum phenomenon is the new paradigm of museology.
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Benes, J. (1988) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed., Museology and developing countries - help or manipulation? ICOFOM Study Series 14 (Stockholm) 89-92.
Brachert, T. (1985) Patina (München).
Burcaw, G.E. (1981) 'Interdisciplinarity in museology', Museological Working Papers (2): 29-30.
Burcaw, G.E. (1983) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed., Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 1 (Stockholm) 10-17.
Carnes, A. (1986) 'Showplace, playground or forum? Choice point for science museums', Museum News 64 (4): 29-35.
Davis, K.L. & J.G. Gibb (1988) 'Unpuzzling the past: critical thinking in history museums', Museum Studies Journal 3 (2): 41-45.
Desvallées, A. (1988) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed., Museology and developing countries - help or manipulation? ICOFOM Study Series 14 (Stockholm) 129-136.
Duncan, C. & A. Wallach (1978) 'The Museum of Modern Art as late capitalist ritual: an iconographic analysis', Marxist Perspective 1 (4): 28-51.
Gluzinski, W. (1983) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed., Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 1 (Stockholm) 24-35.
Hawes, E.L. (1986) 'Artifacts, myth, and identity in American history museums', in: V. Sofka ed., Museology and identity. ICOFOM Study Series 10 (Stockholm) 135-139.
Hofmann, E. (1988) 'Ein museologisches Wörterbuch? Bemerkungen zum Vorschlag Z.Z. Stransky', Neue Museumskunde 31 (4): 4.
Hoover, A. & R. Inglis (1990) 'Acquiring and exhibiting a Nuu-Chah-Nulth ceremonial curtain', Curator 33 (4): 272-288.
Hühns, E. (1/) 'Museologie. Geschichte, Gegenstand, Methoden', Neue Museumskunde 36 (4): 291-294.
Mayrand, P. (1986) 'The new museology proclaimed', Museum (148): 200-201.
Mensch, P. van (1987) 'Practice and theory', Museological News (10): 115-118.
Pearce, S. (1992) Museums, objects and collections (Leicester).
Razgon, A.W. (1977) 'Zum Prinzip der Parteilichkeit in der Museumsarbeit', Neue Museumskunde 20 (4): 244-251.
Schlereth, T.J. (1978) 'It wasn't that simple', Museum News 56 (3): 36-44.
Schlereth, T.J. (1980) Artifacts and the American past (Nashville).
Schreiner, K. (1984) Grundlagen der Museologie. Einführung in die Museologie 5 (Waren).
Schreiner, K. (1985) Fundamentals of museology. Einführung in die Museologie 6 (Waren).
Schreiner, K. & H. Wecks (1986) Studien zur Museologie. Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Museumswesen 27 (Berlin).
Sofka, V. (1980) 'Museology is the study of the museum and its activities', Museological Working Papers (1): 12-13.
Sola, T. (1991) 'Museums and curatorship: the role of theory', in: G. Kavanagh ed., The museum profession (Leicester) 127-135.
Sola, T. (1992) 'What is museology?', Papers in museology 1 (Umea) 10-19.
Stransky, Z. (1983) 'Basic paper', in: V. Sofka ed., Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 1 (Stockholm) 126-132.
Stransky, Z. (1988) 'Museologie: Deus ex machina', in: V. Sofka ed., Museology and developing countries - help or manipulation? ICOFOM Study Series 15 (Stockholm) 207-214.
Stransky, Z. (1988b) 'Museologische terminologie', Neue Museumskunde 31 (1): 12-17.
Teather, L. (1983) 'Some brief notes on the problems of museological research', in: V. Sofka ed., Methodology of museology and professional training. ICOFOM Study Series 5 (Stockholm) (1-9).
Zaks, A.B. (1980) Podgotovka muzejnoj ekcpozicii (Moscow).
Zijderveld, A.C. (1983) De culturele factor ('s Gravenhage).
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 This analysis is based on Zijderveld 1983. >back<
 A special form of the praxeological approach in museology is Cyril Simard's economuseology. >back<
 In a lecture for the Nachdiplomstudium Museologie at Basel, 13.11.1992. >back<
 In connection with a philosophical-critical perspective in museology some other terms are proposed. For example, Hoover and Inglis speak of 'liberated museology' (Hoover & Inglis 1990). >back<
 'Die spätbürgerliche Museologie vertritt einen Museumsbegriff, der (...) gesellschaftlich isolierten aesthetischen Genuss propagiert (...) oder zeigt offen reaktionaere und revanchistische Tendenzen, (...). Da die Museen in der BDR im wesentlichen Einrichtungen des Staates oder Stiftungen kapitalistischer Unternehmer sind, wird die Museologie von den Kämpfen der Arbeiterbewegung wenig beeinflusst' (Hühns 1/: 292). >back<
 These two sentences are translated from the original German version of Schreiner's thesis (Schreiner 1984: 37). They do, however, not appear in the official English version of his work (compare Schreiner 1985: 34). In general Schreiner's contributions to the ICOFOM conferences are less dogmatic than his German texts (see also Schreiner & Wecks 1986, chapter II). >back<
 'Damit tragen sie dazu bei, das allgemeine kulturelle Niveau zu entwicklen, das bewusste Erkennen und Nutzen von Möglichkeiten zur schöneren Gestaltung useres sozialistischen Lebens anzuregen' (Hühns 1/: 292). >back<
 See, for example, Carnes 1986, Duncan & Wallach 1978, and Schlereth 1978 and 1980. >back<
 An interesting case in point are the Czech museologists. Despite their age and despite their commitment to the former socialist regime Benes as well as Stransky were able to continue their work as lecturers in museology. Notwithstanding the many references to marxism-leninism and the explicit proposals for a marxist-leninist museology Stransky denies the political implications of his former ideas. Contrary to their colleagues from (former) Soviet Union, (former) German Democratic Republic and (former) Czechoslovakia, Maroevic and Sola (Zagreb) never referred to marxism-leninism. >back<
 From a report on a seminar on curatorship in art museums organised by the City University, London in November 1985 (Museums Journal 90, 1990, (5): 21). The title of the seminar, 'Critical curatorship', refers to new curatorial practices that emerge.>back<
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