Museums and the 'new museology': theory, practice and organisational change

Vikki McCall, Clive Gray
2013 Museum Management and Curatorship  
The widening of roles and expectations within cultural policy discourses has been a challenge to museum workers throughout Great Britain (GB). There has been an expectation that museums are changing from an 'old' to a 'new museology' that has shaped museum functions and roles. This paper outlines the limitations of this perceived transition as museum services confront multiple exogenous and endogenous expectations, opportunities, pressures and threats. Findings from 23 publicallyfunded museum
more » ... rvices across England, Scotland and Wales are presented to explore the roles of professional and hierarchical differentiation, and how there were organisational and managerial limitations to the practical application of the 'new museology'. The ambiguity surrounding policy, roles and practice also highlighted that museum workers were key agents in interpreting, using and understanding wide-ranging policy expectations. The practical implementation of the 'new museology' is linked to the values held by museum workers themselves and how they relate it to their activities at the ground level. This paper then explores four factors that limit the implementation of the 'new museology'. The role of professional differentiation is first explored showing that there is often still a perceived, and real, polarisation of factions within museum services. These are clearly related to museum functions and the negotiation of power relationships within the museum services studied. The hierarchical differentiations within the services are then outlined, which paints a complex picture of working relationships, especially between managerial and collections-based roles. The paper then explores the effect of policy and role ambiguity, as well as what could be considered to be the effective implementation of policy. Overall, key discourses related to the 'new museology' were evident, but there were also important restraints on the practical implementation of activities relating to the 'new museology' throughout the services studied. The 'new museology' Mairesse and Desvallées (2010) offer five distinct meanings of museology, although they prefer the definition of museology as the entirety of theoretical and critical thinking within the museum field. The 'new museology' evolved from the perceived failings of the original museology, and was based on the idea that the role of museums in society needed to change: in 1971 it was claimed that museums were isolated from the modern world, elitist, obsolete and a waste of public money (Hudson 1977, 15). Traditional ideas around museum practice, which were seen to have contributed to this, were functionally based around collections and held curatorship as being central to the museum enterprise. The original idea of a museum as a collections-focused, building-based, institution prevailed, with the existence of a general public understanding that the museum is a 'cultural authority ' --upholding and communicating truth (Harrison 1993).The consequence of this was perceived to be that the interests of a narrow social grouping dominated how museums operated on the basis of a claimed exclusivity in determining the role of museums (Hooper-Greenhill 2000) . This exclusivity was, in turn, linked to claims about cultural status and the idea that the major social role of museums was to 'civilize' and 'discipline' the mass of the population to fit their position within society (Bennett 1995) through differentiating between 'high' and 'elitist' cultural forms which were worthy of preservation, and 'low' or 'mass' ones (Griswold 2008), which were not. Therefore, what could be called the traditional museology was seen to privilege both its collections-based function and its social links to the cultural tastes of particular social groups. The 'new museology' is a discourse around the social and political roles of museums, encouraging new communication and new styles of expression in contrast to classic, collections-centred museum models (Mairesse and Desvallées 2010). It has become a theoretical and philosophical movement linked to a shift in focus and intention within the museums world, away from the functional idea of museums. Areas that were suggested for reconsideration in the 'new museology' included the position of museums in conservation,
doi:10.1080/09647775.2013.869852 fatcat:goxqz6mmsveg7nj7mlvopq3h4e