Museum Practice: An Overview

When a collection manager documents an object, a curator writes a label, an educator leads a tour group, a director attends a board meeting, or a visitor walks through an exhibition—these are the forms of museum practice the public are familiar with. But there are other kinds of museum practice hidden from view, taking place at different levels of the institution: for example the policy framework, the marketing campaign, the collection catalogue, the exhibition design, the funds development plan, the conservation lab, the public programme or the mission statement. Sometimes these things in the public domain are widely understood as the kind of work undertaken in a museum, but more often than not museum practice is found back of house, where groups of professionals do things among themselves.

Whanganui conservation workshop 074

This book is about all these kinds of museum practice. The phrase ‘museum practice’ describes the broad range of professional work in museums, from the functions of management, collections, exhibitions and programmes to the varied activities that take place within these diverse and complex organisations. Alongside the theorising of museums, scholars should also be taking current practice seriously as an object of analysis, avoiding the gap between academics and professionals that has marked the discipline, with the result that the university has been divorced from current developments and conversely that the museum sector is out of touch with new thinking (Cairns 2014). The development of museum studies over the last twenty years teaches us a useful lesson. In order to legitimise our subject as a university discipline, we have been guilty of over-theorising. Recently a better balance has been struck between theory and practice, and more attention has been paid to history and methodology (McCarthy 2009). In the introduction I draw out the relationship between theory and practice, arguing that they can be brought together in a single model that addresses the gap between training in museums and postgraduate degrees in universities.

Whereas the other volumes in this series The International Handbooks of Museum Studies cover museum theory, media and transformations, this one focuses in on current practice. It sets out to balance theory and practice, analysis and debate with an assessment of recent trends which is grounded in and illustrated by concrete examples and case studies. As a handbook, I see this volume not as a manual or a textbook as such, but a reference work which describes and critically analyses current practice in order to provide a clear overview of the contemporary museum at work. Chapters generally contain a short introduction, a brief literature review, a concise survey of professional developments and an analysis of new thinking on new and emerging issues in museums today. It builds on the chapters in Sharon Macdonald’s successful Companion to Museum Studies (2006) fleshing out the range and coverage of policy and practice.


Like any book, decisions had to be made about how to divide up the content. One of the challenges of research, teaching and professional development in museums is the generation of workable theoretical models for practice through which academics, students and professionals can get a grasp of the everyday work in which they are engaged. In this case I have turned to Gerard Corsane’s model of heritage/museum/gallery work as an overall iterative process (Corsane 2005, 2-5). In this model Corsane proposes that museum work can be thought of as a process of communication moving from resources at one end to outputs at the other, with the central line of activities—and the decision-making lying behind them—performed as processes of meaning making and interpretation. So for example the process of exhibition development could be seen as moving from the collections or other resources, to the process (aims, research, selection and preparation) and finally the communication through a range of media to the public.

Having proven the efficacy of this functional model in my classes, which are made up of professionals as well as students with no experience of museums, I have put it to work in this book in the organisation of the four sections. I have tried to address a range of core topics in current professional practice, bearing in mind the variety of content in the other volumes in the series. Chapters were largely determined by the availability of authors who were able to offer a clear analysis of practice based on ther experience and/or knowledge of the area. Of course it is not possible in this book to capture all the facets of the contemporary museum at work or cover every aspect of museum practice today, let alone be completely up to date with a fast-changing sector, but I hope that these chapters with their web links and references will provide an overview of current debates at the time of writing (late 2013).

First, in ‘Priorities’ we hear from writers, most of them experienced professionals, who discuss how museums go about deciding what it is they are going to do through the ‘top’ level of museum management, policy frameworks and ethical guidelines. In terms of Corsane’s model, this could be regarded as an extra layer, or seen as a framework around the process model, which determines the overall direction of the museum. The chapters consider issues to do with setting the strategic direction of museums through mission, vision, leadership and governance, changing ideas about ethics and what museums should do, debates about the measurement of performance, and shifts in legislation and policy guidelines. This section also contains a chapter on audience development, a recent and critical dimension of museum work which increasingly shapes how institutions today set their priorities. It should be obvious from this outline, that leadership is understood not as the traditional sole charge director/figurehead but a collective effort which can be carried out at several levels and in various ways.

Second, in ‘Resources’, contributors discuss those objects, collections and other materials which can be understood as the ‘stuff’ that museums contain, whether it is the objects at the heart of collecting institutions or the curators, collection managers and other staff who assemble, care for and manage them. Here readers will find several chapters on collections in one form or another: collections planning, collections care and management, collection development and collections management systems, and also a chapter reviewing recent shifts in conservation practice. But this section also the consideration of the financial resources that make all this work possible and includes a chapter on money, retail and funds development—museum economics—and a chapter on critical issues to do with sponsorship, marketing and branding.

In the third section ‘Processes’ the focus is the internal processes of various kinds within museums which develop and deliver the resources discussed above into outputs or products delivered to the publics considered in the last part of the book. A group of chapters consider the development of exhibitions, trends in permanent museum exhibitions, and exhibition design and display. Two chapters survey developments in curatorial theory and practice, seen here as connected to but not limited by collections and exhibitions, in which curators acquire, select, arrange, research, present and interpret things for people to look at. This section also considers a process within museum practice—repatriation and restitution, including human remains—which is assuming increasing importance, and raising questions about the very nature of the museum, the legality of its collections and displays, and relationships with source communities.

Lastly, in ‘Publics’ we come to the public realm in which products created by the contemporary museum at work circulate. Though the exhibitions considered in the last section could also be seen as one of the most obvious of museum outputs, here we look at a more diverse and diffuse range of topics—from visitor research and community, to interpretation, learning and public programmes, and digital heritage—which explore how these are used, consumed and responded to by the audiences which the museum addresses. Finally, the volume ends with the afterwords, in which two experienced professionals and scholars review the volume, reflect on their experience of work in the contemporary museum and talk about what they see as the important issues in current and future museum practice.


Te Roroa Taonga Conservation Workshop Oct 09 097



About mccartco

Conal McCarthy is a former museum professional and academic who has published widely on museum history, theory and practice. He is the Director of the Museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
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