Do museum professionals need theory?

Last night I had terrible insomnia, and so at 3.30am picked up Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice. Nothing like a bit of dense French sociology to help calm the active mind, right?! As I read and tried to make sense of the complex concepts at play (subconciously lamenting that it was Bourdieu beside my bed, rather than some fine romance…), I started to think about the value of this kind of scholarship for me now, as a museum professional rather than an academic.

As a PhD student, reading this kind of challenging book made sense. It was a good use of my time. I was working within an academic space, and investing in learning the bounds of that space was critical. But what about now, when I am starting out a new facet of my museum technology career as the Digital Content Manager at the Baltimore Museum of Art? Is it still beneficial to read books on sociology, cultural theory, or philosophy, when instead that time could be used to read up on new technologies and business practices? Should I still dedicate time and headspace to the kinds of academic ideas that have informed so much of my thinking until now, or instead take a more pragmatic approach? Or, in other words, now that I am a practitioner, what room or need have I of theory?

This question comes just as Rob Stein, Ed Rodley, a collection of authors, and I have invested some time into CODE | WORDS – our experimental discursive publishing project, which focusses specifically on the relationship between technology and theory in the museum. The project was started in response to a perceived gap in the developed discourse linking the subjects, and because that was something that we as a collective valued. The theoretical was understood to inform and put into context the practical, because museums are about ideas just as much as they are about objects, audiences, knowledge, and experience.

But what I’m now curious about is whether having a well-developed theory about museums actually makes someone a better practitioner. Does time spent learning and thinking about the theoretical ramifications of museum work, and of the museum qua museum, have value in the context of daily work? I have just spent 3.5 years thinking through what the transition to a pervasively networked information infrastructure might mean for museums qua knowledge institutions (how’s that for a little dissertation lingo?!), and I now have a particular sense and idea about what museums should be doing and why in this new knowledge context. But does the development of this work – this philosophical and theoretical dissection of the museum – actually help me now that I am working in the field?

I want to say yes, but that might be a defensive reaction. So instead, I’d love your input. Do you think that museum professionals benefit from having a philosophical or theoretical framework for the work that they do? Or does good work exist regardless of the theoretical underpinnings that support it? I know that I respond well to leaders who have vision for their work and their museums. Does that come from theory? Is a vision necessarily philosophical, because it relates to values and instititional missions? Or is it a different and distinct thing?

What do you think? What role does theory play in your work as a museum professional? Has it shaped your work and practice? Do you think that there is benefit for museum professionals to work from a philosophical or theoretical framework?

28 thoughts on “Do museum professionals need theory?

  1. So, a quick response to a complex question. Theory, when you’re working inside a museum, helps you make better decisions, faster, because it’s basically a hive-mind. You can work from your own personal perspective and experience, or you can use the aggregate of others.

    What I think you need to do is add an awareness of history, and hyper-locality, to theory. Theory is generalist, and theory is often ideological. History helps you see where YOUR museum has come from – who has it worked with, what has it said. Hyper-locality helps you understand what you are best placed to do in your own location. If you don’t know these things, you can make entirely goodhearted, well-intentioned, fuck-ups.

    When I started at The Dowse I went through a phase of very rapid, often painful, learning about the realities rather than the theory of museums. This made me quite frustrated for a period with theory – in a “Well, that’s all very well IN THEORY” kind of way. A “Well, when you see what it’s REALLY like in the trenches” way. Or, as Barnett Newman beautifully and wickedly said: “Aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for the birds.”

    So, theory’s handy, and if you don’t pay some attention to it you’re denying yourself accumulated centuries of human thought and wisdom. Likewise business books, or start-up manifestos, or studies of social work, or any of the myriad lens that help you look at your work anew. But overall, you’ve got to know *yourself*, because no amount of theory will make up for that lack.

    1. Courtney, thank you. This is an astute response, and one that is simultaneously meaningful and sensible. The idea that capital-T Theory can create a broad ideas base to draw from and upon, but must necessarily be combined with something that is hyperlocal and hyperspecific makes a lot of sense, and gives value to both the theoretical and the practical, and the joining of one to the next.

      There is perhaps some small irony in the fact that I was not directly or consciously thinking through Bourdieu’s ideas when writing this post, but the book has addressed and laid out a gap between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge, which I have seemingly picked up to be informed by even without realising it. And perhaps that is, in itself, a good reason for continuing with reading theoretical works of all types, is that it gives different ways of thinking about problems, and framing questions – even when you aren’t aware that it is working on your mind that way.

