Hi, my name is Thinkie, welcome to my blog!
I'm a student in cultural studies, a museum enthusiast, a scrapbooker and an art journaler. I love to travel within Europe and I enjoy photography. You can read more about me on my homepage.

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From Top to Bottom

I've recently read 'Introduction to museum work' by George Ellis Burcaw. He explains the basics. I'm a top-down learner, so I have the tendency to start with the big picture and from there, dive into whatever seems most interesting or what I feel needs some extra attention for me to be able to understand it. I'm not one for building knowledge bit by bit from the ground up in a set order, I find it boring. Most of the time, top down learning works well for me, like learning languages without caring about the details of grammar rules too much at first. However, museology is so important to me that I feel like I need a thorough foundation, I don't want to come a long way and then suddenly realise I've overseen some crucial bit of information. So I'm trying to add a little bottom up learning in this field. You might think Burcaw's introduction, with its coverage of broad basics of the museum field, might provide just the opposite: the big picture. But I'm working my way trough chapters containing a lot of things I already know or could have derived from what I already know or by logic, and little new (to me) information. I find myself thinking 'duh!' often. Still, I think it's useful because it allows me to fill gaps of knowledge here and there and look at things from a slightly different perspective or from a basic context. This way, I'll have a stonger foundation when the time comes that I'll want to learn about museums on a level where serious study is required in stead of the happy-go-lucky freewheeling-learning I'm doing now by getting bits of information here, there and everywhere by reading, attending lectures, visiting museums, working at Museum Meermanno, etc. It's also good for my museological English vocabulary.
The book is set up as a studybook, the exercises are a fun way to get the reader thinking about aspects of the museum world and hypothetical situations set in it.

Outdated
It's interesting to see how a book first published in 1975, last revised in 1997 has become outdated in some matters. It gives me insight into how museums were tought of in later decades of the 20th century, at least by this author who was a professor in museum studies. He mentions concerns about part time staff members not fully becoming part of a team when everyone else works full time, and says it's interesting to consider how the fact that more and more women are entering the workforce is changing the way museums are managed.
Burcaw's understanding of a museum: 'The basic nature of the museum, that is has an educational purpose based on the collecting and preserving of objects useful to that purpose, has long been established and will not change in the foreseeable future' (Introduction to Museum Work, third edition 1997, pp. 24) has been challenged in several ways since then. Nowadays object-based museum thinking is regarded more and more as elite, and more 'democratic' story based approaches are sought. I like the object based museum model. I get it: money is tight so museums need to attract a wide array of visitors to be regarded as relevant to society. This is a matter of survival of the museum as a public institution. There's a drive to make people from different cultural, social and educational backgrounds feel like they, too are represented in the museum. I like democracy, it's a good thing to make people feel included, whatever can endorse social cohesion is important. But I love the museum as an object based institution. Call me old fashioned, accuse me of left-wing elite tendencies, but please, find ways to include the larger audience without putting people like me off! Some museums are better at this than others.

Mixing it up
Another thing Burcaw does is explaining the differences between different types of museums: science museums, art museums, history museums. And how these things mix or shouldn't be mixed. Recently Simon Schama wrote about mixing fine art and decorative art, art and history, at the newly renovated Rijksmuseum, calling it an 'exhilarating breakthrough' (which is odd, when you realize that art and historical objects have been presented together in the Rijksmuseum before, if even for a short while in the 19th century). This, too is a thing some museums are better at than others. Put an object in too much context, and it drowns. The amount of information and context you can provide are limited. Put an object in a very limited context, and you can provide more specific information, dive deeper into the subject. But this will not interest a wide audience.
I think this is the role of the people making exhibitions: using the collection and whatever other relevant objects you can get on loan to present different sub-topics, different stories, different angles on the subject or your museum. And doing this in a way that is entertaining and interesting to a wider audience, yet still specific or special enough for people who already know more about the topic. For instance by adding different levels of information, adding interactives etc. in such a way that they don't drown out information and objects, and making sure the objects on display are worthwhile even for specialised scholars. Entertainment is good, but let's not democratize to such an extent that it drowns out education, which is an important factor seperating museums from attractions.

Geplaatst op 08-10-2013.
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