Inside/Outside: Criticising museum practice

Given the ostensible parameters and protocols of the call for contributions to this volume, I am given to imagine myself as one of a group of contributors situated “outside” a (museum) “profession” and “looking in,” as a “scholar who has written books about museums but who [is] trained and work[s] in other disciplinary areas.” In accepting the generous invitation to contribute to the collection, I am nonetheless placed, however provisionally, and according to the self-admittedly tentative nature of the editorial formatting of the volume, in a curiously dichotomous relationship to those “looking from within the profession.”

So says art historian Donald Preziosi, by way of locating his contribution to the 2006 book Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century (pp74).  His statement raises interesting questions about the positioning of those who write and speak about the museum and its profession, and their space within or external to it. This is particularly the case, given that only pages before, Preziosi issued a provocation that:

There seems to have been, at least among “insiders” or museum professionals, an endemic, across-the-board abandonment of critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums. The disjunction between the “external” critical and philosophical literature relating to museums, museology, and collecting and that emanating from “within” the profession is very great and growing. (pp70)

He critiques the sector as an outsider, a position he has been “placed” into, simultaneously arguing that those on the “inside” have abandoned “critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums.” It seems he slays “insiders” for their lack of engagement, whilst distancing himself from such a position.

Is his criticism of museum professionals valid? Honestly, I don’t know. The conversations I have within the sector are often highly engaged and highly critical; in recent years there has seemingly been a noticeable turn towards theoretical and critical discourse. Yet most of the time business as usual continues (as it must). Critical reflection is a great luxury, but one often far removed from the practicalities of actual work.

Still, his ideas leave their stain on me because I can’t identify exactly where I am positioned within the sector. Before my first conference, my PhD supervisor cautioned me that as soon as I mentioned that I was an academic, I might be dismissed summarily as unable to speak to the ‘real concerns’ of the profession. And I know from discussions with now-close friends that this indeed happened (although fortunately not to such a great extent as to prevent later connection). As such, I now go out of my way to prove my credentials as a legitimate member of the museum community. I work in museums, I volunteer. My friends and colleagues, those whose ideas I respect, are museum professionals far more frequently than academics. I spend as much time working in the sector as possible, and hope that it’s enough to clean me of the taint of “outsider”.

But paradoxically, perhaps it is this very mark of difference that gives me the most freedom to criticise and speak to the philosophical concerns of the sector. Were I welded to a single institution, any criticism that I might make could be seen implicitly as a criticism of my home museum. Being outspoken under those circumstances could cut too close; creating internal tension that would make the business of getting work done much harder. Speaking out from the outside comes with a freedom rarely afforded to true insiders, because the possible costs are only personal and not institutional. (Incidentally, I also wonder if this isn’t at least part of the reason that the MuseTrain authors have chosen to stay anonymous thus far.)

This issue is on my mind now for two reasons. The first is because of a conversation I had with an old friend yesterday. He is an artist whose early work highly controversially questioned some unspoken and seemingly unquestionable ideas here in Australia. This work, which he was not “allowed” to make but did anyway (his then youthful naivety giving him a sense of bulletproofness) raised and continues to raise very significant critical questions. It also left him out in the wilderness as an artist, unshowable for a significant period of time afterwards. Now, with hindsight, he questions his own right to make the work that he did, to critique the situation in the way he did; doubts raised in part because of his outsider status from that community. His right and ability to ask questions are diminished because he is on the outside, but they are questions not being raised elsewhere or from the inside. Preziosi’s criticism of the museum profession equally rings true of my friend’s experiences as an artist.

In addition, I am starting to think more carefully on my position in this sector as the end of the PhD looms more forcefully on the horizon. Although I still have more than a year until completion, there has of late been a small chorus of people asking what I intend to do after it’s finished. Will I go into academia, or work in a museum? Where do I want to work? What do I want to do?

They are difficult questions to answer with any certainty or clarity of vision. Once I make a choice, particularly between working in a museum (insider) or as an academic (outsider), then I am effectively choosing to align myself in a particular direction. I am either in; or I’m out. I can speak as one of you, or I can choose a different voice altogether. It will become harder and harder to straddle the divide between the two, which is what seems to make the current space I inhabit so interesting.

Museum philosopher Hilde Hein introduces herself and her position in the sector in the preface to The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective with the inclusion of this paragraph (pp xiii):

My own experience with museum practice and with theorizing about museums has been gained through internships in museums and more than two decades of academic investigation. By following both of these avenues I hope to have found common ground between those who reflect upon museums from a cultural perspective and those who know them by working inside.

