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  • John E. Simmons

Musings on Museum Studies #5: Perish or Publish?

Publish is a deceptively simple word. It is derived from the Latin word publicare and means to make public. Traditionally, something published meant text printed in a journal or a book, but publication now includes online journals, blogs, and other electronic documents. One thing that has not changed about the word publish is its definition—it still means to make information public, to share, to make it available to others.

“Publish or perish” is an aphorism that describes one of the pressures new faculty members face on the job. The phrase was first used in 1927 in an academic journal but by the 1940s could be found in popular writings as well. The ultimatum to “publish or perish” is both good and bad—it motivates people to share their knowledge with others, but also may encourage the publication of marginal work and add unneeded stress to the life of a new professor. In the museum world we are mostly exempt from the pressure to publish or perish, but this creates another dilemma—not enough museum professionals publish information about what they do, and fewer still publish the results of museological research. This is a mistake because museums lose a significant amount of institutional and professional memory when the knowledge their staff members accumulate is not published.

Rather than publish or perish, museum professionals today can be said to be facing another ultimatum, that of perish or publish, because if museum professionals don’t publish what they learn, museology as a profession cannot progress and will perish.

Unfortunately, the expectation of publication has never been considered as important to the profession as it should be. Museum work has traditionally been perceived as mostly hands-on, more praxis than theory. While it is true that much of museum work is hands-on, understanding and exploring the theory and philosophy behind what we do is critically important. It is also important that museological research be published so that it is available to the profession and to other scholars. The neglect of publication has led to a widespread misconception that research is no longer a component of museum work. For example, I found it particularly disappointing to see that whereas the first edition of my favorite book on museums, Museums in Motion included a good chapter on “Museums as Research” (Alexander 1979), the chapter was eliminated in the second edition, although several mentions of research were included in the text (Alexander and Alexander 2007). Unfortunately, in the new third edition research is not even in the index, although “Pokéman Go” is (Alexander, Alexander, and Decker, 2017).

My undergraduate training was in biology. I was lucky to have several professors who stressed the importance of knowing the historical literature of biology in order to fully understand current trends in thought and research, and who stressed the importance of contributing to the literature. When my emphasis shifted to museology after I became a graduate student in the 1980s (having already worked in museums for more than a decade), I was dismayed at how little was available in the way of scholarly literature. I had far more questions about museology than I could easily find answers for. There were a few how-to manuals available, but very little in the way of history and philosophy of museums, how museums functioned, studies of the commonalities and differences among museums, and museums in society. The situation today is much better, as has been demonstrated by several reviews of museological publications (e.g., Kuo and Yang 2015, Rounds 2001, Teasdale and Fruin 2017), but more is needed, such as studies of the role of museums in culture and grand, overarching philosophical treatises. We as a profession should begin by encouraging graduate students in museology to publish some of their scholarly work, and professional publication should be encouraged and supported by the institutions we work in. It should be a regular, expected part of the job of museum professionals.

Museum professionals are very busy people (I know, because I have worked in the profession for more than 40 years), and writing takes time and discipline, but continued development of the professional literature is extremely important. I published my first peer-reviewed research paper in 1975 when I was still an undergraduate, which is not unusual in the sciences—publication of research is expected and encouraged. Since then I have published well over 100 articles, essays, book reviews, and peer-reviewed papers as well as several books, most on museological subjects. This is how it should be in the profession. We should all be expected to share what we know. It is the only way a field can grow and advance.

Literature cited

Alexander, E.P. 1979. Museums in Motion. An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. American Association for State and Local History, Nashville.

Alexander, E.P., and M. Alexander. 2007. Museums in Motion. An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Second edition. Altamira Press, Lanham.

Alexander, E.P., M. Alexander, and J. Decker. 2017. Museums in Motion. An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Third edition. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham.

Kuo, C.W., and Y.H. Yang. 2015. The bibliometric analysis of literature of museum studies. ISPRS Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Sciences, Volume II, pp. 159-164.

Rounds, J. 2001. Is there a core literature in museology? Curator 44(2):194-206.

Teasdale, R.M. and C. Fruin. 2017. The museum studies literature: revisiting traditional methods of discover and access, exploring alternatives, and leveraging open accesso to advance the field. Curator, the Museum Journal 60(4):489-503.