The Museum of Museum Practice

Following my last post, it might come as a surprise to readers that I don’t actually play the “if I had a museum of my own, I’d…” game very often. I am too early in my career, and still have too much to learn to imagine balancing the complexities of museum management with emerging and pressing issues. My dreams are more coloured by hopes of working in certain institutions, with particular people, or on great projects. (An aside, if you haven’t read Robert Connolly’s great comments on that post yet, go back and do so – lots to think about there.)

But after Paul Rowe Tweeted that he “would love to see a museum exhibition about duplicates – multiple accessions of (almost) the same thing” because “There’s stories behind why multiple copies were collected and what use the duplicates have” I felt the need to share Luke Dearnley’s awesome idea for a museum that I would love to have as my very own, because it is one that captures my own imagination. Ready?

The Museum of Museum Practice

(I know, I know… the suspense would have been greater if I hadn’t titled the post with the name.) For Dearnley, the Museum of Museum Practice would be a place where the bad habits of old museums could be conserved and documented for us to learn from, as well as a space for documenting newer and better practices. Rock and roll.

As a museumgeek, the idea of having a Museum of Museum Practice excites me more than it should. Imagine the exhibitions, which could absolutely be about duplicates; about the how and why one museum has acquired multiple accessions of (almost) the same thing. As Rowe, building upon his earlier Tweet with a post on the museum of duplicate things, writes:

I would love to see a museum exhibition about duplicates. An exhibition could relate the stories behind the multiple copies, shedding light on one element of museum practice. 100 specimens of the same butterfly may have arisen from research into the distribution or variations of that insect. Multiple copies of a similar domestic vase may have been acquired before the museum established a clear collecting policy. One object may be a sacrificial item used for school children to handle on visits, while other examples are more carefully conserved in the storage room. The museum may even manufacture reproductions, particularly for display or education purposes. It’s at times like this that Calvin’s Duplicator would come in handy.

Such fun! An object could be displayed alongside all of the didactic information that has accompanied it in previous exhibitions (if only they had been kept and preserved), and the audience could learn about how the interpretation had changed, how curatorial language has evolved, and even how different technologies had been used (great to have an object accompanied by an early audioguide).

The museum could have displays about displays (a diorama of dioramas?!?), and curators and registrars would have to examine and critique their own work, simultaneously historians and museum professionals. (Yes I know, it’s all getting very meta.) Programming could include public restorations of objects, or open discussions about the ethics of repatriation. Exhibits could at times be subversive (as I gather those in the Museum of Jurassic Technology are), and knowingly self-referential.

But think what we would learn about our own sector, and what insights might be provoked, had we a museum with an exploration of museum practice at the heart of its mission. Ideally the MoMP would be a teaching and research institution, with strong ties to the local museum community. How well might students learn about the changes that have taken place in the sector, and how much better equipped to deal with change when it impacts upon their own museum? How useful (and hopefully interesting) for the broader community to learn more about the behind-the-scenes decision-making that takes place within the museum?

Objects in the museum could be both genuine, and created. Artists and guest curators could be engaged to interpret the work of museums, pulling to mind Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, and Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox. The museum could run a regular museologist-in-residence program, and be a testing ground for prototyping new ideas. It could be thoroughly experimental, all the whilst documenting that which has often been slow to change.

In some ways, all museums are museums of museum practice (particularly those that only rarely update their procedures or exhibitions), but rarely are they consciously so. Through collecting and preserving the practices of museums past and present, the museum of museum practice could help us prototype and develop practices for the future.

What do you think? What would you want to see in the Museum of Museum Practice? What would the Curator of curation unearth? What kind of registration practice should the Registrars adopt? And how to document changes to process when they occur?

6 thoughts on “The Museum of Museum Practice

  1. I have recently taken a look at the changes in ways of documenting Indigenous Australian objects, admittedly only in my own museum. It is a history sure to inspire shame and disbelief about earlier practices, but so important to reflect on.

  2. Hi Suse, my 1st thought as a fellow Mus geek was excitement about this museum. Then I began to think how tedious it could get to review and display such material and really who would be interested except colleagues. And would it change anything? Then I thought the best format for this would be a kind of pop up display at a museum conference. It could capture lots of attention and generate discussion. An actual Mus of Museum Practice seems a flight of fancy but a pop up might be possible.

  3. There is indeed something like this! One of the unique things about studying Material Anthropology at Oxford is that you spend a lot of time as a student in the University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, which functions as a museum of a museum. Much of the museum is as it was in the 19th century. Learning about and critiquing social darwinism, anthropology, and colonialism in museums, for example, is so much easier when you can do that in a museum that influenced 19th century museum and anthropological practice, and has most of its original displays intact. This is balanced with a series of exhibits of both contemporary and older objects that bring critiques and modern anthropological into practice in the same museum.

    Part of the graduate studies in material anthropology and museum ethnography time is spent in the galleries and the electronic catalogues of the Pitt Rivers figuring out why certain objects were collected, why duplicate objects were collected, and what wasn’t collected. I’m biased, but it’s a wonderful approach to museum praxis: understanding what’s hidden in museums, what’s privileged, and where there might be gaps.

    (As an aside, I became so interested in this very issue in grad school that I actually wrote my dissertation on Fred Wilson 🙂 ).

    1. Catherine, this is awesome. Your understanding and experience of museums historical from what you experienced in situ must be so much richer from my own, known only from books and reading. Do you think that understanding has impacted your current work?
      (And on your aside, I owe you an email, and in it I might ask more about your dissertation. I’m very interested in museology as art, and in fact am usually as captivated by the museum practice in a museum as I am by the objects.)

      1. Suse- I’m very grateful for all of the reading that I did in grad school–it too was invaluable. But like most others, I’d assume, it really clicks when you actually get to put it into practice. That said, the Pitt Rivers is quite unique. It is indeed special to have a whole lecture series on the art/artifact debate with the literature in class, but then take it, in situ as you note, to the museum itself. It was definitely a place that lent itself to object-based learning and a material culture approach.
        Thank you for bringing up intriguing issues, as always–something that people who are reading and thinking a lot, such as yourself, are so good at doing. I think that having thinkers such as yourself as museologists-in-residence (hint, hint!) is an absolutely wonderful idea and I hope other museums take this on.
        Feel free to email me any time–I haven’t touched my dissertation since 2006, but it was about examining the role of artists as anthropologists, and visa versa: an issue that one of my favorite scholars, James Clifford, has also brought up many times before.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s