Do museum professionals need theory?

Posted on June 10, 2014


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?