Museum Practice Introduction: Grounding Museum Studies

As editor of this volume, I see myself operating between the academy and the industry, a scholar of museum studies who has also worked as a museum professional. Reflecting this duality, the book is framed as an academic project which also seeks to reach out to the sector and to enable a closer and more productive relationship with it.

British Museum court

The Introduction asks: What is the place of practice within museum studies? Is the relationship between theory and practice one of opposites: practical experience versus abstract theory? Are there other models which can illuminate this juncture more accurately: practice-based theory, theory-in-practice or practice theory?

The Introduction opens up these questions, beginning with the issue of practice in the field of museum studies and how this can be better integrated into research on and in the museum. Then I consider the ambiguous relationship of theory to practice and argue that together the universities and museums sector can collaborate in teaching, research, training and practice. In the third section I review recent practice theory and assess its value for an integrated model of museum studies that is grounded in current museum practice. Lastly I briefly preview the contents of the four sections of the book—priorities, resources, process, publics—which describes the contemporary museum at work.


The turn to practice, seen in much recent work in science and technology studies, has much to offer the study of museums by tempering the preoccupation of cultural theory with discourse, language and meaning. Attention to practice, seen as emergent, performative and relational (Pickering 1995), allows scholar-practitioners to be more attentive to the complex organisational interplay of things, people and organisations with their constantly changing networks of social and material agency. In place of the theoretical obsession with representation, the idea of practice as “thought-in-action” emphasises immanence and becoming (Thrift 1996, 7; Thrift 2008). In summary then, practices (plural: routines) can be seen as practice (singular: human action), the “regular, skilful ‘performance’ of human bodies” (Reckwitz 2002, 251). As Reckwitz puts it: “Practice theory ‘decentres’ mind, texts and conversation. Simultaneously, it shifts bodily movements, things, practical knowledge and routine to the centre of its vocabulary” (2002, 259).

So what does practice theory have to offer the study of professional practice/s? Theorising museum practice as a social practice elevates it as an important domain of museum work in its own right. “Practice, broadly speaking, is what we do,” writes Joy Higgs, “and more specifically what we as practitioners do in particular practice communities and how others engage with this practice” (Higgs 2010, 1).



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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