New trends in museology II.

A book review

Tina Palaić

As a young museologist, I try to educate myself constantly in the field of museums – both practically and theoretically. Recently I have read a very useful book, which aims to bridge the gap between theory and practice. It is a book written by renowned museologists and practitioners Peter van Mensch and Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, who call for development of new, up-to-date museum practices to establish and maintain museums as essential institutions in our society. New Trends in Museology II (2015) is the second edition of their book New Trends in Museology (2011), but very much upgraded. They presented it on the international workshop with the same title in April 2016 in the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana, where I first met them in person and was fascinated by their broad knowledge, as well as deep understanding of contemporary ideas about museology. From their perspective, museum professionalism rests on three pillars: theory, practice, and ethics. These three pillars are the underlying theme of the book whether they speak about museum collections, educational design and programmes, importance of inclusion and participation, integrated heritage perspectives, as well as evaluation and ethics.

Authors start their book with a core of the museum’s identity – a collection. They consider it not as an end but as a means to achieve museum’s social role. They write:

“A collection creates an idea of the past (and the present) in order to make it a possible entity for discussion in the present. It is also a gift to the generations to come, and in this respect we may speak of transfer of culture to contemporary publics as well as to future societies.” (p. 17)

They emphasize two things: first, the heritage is about transfer of culture (for instance between generations), and second, the relationship with the heritage is always active – there are selected elements, which support the accepted idea of the past, which are considered as a heritage. We can understand heritage as a contemporary cultural product, which refers to the past. With this in mind, museum experts should consider the dynamic nature of collections whose values change with the changes in society, and in addition to documentation, registration, conservation and restoration understand both collecting and deaccessioning as two strategies for collection development. Authors define deaccessioning as an instrument of a dynamic collecting policy; for instance, parts of the collection can be exchanged for objects of a higher value. For doing so authors suggest stronger cooperation between museums in order to achieve museums’ more distinctive profiles.

Furthermore they introduce two very important concepts: guardianship and shared responsibility. They define guardianship as shared ownership:

“Guardianship would [than] prioritize forms of shared ownership where museums and creator/user communities share responsibility for the preservation of objects as living heritage i.e. a form of the preservation where heritage value does not exclude use outside of the museum context.” (p. 20)

Who is in the position to decide what is heritage and what should be preserved? Whose stories are heard and whose voices subordinated? In addition to guardianship, the idea of shared responsibility also aims to cross the gap between authorized and subordinated heritage discourses, as well as liberate the process of signification and selection of heritage from the authoritative heritage discourse.

Another inspiring concept is heritage community, which was introduced by the Council of Europe in its Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society in 2005. A heritage community is defined as a group of people who value specific aspects of cultural heritage which they wish, within the framework of public action, to sustain and transmit to future generations. Authors wrote:

“Interestingly, no reference is made to space and territory and there is no reference to local, regional or global importance. Also noteworthy is the absence of predefined societal parameters, national, ethnic, religious, professional or based on class. A heritage community can thus be built up across territories and social groups.” (p. 55)

There is a clear relation between the concept of heritage community and the concept of Heritage 3.0/Museum 3.0, which is also described in the book. The idea of Heritage 3.0 is based on the term Web 3.0 (third generation of Internet-based services) and means that databases of heritage institutions are connected. It also refers to the collaboration in general, which can be thematic or place-related – I immediately connected the Heritage 3.0 with the process of deaccessioning. Furthermore, the idea of Heritage 3.0 is important because the traces of history and the stories are recorded by many different heritage institutions: museums, archives, libraries, and organizations of built heritage and nature and landscape protection, but also organizations concerned with intangible heritage. Together these institutions constitute the memory of »the place«. If connected through the idea of Heritage 3.0 visitors have an opportunity to understand heritage in all its complexity better.

Another enrichment, which is the result of interdisciplinarity, is evident in authors’ discussion about learning and experience design. When talking about educational turn in museums they cite several authors who use theories from education studies. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and David Kolb’s theory of experiental learning are both very useful for the development of museum education. What is really valuable is the understanding that visitors make their own meanings and construct their narratives based on their previous knowledge, experience, interests, expectation, intention, and not least their physical and mental condition. Authors introduce the experience as one of the most influential concepts in developing museum practice today and encourage curators to personalize experience.

“… visitor wants a meaningful personal experience. Customized experience design is not enough. Customers want to be in control of their own experiences in a way that the experience is relevant.” (p. 45)

Museums should be socially responsible by facilitating civic engagement, acting as an agent of social change or moderating sensitive social issues – which museum-specific products will make this possible? Moreover, how can we measure product’s quality and value? A whole chapter is dedicated to this question where authors offer several approaches and methods for evaluating different elements of museum work. They also describe their own model: a systems approach to the museum phenomenon. They see the museum as a system of connected subsystems: preservation, research, and communication, which can be divided into smaller subsystems. The aim of the model is to identify what is needed in processes and how that relates to the needs of society. Evaluation of museum work and its products is a necessary step following the implementation of ethical principles in museum work. Authors elaborate professional ethics of museum workers and introduce several important concepts: transparencysocial responsibility, and moral agency.

The book provides an exhausting introduction into variety of contemporary ideas about museums’ role in today’s society.  As they write themselves:

“In Internet terms, our book might be considered as a portal. It was our intention to point at practices and ideas that are relevant to contemporary developments, and to make connections between tendencies, in order to guide you towards a multitude of resources reflecting the present-day professional discourse.” (p. 10)

If a reader wants to gain in-depth understanding of described concepts and ideas it is necessary to read some other works. Fortunately, authors include rich bibliography, which can serve as a source for further research about contemporary museum practices. There is plenty of good museology literature out there – therefore, do not wait too long! 🙂

new trends

The book cover.

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