Museum criticism, inside and out

Museum criticism, inside and out

(a response to the conversation at

An important question, and you do a good job of getting at the basic challenge. Insiders pull their punches. Outsiders take potshots. Insiders have something to sell. Outsiders don’t understand the politics and the practicalities.

I’ve been both a museum insider and an academic critic, sometimes both at the same time, and I’ve thought a good bit about this problem. And it is a problem: we need better, more thoughtful practice and better, more informed criticism. We need the view from within and the outside perspective. The good thing, I think, is that the quality is getting better, on both sides.

From the inside: so much writing is done as part of promotion, or as part of an internal argument. I’ve done this – we all have. You’ve completed an exhibition, and you want to let the world know about it. The line between explaining how you did it, how you made the decisions you did and why, and bragging about them, explaining why this is a good example – that can be pretty thin. And too much of this writing does not build on the literature of the field, one of the reasons that the historiography of museum studies has been, until recently, so thin. I think this kind of writing is important nonetheless – the field desperately needs more “here’s how we did it case studies.” But in writing these, we need to be aware (and upfront) about our subject positions. We need to be more transparent about where we’re coming from. We don’t want to use our case studies to refight private battles in public.

From the outside: academic museum criticism, I think, got off on a bad foot.  Museums as tools of control, as Foucauldian panopticons enforcing cultural hierarchy? The first thing museum people realize is how bad museums are at controlling anything… we know that most visitors don’t read our labels, we can barely get visitors to go through our exhibits in the right order, and here we were put into the same category as asylums, clinics and prisons? Really? It was the wrong place to start.

But things are getting better. There’s been some excellent critical, reflective, and how-to writing on museums in the last decade. I used to tell my students that unlike their other reading fields, there was not a real historiography for them to know in museum studies. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Not only has there been a rediscovery of interesting and important early twentieth-century literature (Dana, Dewey); there’s some excellent criticism, some (still not enough) thoughtful writing by practitioners, and even some sophisticated-and-useful theory work. The best of this (I’m thinking of Witcomb’s writing, for example) is all three.

Randolph Starn, in his enormously useful 2005 “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies,” calls the recent literature a “tidal wave of museum studies,” and that seems true. He called attention to this same insider-outsider problem, and noted that it was starting to break down. The last few years has seen that breakdown accelerate. A lot of the new work has overcome the insider-outsider distinction, and a lot of it is very good indeed. More precisely, in is good-to-think-with, for academic critics, and good-to-work-with, for practitioners. That’s what makes museum writing so difficult, and so much fun.

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