  2. This is such an interesting tension to see in museums, and one I’m glad is being explored in CODE | WORDS, especially as it relates to technology, where theory seems particularly underdeveloped, perhaps because it is changing so fast.

    Entering grad school for museology, I was initially extremely resistant to what I perceived as too much theory. Give me a break! Just tell me how to do my job! Gradually, however, I began to settle into the value of theory, and now it’s one of the things I most appreciate about my master’s program. I think the benefit of theory—and of staying in touch with it as a professional—is its reminder of bigger picture issues and the exercise of thinking in a larger context where there may be room for creative, free-form linking of ideas.

    That said, I’m also cautious, as someone with “formal training” in museums about tooting the theory horn too loudly. So many people who do fabulous work in museums do not have formal training. This doesn’t make them oblivious to museum theory—in fact, many of them are leading museum theory, but I think those of us with formal training sometimes use theory to justify why we’ve gotten our training—a kind of “what separates us from them?” approach that is ultimately destructive to all sides.

    The truth is, we’d all be better at our jobs if we managed to have both our head in the clouds and our feet on the ground. The biggest challenge in doing that might be time balance. When you’re just trying to get your day-to-day tasks done, how do you maintain space in your life and museum practice for theory? I hope you’ll continue to share reflections about this as you move from PhD mode to full-time museum staff mode.

  3. Great question. Two observations…

    It helped me. Media studies and sociology of science during my masters turned me from a scientist to a museum maker. Questioning hegemony and authority, and thinking about the multiplicity of said and heard narratives, all in active use for the past 18 years.

    Second, practitioners I’ve hired (staff, consultants) have been ‘better’ if they’ve had a hinterland of theory. One was a political science major – made great dinosaur interactives. A designer was a hybrid Marxist / post-structuralist – and the moral thought in his design shone through.

    But I can’t quite answer the question of direct use of frameworks on practice, sorry!


  4. Interesting idea! From my perspective, theory and ideology are a crucial starting point for museum work (I come from an academic background, too). But as a museum practitioner, you realise that much of your work is governed by the mundane realities of funding and visitation KPIs. Museums need to engage with broader literature from the business world—tech, retail, marketing etc—if they are to continue delivering great physical and digital experiences to their audience.

  5. Not having dealt with much theory since a historiography class in grad school a decade (or two!) ago, I was resistant to the idea as I began reading your post, but I do think theory can help with framing what you’re doing. I agree with Andrea that the time press of work can suck this kind of thoughtful reflection out of your work. I wish I had more time and space to think more deeply about my work and my institution, however, we all get pulled into the day-to-day operations and don’t often have that sort of opportunity and sometimes lack the support to pursue it. That is what makes CODE | WORDS so valuable.

  6. Hi,

    to follow up a short answer on twitter, I think this goes both ways: theory (museology and more widely social studies/humanities) is sorely needed in the everyday museum practice, and museology as a field of study and research needs to connect to the everyday practices taking place at museums.

    At least in Sweden, museum staff tend to be immovable objects that seldom change from one institution to another. This means that new ideas are difficult to come by and that established practice changes when people retire and new staff arrives, rather than by dialogue and research. (This is a bit harsh – of course this is not valid for every Swedish museum professional)

    There’s an initiative by the Swedish Exhibition Agency together with the University of Gothenburg starting this fall – hopefully that will be a small step towards interaction between the university community and the museum community here in Sweden.

    As to the more specific – and difficult – question of theory’s value in everyday museum work, I do believe that it’s valuable. Personally, I’ve had great use of theories about gender representations, post-colonialist thought and photographic interpretation (for instance) when preparing exhibition layouts or writing exhibition texts. It will of course depend on what you will be doing in the museum – different theoretical perspectives are needed when you’re in marketing, in the museum shop or when handling new acquisitions to the collection.

    best regards,

    1. Aron, you bring up an interesting point; that theories about gender etc can absolutely inform alternative ways of thinking about exhibition content and display – and in fact those movements to incorporate these kinds of perspectives probably do lead the field into new places of academic discovery. The types of exhibitions that we develop as a sector are often in response to the types of thinking happening in museum courses, yes, but probably also more broadly.

