Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and Are Changed

Edited by Simon J. Knell, Suzanne MacLeod, and Sheila Watson. 2007. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0-415-44467-5 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Carrie Hertz, Indiana University

[Review length: 932 words • Review posted on June 2, 2011]


Museums—wishing to do good in the world, but like so many public institutions, relying on fickle civic support—must continually justify their own existence by aggressively evaluating the purpose and impact of their endeavors. Grappling with volatile and abiding issues like representation, power relations, identity politics, systems of knowledge, value production, post-colonialism, Eurocentricism, nationalism, and the like, museums in the twenty-first century have a lot on their proverbial plates. In this milieu, then, the constant reflexive desire of museum professionals and scholars to appraise the past, present, and future of museology is both unsurprising and heartening. Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and Are Changed is just one of a diverse series of edited volumes published by Routledge that valiantly tackles these kinds of issues within museum studies. Representing the efforts of an impressive, international array of both museum professionals and academics, this particular volume grew out of select papers given at the April 2006 conference, The Museum: A World Forum, organized by the Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in celebration of its fortieth anniversary.

Museum Revolutions asks an obvious, yet deceptively complicated, question: how do museums both reflect and shape society? So often considered monumental and enduring, museums are also, in the words of the editors, “fluid and responsive, dynamic, shaping, political, particular and complex” (xix). As organizations molded over time by the concerted efforts of many individuals, they are much like the semiotically unfixed artifacts in their collections—always implicated within the flow of historical and social reinterpretation. Transversing 200 years of museum history, practice, and theory, this volume is most successful at enriching our understanding of the repeated, sometimes reactionary, attempts of museums to reinvent themselves, adapting to or compelling change within their communities and beyond.

This shifting picture is assembled in part from a mosaic of micro-case studies, both historical and on-going, connected to particular places, times, institutions, or exhibitions. In his earnest contribution, “Where to from Here? Repatriation of Indigenous Human Remains and ‘The Museum’,” for instance, Michael Pickering argues that it is not unethical, but rather imperative for museums to embrace change by looking at the potential and complex consequences of repatriation for a given institution, weighing pros and cons for all of its present and future stakeholders. He uses the experiences of the National Museum of Australia to outline the possible benefits of directly and openly addressing the multifaceted viewpoints surrounding repatriation policy and praxis, including increased collaboration with source communities, the creation of a growing body of research about human remains and their treatment, and commendation from the media, the public, and the professional community.

Like Pickering, many of the contributors illustrate some of the ways particular institutions have wrestled with opportunities to effect change or be changed. Suzanne MacLeod, Ali Mozaffari, Sheila Watson, Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta, Peter Davis, Beth Lord, and Viv Golding all look at how specific museums have tried to respond to the shifting demographics, political environments, values, and needs of their local or national communities through architectural projects, new exhibition and interpretative methods, visitor research, programming, or policy. Other authors, utilize much wider historical or geographic lenses in their investigation of intellectual trends in museology and their destabilization or deployment, such as universalist systems of classification (e.g., Taquet, Pearce), disciplinary professionalization (e.g., Knell, Whitehead), colonial exploitation and (mis)representation (e.g., Nair, McCarthy, Labrum, Butts, Simpson), and pedagogical strategizing (e.g., Toon, Gregory and Witcomb, Kelly, Lindauer, Hooper-Greenhill).

One overarching theme permeating Museum Revolutions relates to the long-held assumption that museums wield great cultural authority to distill and propagate “the truth.” Since they both employ reputed experts and house physical evidence in the form of collections, museums enjoy an inherently powerful, as well as potentially dangerous, position in society. As Evelyne Tegomoh reveals in her examination of “cultural brokers” who take advantage of the social disruptions caused by Western museums within indigenous communities, we should not limit our inquiry to institutional transformations, but also scrutinize the ways museums alter the very groups they purport to serve. Whether or not these induced changes are positive or negative is a complicated matter with results that rarely go unchallenged.

Most of the authors exhibit special concern over the manner in which museums can or should affect change in their visitors through education, political engagement, representation, entertainment, or celebration. Robert R. Janes, for example, argues that “social responsibility” requires museums “to make moral, social and practical legacies of human society both visible and accessible—in a way that is free of any particular agenda” (139). Fiona Cameron, however, reminds us that a paying public may not accept apolitical objectivity, especially in the face of controversial topics, such as terrorism, in which presenting the “other side,” or even simply remaining neutral, grants, in the collective opinion of visitors, too much legitimacy to a deviant ideology. Considering the diversity of views and case studies featured within Museum Revolutions, clearly it is difficult for people, objects, methodologies, or theories to remain unchanged from their ongoing interactions with each other. Recognizing that museums can become “instruments of power within society” (292) is a necessary component of productively evaluating the consequential and value-laden work of museum-making.

As an edited volume, this book is both dense and uneven. Because the thematic thread used to tie the twenty-eight essays together was not shared by the conference for which they were originally written, the authors approach the concept of change with varying degrees of directness and vigor. Despite this lack of cohesion, Museum Revolutions offers a useful introduction to many of the paradigmatic, as well as pragmatic, dilemmas facing contemporary museum professionals.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.