She intentionally positions herself as someone who can speak from within, and without. Is this a necessary requirement for those who do wish to consider and critique the institution as theorist? Are her reflections upon museums more or less critical as a result of this urge to bridge the divide between professional and theorist? Are they more palatable than if she did not spend time in institutions? Is it, in fact, the place of museum professionals to critique the institution, or to work towards its effective functioning?

Obviously this post comes by way of my own existential crisis career concerns, but I wonder if it doesn’t scratch at a larger and more pervasive itch. Do museums need “outsiders” to critique and provoke discussion about fundamental issues? Or can those working within the sector, or within particular institutions, ask unanswerable (and sometimes un-askable) questions and continue to function effectively on the inside? Are there people who do manage to successfully straddle the divide between insider/outsider, or is it inevitable that in a relatively short time I will have to choose?

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Inside/Outside: Criticising museum practice

  1. Great question! I’ve noticed this dividing line ever since I stumbled into the museum sector about ten years ago. Personally, I felt (like Hilde Hein above) to be both “inside” and “outside”, since I combined working as a museum guide with studying at the university.

    Part of the problem is, I think, not specific for the museum profession, but rather general: the division between students and employees. The students try to get inside, but the people already working in the sector stand in their way. From the student perspective, this means that there are people (older in body and spirit) resisting new ideas and perspectives, trying to do business “as it’s always been done”. From the professional perspective, the students are still learners – naïve, idealistic, and easily rebutted with “oh, we tried that twenty years ago and it didn’t work”. This goes for any profession, I think.

  2. Aron, I think you’re right that these aren’t problems specific to the museum profession, although I don’t entirely agree that the split occurs down the line between student and professional. Although I do think that students can come in with new ideas, and be dismissed by those with more experience who might have a more seasoned eye, I think the problem of critiquing fundamentals is something different to this. I recently attended an art writer’s program, and one of the workshops was a Q&A session with one of Australia’s leading art critics. He spoke a little about this insider/outsider dichotomy within his own work, whereby he needs to maintain some sense of critical distance from the sector in order to see it clearly and be able to criticise the work that people do, whilst simultaneously being connected enough to be trusted and not dismissed. It’s an interesting paradox that the closer you get to the sector (and the people within it), the harder it is to provide a critical gaze, because your criticisms of an idea or a practice can be taken as criticisms of a person (hard when you have relationships to maintain).

    I don’t know if we have many museum critics in the same way that we have art critics, and nor do I know if we should. But if, as Preziosi proposes, there is little in the way of critical thinking about fundamental issues of museums from the inside, then maybe inhabiting those spaces between is important – and I don’t know how we actually do that, or achieve that as a sector. I do think there are some museum leaders who are outspoken and critical within the sector, but it is a difficult thing for people who want to move up in a profession to do. How do you criticise, and remain employable? And if you feel the need to really critique the sector and you are on the inside, are you hypocritical if you only talk and analyse but do not act upon those critiques or questions? I don’t really know.

  3. Hi Suse, Yes great question but I’m not so sure the divide is as delineated as you make out. Having started my career ‘inside’, I’ve moved into a consulting and service providing role. You could say that is ‘outside’ but I tell everyone that I work in the museum sector and am therefore a museum professional. After all I earn my living from the sector. Does not being employed by a specific museum diminish my status in being able to advise the sector? Perhaps I am not the one to ask, but experience would show that working across many museums increases one’s ability to provide succinct advice.

  4. An important question, and you do a good job of getting at the basic challenge. Insiders pull their punches. Outsiders take potshots. Insiders have something to sell. Outsiders don’t understand the politics and the practicalities.

    I’ve been both a museum insider and an academic critic, sometimes both at the same time, and I’ve thought a good bit about this problem. And it is a problem: we need better, more thoughtful practice and better, more informed criticism. We need the view from within and the outside perspective. The good thing, I think, is that the quality is getting better, on both sides.

    From the inside: so much writing is done as part of promotion, or as part of an internal argument. I’ve done this – we all have. You’ve completed an exhibition, and you want to let the world know about it. The line between explaining how you did it, how you made the decisions you did and why, and bragging about them, explaining why this is a good example – that can be pretty thin. And too much of this writing does not build on the literature of the field, one of the reasons that the historiography of museum studies has been, until recently, so thin. I think this kind of writing is important nonetheless – the field desperately needs more “here’s how we did it case studies.” But in writing these, we need to be aware (and upfront) about our subject positions. We need to be more transparent about where we’re coming from. We don’t want to use our case studies to refight private battles in public.