  7. Mia Ridge just asked via Twitter to tease out the kind of theory I’m talking about in this post, but I think that here I’m thinking about multiple types of theory at once – everything from the kind of massive and formal ‘Theory’ of cultural theorists to specificly developed museum theoretical approaches (maybe what we’re seeking in CODEWORDS) to personal, well-developed and thought out guiding principles. I might be trying to cover too many things and have too much here in this post, because in the comments people are likely bringing their own ideas about what theory is, and its usefulness, here, and we might all mean different things. (I’m probably not a very good theorist myself then, for I’ve failed to define the terms fully). But I suppose for me this is motivated by trying to put into context the work and the approach that I have taken that I have done – even the language I’ve used to describe myself (as ‘theorist’), now that I am in a very different role.

    I think that theory does itself have many aspects to it, so maybe a better question might have been what type(s) of theory are of use to museum profesionals.

  8. I work in digital in museums in a more or less relentlessly practical way (well, ate least when I’m not being managerial). A couple of years ago I did an interdisciplinary Masters in a kind of museology — highly theoretical and very little about how to put pictures on walls or rocks in vitrines (thank god). I took it not so much to put my head in the clouds while my feet were on the ground, but more to stand on the shoulders of giants with my ear to the ground (if anatomy allows that). Which is to say, that I wanted to get some perspective on how the institutions which it looks like I’m going to spend my life working for actually work.

    It was good, and after a couple of weeks I even managed to restrain myself from telling my twenty-something classmates ‘yeah, but I actually work in a museum’. It was a little bit disappointing that many of them saw the course as a route into working in museums. If you want to be useful in a museum, learn something that the museum actually needs, like history, conservation or marketing. Museology is better for reflecting on a practice you already have.

    I think the bigger question is not whether or not museum people need academic and theoretical perspectives (they really do), it’s more one of how academic theory can be used and be relevant and useful in our workplaces. Access to institutional journal subscriptions via your library (if you have one) is good. Journal clubs at work are even better for getting together with your colleagues to discuss what meaning any of this might have. Managerial structures that encourage critical and independent thinking are essential — otherwise we might all boil reading Bourdieu in our bedrooms, but not be able to do anything with it.

    1. Danny, yes! “If you want to be useful in a museum, learn something that the museum actually needs, like history, conservation or marketing. Museology is better for reflecting on a practice you already have.” – I think that question of being able to do something useful with theoretical thinking and work is part of what drove me to write this post. Like you, I think there is huge value in the kind of reflective approach to museums, but that ending question of doing something with that remains. But then, maybe there don’t need to be practical outcomes, but rather just having an informed set of assumptions can be enough?

      Journal clubs are a nice idea. Maybe what I’m craving is a reading group?

  9. Yes! But neither immediately nor obviously.

    Theory should give you a means to be reflective rather than reactive and is a valuable bulwark against the endless rush of day-to-day busy-ness and market-led KPIs. It is not just an institution that needs a coherent mission – but your own practice needs one.

    It will help you sleep better at night, too, after your colleagues have just made a monumental blunder sacrificing long-term strategy for some cheesy short-term ‘initiative’.

    1. I needed very much to hear someone articulate this in such a practical, coherent way. I’ve struggled with balancing my personal passions (that happen to relate to work) with the day to day reality of work — with the most challenging part being when the two overlap. “It’s not just an institution that needs a coherent mission – but your own practice needs one.” Cue the newfound clarity-induced sigh of relief. Thanks, Seb.

      1. Lori, I had the same reaction to this comment of Seb’s. I hadn’t really considered that my developed theories about museums and what they should be were or should be the mission of my practice. But it makes complete sense. So yes, thanks Seb.

  10. I can’t quite be as brief as Lynda, but I’d in my opinion I’d say “it depends”. Like you I’m at the end of a PhD and have delved into the kind of wide, deep and eclectic reading list that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. It has informed my thinking and I’d like to think I’m more rounded intellectually than I was at the start.

    Looking back on my reading, I’d say the “aha!” moments and the “WTF?” ones are fairly balanced. Too often there was a sense of “so what?” – coming to the end of a paper and not being able to describe, in a nutshell, what point it was trying to make. It just seemed like navel gazing to me. Sometimes that was just me on an off day – one day you can read a paper and it makes no sense and then read it again in another headspace and it’s a totally different story. I still struggle with the modes of thought in the humanities and it could be that I’m just not wired in a way that means I can see the point easily.

    Maybe it’s the scientist in me talking, but I tend to think that if a museum theory does not lead to any testable hypotheses, or at least inform practice in some way, what is the point of it? (Paul’s point about educational diversity informing museum practice in unpredictable ways notwithstanding).

