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Musings on Museum Studies #1

Museum studies is suffering from growing pains. Despite decades of being neglected or outright ignored by much of the museum profession, the number of programs in colleges and universities has steadily grown. The accusations of its critics indicate how poorly museum studies is understood as an academic subject. Some critics claim that there are too many programs producing too many graduates, others assert that programs lack academic rigor, that they are overly focused on practical training, or too theoretical. On the other hand, many in the profession seem to have no idea at all what museum studies is or what is being taught. This state of affairs, particularly the diverse and often contradictory criticisms of museum studies appearing on listservs and in print, have prompted us to take a hard look at the state of museum studies in the United States, and suggest that it is time for some changes.

This is the first of a series of blog posts in which we will examine some of the criticisms of museum studies, evaluate whether they are justified, make some recommendations for how museum studies programs can be improved, and also point out some things they are doing well. Although we don’t want to be alarmists, it is clear that things need to change—the profession must come to terms with the fact that museum studies programs are here to stay; that museum studies programs are, in fact, the best way to train future museum professionals; and that not all programs are doing what they should be doing.

The tipping point for this first post was an unfair (or perhaps less-than-thorough) review of our book, Foundations of Museum Studies: Evolving Systems of Knowledge, which recently appeared in the journal Curator. There are several problems with the review which are emblematic of many of the unfair and unjustified criticisms we see of museum studies programs. The review was written by Dr. Steven Lubar of Brown University. Lubar was trained as a historian, has a distinguished record of publications, serving as a museum curator (and briefly as a museum director), and teaching in departments of history and American studies. What he does not appear to have is any experiences with teaching in museum studies programs.

The review was supposed to compare our book with Museums 101 (by Mark Walhimer), despite the fact that our book is intended as an introductory textbook for graduate students of museum studies, while Museums 101 is not. Other reviewers have described Walhimer’s book as a “how-to guide for creating and organizing all varieties of museums,” and as “a straight forward ‘how-to’ book” for new volunteers or board members (from reviews quoted at rowman.com/ISBN/9781442230187/Museums-101). Perhaps because these two books are not really comparable, Lubar chose to take an entirely different approach in his review, and compare both books to the recently published International Handbooks of Museum Studies, a massive (2500 pages) four-volume set of books. Not surprisingly, both our book (at 155 pages) and Walhimer’s volume (at 237 pages) fall short by comparison. While Lubar admires the “theory-heavy” nature of the international handbooks, he is casually dismissive of our use of Maroević and document theory (which apparently he is not familiar with) and makes the outlandish claim that our book “offers the library as a model for the museum, and places museum work as a subset of library and information systems work.” This point is completely inaccurate―what we actually say is that we agree with Maroević that museum studies is one of the information sciences and not once do we use the library as a model for a museum in our book (or in any of our other works).

Lubar further claims that because he doesn’t think that the ideas of Maroević or document studies “are common in the field” and that their use “makes for some odd vocabulary,” he fears that “many faculty in museum studies will find the language and theory confusing” and doubts “that many students will find it useful in their work.” Lubar seems to have a very low opinion of both museum studies faculty and students, and further, did not mention that we carefully defined the terminology that we used (pages 18-19). In addition, he is apparently not familiar with the recent publications of ICOM (c.f. ICOFOM) and other international museum organizations that have been using such terminology for decades, despite his admiration for the international handbooks. Lubar is also unable to understand the diagrams presented in the book and dismisses them as confusing and ugly―although our students readily grasp the meaning of these same illustrations and in fact, time and again, mention in student evaluations how much they appreciate them.

Lubar clearly failed to understand the nature of our book and its structure. For example, he criticizes our book because “it doesn’t connect the practicalities with the theory,” ignoring the fact that we clearly state that our book is intended to be used with other readings (see page xiv). Surprisingly, given his admiration of the encyclopedic International Handbooks of Museum Studies, Lubar appears not to have noticed that one of us is the author of a chapter in it.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Lubar’s review is his conflict of interest with the subject of his review, admitting that he “is writing a book that, like all of these, tries to cover the whole field.” It seems odd to us that someone who is in the process of writing a book would so brazenly and so unfairly set out to denigrate the very books that will, presumably, compete in the market with his.

Lubar ends his review by writing that “An introduction to museums needs to suggest the bigger picture through case studies, an historical overview of change, and an infrastructure of theory—at the same time providing the practical information required for the everyday work of museums,” which presumably is a description of the book he is writing. What Lubar failed to understand is that Foundations of Museum Studies is not an introduction to museums, it is an introduction to museum studies, a field with a rich literature that critiques and analyzes museums, their histories and functions, and their roles in society. Museum studies is not a how-to program, it is a careful balance between the theory and practice associated with the long history of museums and museal things over time and space.

Sources cited in this blog post:

Latham, Kiersten F., and John E. Simmons 2014. Foundations of Museum Studies: Evolving Systems of Knowledge. Libraries Unlimited, Santa Barbara, xiv + 155 pages.

Lubar, Steven. 2016. Review of Foundations of Museum Studies: Evolving Systems of Knowledge and Museums 101. Curator 59(3):315-318.

Macdonald, Sharon, and Helen Rees Leahy (editors). The International Handbooks of Museum Studies. Volume 1―Museum Theory (edited by Kylie Message and Andrea Witcomb); Volume 2―Museum Practice (edited by Conal McCarthy); Volume 3―Museum Media (edited by Michelle Henning); Volume 4—Museum Transformations (edited by Annie E. Coombes and Ruth B. Philips). Wiley-Blackwell, London, 2624 pages.

Walhimer, Mark. 2015. Museums 101. Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham, 237 pages.