    From the outside: academic museum criticism, I think, got off on a bad foot. Museums as tools of control, as Foucauldian panopticons enforcing cultural hierarchy? The first thing museum people realize is how bad museums are at controlling anything… we know that most visitors don’t read our labels, we can barely get visitors to go through our exhibits in the right order, and here we were put into the same category as asylums, clinics and prisons? Really? It was the wrong place to start.

    But things are getting better. There’s been some excellent critical, reflective, and how-to writing on museums in the last decade. I used to tell my students that unlike their other reading fields, there was not a real historiography for them to know in museum studies. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Not only has there been a rediscovery of interesting and important early twentieth-century literature (Dana, Dewey); there’s some excellent criticism, some (still not enough) thoughtful writing by practitioners, and even some sophisticated-and-useful theory work. The best of this (I’m thinking of Witcomb’s writing, for example) is all three.

    Randolph Starn, in his enormously useful 2005 “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies,” calls the recent literature a “tidal wave of museum studies,” and that seems true. He called attention to this same insider-outsider problem, and noted that it was starting to break down. The last few years has seen that breakdown accelerate. A lot of the new work has overcome the insider-outsider distinction, and a lot of it is very good indeed. More precisely, in is good-to-think-with, for academic critics, and good-to-work-with, for practitioners. That’s what makes museum writing so difficult, and so much fun.

  5. Steven, thank you for this insightful comment and perspective. I find it heartening to read this from someone who is and has been in both arenas, particularly as I struggle with the question personally as much as in abstraction.

    Your point that the Foucauldian view of museums was the wrong place for academic museum criticism to start is a very interesting one. Do you think its dissonance with the experiences of museum practice had some impact in causing the rift (if there is indeed one) between practitioners and theorists? These ideas seem to have had such a monstrous impact upon perceptions of the sector. Do you think they were wrong, or just the wrong place to start?

    What do you think is necessary for the critical writing in the sector continue to improve? Are there issues you think still need to be addressed that aren’t yet getting attention? Or, conversely, are there questions getting a lot of airplay that could actually just be a distraction from the real, or important, issues?

    And Julian, I am so glad you joined in here since this post was in some ways inspired by our own recent discussion (can you see its influence?). I am sure you are right; things are rarely so binary as I have represented them here. But it is sometimes useful to start from a point of polarity when trying to nut out the nuance in an idea.

  6. There’s no doubt that insiders feel compelled to pull their punches – and this is because of very real push back from the institutions for which we work. I’ve seen that in all 6 of the museums where I’ve worked. That’s why I loved Kathleen Tinworth’s recent post on the Mistaken Museum ( and embracing our “human brand” through transparency. Not only do we owe our public transparency for purely ethical reasons – it is to our advantage to be honest about our flaws and mistakes because it garners truer affection and connection.

    On the flip side, when I paused at year 16 of a 22 year career in museums to get an MA, I was somewhat baffled at how academia approached training museum professionals. Deep critiques of issues of enforcing cultural hierarchies are fascinating, and true enough on some levels that we surely need to be aware of, but they are as limited a view of museums as the marketing line spun out by your average institution’s PR department.

    Both sides need to embrace the complexity of museums – and the myriad positions we all have in relation to them. As Steven says, the reality is that the public makes use of museums in extremely self-directed, idiosyncratic ways over which we have little to no control. Visitor studies have come a long way in actually researching and documenting this. It may be true that most museums speak with an impersonal, authoritative voice, but that doesn’t mean it is at all what visitors are taking away from their experience with us as shown by a lot of research such as that done by Leinhart, Knudson, Falk and Dierking. These folks aren’t merely theorizing – they are gathering hard data and theorists should be taking that into account.

    We are blessed, though, to live in a moment where we have new technologies that can allow us to try to grapple with the reality of the complexities – as Tinworth says we now have the opportunity to capture the good, the bad and the ugly that our public is saying, and that is a big part of what is breaking down the old categories of “insiders” and “outsiders”.

    1. Erin – good point about the value of transparency (and thanks for the link to the ExposeYourMuseum blog, which I had not seen before). Museums gain from transparency in many ways – not just by breaking down the insider/outsider divide, and being more honest… perhaps most important, they become more interesting. Behind the scenes is always more fun than the finished product!

      Suse – on your question about the directions that museum critique should head: it seems that the first step is to pull together some of the diverse strands, or at least get them talking to each other. As Erin points out, there’s increasing data on how visitors use exhibits. There’s some good case-study material. There’s the outsider critique that raises the bigger question. The trick is to take all of these, have them speak to each other, and come out with something that is useful to museum people, visitors, and academics trying to understand museums…


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