  11. theory informs practice, but does not dictate it. the Boyd OODA loop – observe, orient, decide, and act. or plan–do–check–act cycle. orienting and planning are the theory or experience used to improve practice. if we just act without theory, then we are condemned to repeat the same mistakes.

  12. What a nice coincidence! I’ve just come back from an ICOFOM (ICOM committee for museology) Symposium in Paris and experienced there a deep gap between university museology and museum practice. And I was preparing some post for our museum blog reflecting on the need to near the two worlds.

    So, when I read your title just jumped to read the post, as well as to all juicy comments.
    I believe a theoretical background is needed to better frame our strategies and therefore our work in museums. But also university should have an open eye on museum practice. As I see it, theory without application is of no use other than intellectual exercise, and practice with no theory may be disperse and not focused on our mission and strategy. A mix means enrichment for everybody and most likely drives into a better service to the user.

  13. I love this conversation! Mostly because I have this discussion with my peers constantly. I think theory informs our practice and without adding new perspectives to your own practice we, as professionals, run the risk of working within a bias. As our demographics, community needs, and exhibition content evolves with society, museum professionals need to have a broad understanding of many fields to make connections between objects, people, and ideas. If we continue to have an eclectic reading list we will be able to follow up on opportunities, deep partnerships with communities, and make deeper relevancy for a broader spectrum of people.

    After finishing my M.A. last year I have continued to read theory and it continually brings news ideas to my practice which I then apply to educational programming. Professional development (in my opinion) is not just networking with peers but reading and learning as well (there are many other things that go into professional development). Go theory!

  14. This is an important conversation to have. As somebody working in the museum field with (as yet) no plans for a graduate degree, I found that theory was and is most helpful – as many have said already – when used historiographically or to provide a general frame of reference for what one wishes to put into practice. Much of what is covered in various theory courses&c, however, can be learned by thinking critically about one’s own life and by listening to people living the experiences that the theory talks about (e.g. gender theory). Do I think my museum theory course was a waste of time? No, but that’s because my professor made a point of grounding it in history and historiography. Without those, without incorporating a sociocultural approach, museum theory&c is essentially meaningless. But maybe I’m biased 🙂

  15. Theory is helpful when you can put it into practice, or test it in the actual museum space. While this doesn’t explicitly happen on a day-to-day basis, I’ve found that my theory coursework, especially that which dealt with the history of museums and colonialism; museums and indigenous source communities; art vs. artifact; and notions of “authenticity,” especially when applied to non-Western objects has been super helpful. As Cody VC and others have mentioned above, if you pay attention and have some common sense, you can see how museums have had a long history of excluding certain communities. Nevertheless, I don’t always see that museum folks pay attention to this, and furthermore, it’s hard to necessarily listen to the people living the life experiences our museum/theory talks about, as they’re not always visible in our communities or encouraged to/see the relevance of visiting the museum space! Critical theory, at least in my own museum studies education, has gone a long way to encourage me to seek these voices out, to make me more sensitive to these issues, to think carefully while writing labels, and to remember that there’s always more to learn.

  16. What a great post and question to pose. I’m coming from a completely different perspective than most responses here as a PhD student in Public History. I’m aware I’m incredibly biased in this, but part of my research has focused on the gaps between practice and theory (museological AND historical), and the benefits that could be brought to both if more conversations were not only started between practitioners and theorists but developed. Both the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ questions behind museums and displays encourage them to constantly evolve, making them a better place to visit (and then to analyse!)

  17. “Theory” is a very vague category. For those who have not recently received PhDs, a reading list (a top 5) would be very welcomed. But one concern: museum work is already very siloed. Theory is wonderful for guiding individual practice, but how can it be shared to guide practice beyond an individual, a department, or an institution? For example, in the realm of museum education, I find Nel Noddings a useful guidepost, but Dewey is more likely to lead to discussions between practitioners. And both sometimes isolate educators from other departments.

  18. Ι guess I have to answer “definitely yes”. Theoretical framework is what makes you a professional, a person who delivers the idea with the help of mediums (objects, technology etc) to visitors. Of course, experience makes you better, but I don’t feel that only experience-led people that work in museums have that strength to the great extend that is needed in a museum setting. By all means, I do not underestimate situated learning (you might be interested in the book by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation”.)
    Museums are live cultural organisations and they have the personality the people working in them, have. The question might as well be, what personality we want our museums to have?

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