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Musings on Museum Studies #2: Theory VERSUS Practice (Enough Already!)

Coupled with over 20 years in museum practice, I (KFL) have taught museum studies in four different institutions, in three different states, over a period of 14 years. I have also attended many of the museum-related conferences in United States at some time or another. No, this is not a blog about my resume; it’s meant to explain that I’m out there, listening to the field, seeing patterns, watching the trends. There are two things I consistently hear. One is about the divide between “collections people” and “education people” in museums, which I will reserve for another blog post. The second thing I consistently hear from U.S. museum professionals, as well as my students, relates to the notion of theory versus practice, specifically the conception that one can exist in isolation from the other (usually that practice is more essential than theory). I remember an AAM meeting about ten years ago; there was a session that included the great big, capitalized word, “Theory” in the title. There were grumblings all over the conference about it. So, I went to the session, my curiosity piqued¾and it was packed with people! What? Oh my, such a contradiction! I have since opened my ears to this “versus” situation (among many others). My students, in all the programs in which I have taught, have continued to express a similar negative sentiment against using theory in museum work. I often wonder why.

While I acknowledge that practice came first in the history of museum work, theory provides the necessary critique of practice (in order to improve practice) and therefore, is (should be) integral to practice. In general—not just in museums—I have always found this an odd polarity. Intellectually, I understand its roots, but why must it be either/or? Haven’t we moved past that dichotomy in many areas of study? Doesn’t theory inform practice and vice versa? When we do our jobs, perhaps we don’t realize that the techniques we use, the procedures we follow, and the purpose for our existence is far more complex than just doing those things. We do them within a set of contexts, not in a vacuum. In order to understand why we do them we need to understand those contexts. And, if you don’t already know this, those contexts are complex! They aren’t made up of simple scenarios of black & white or 2+2=4. Museums are about encounters between people (many contexts) and objects (many contexts) and the institutions in which they transact (many contexts). Each of these elements bring together a tremendous amount of complexities that change over time and space. We don’t just catalog an object for the sake of cataloging an object. We do it for a reason (or many reasons) which may include preservation for the future, learning from the past, inspiring ideas, learning about oneself, or questioning assumptions.

Over the past few years I have begun to use “concept/conceptual” rather than theory (shoot, now my students know my secret!); it seems to resonate with people better, allowing them to more quickly understand the benefits of theory rather than grumbling about how hard it is to understand or how disconnected it is from reality (another perceptual issue). To gain even more perspective, I have been fortunate to have spent a lot of time recently exploring museum studies (also called museology, heritage studies, etc.) in other parts of the world where theory has been embraced for decades (in some cases, this is seen as a negative, see for example Grewcock, 2013). Museum studies in the U.S., in my opinion, is seen by many to be heavily practice-oriented—sometimes this is seen as good, sometimes not so good. At the same time, in other countries, I have heard colleagues say that they feel they are too theory-heavy and wish to have more practice in their programs. But here we are again, with “versus” dichotomy. It does us no good to pitch one against the other. As in so many situations, it is about balance, it is not an either/or situation. This is not rocket science. It is, rather, a giant feedback loop: theory feeds practice and practice feeds theory. And when you see the two together in a dynamic, ever-changing cycle, it makes sense. So, the next time you see the dreaded “T” word, give it a chance. Listen for things that might speak to you. Remember, you do not have to accept all theory, but theory is critical to providing an intellectual critique of museum practice, and there’s some really cool research going on that will help you better understand what you do, answer questions, and provide guidance with future direction.


Grewcock, D. (2014). Doing museology differently. Retrieved November 30, 2016, New York: Routledge. From http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/24246/

If you are interested in this topic, see also Conal McCarthy’s Introduction chapter in his book, McCarthy, C., Macdonald, S., & Leahy, H. R. (2015). Museum practice. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.