Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and are Changed


Simon Knell, Suzanne MacLeod and Sheila Watson (eds. Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and are Changed (London: Routledge, 2007).


This book challenges and questions a notion of change which sees the modern museum as the product of a linear development from cabinets of curiosity, through the disciplinary museum, to modern conceptions of the living, eco-, digital, or post-museum. It is easy to locate in their similarities a path of evolution but two populations situated either side of a revolutionary moment always have much in common. Many museums – perhaps most new museums – result from rejecting the perceived norms of museum practice as much as they are about adopting them. The present array of museums does not bear witness to a survival of the fittest, but rather to repeated attempts to reinvent and redefine. One might call this ‘mutation’ in the sense that museums are always reacting to a perceived future – they are all opportunists – but yet they must also reflect upon their past and on the inertia that surrounds them such that no biological metaphor really offers a sensible way to visualise this change. It is perhaps more useful to think of museums as being in revolt. Revolution here then is a process which objectifies a set of values and an imagined past, and then follows a future that in some ways is oppositional and new. Or to put it another way, the museum sees two possible futures, one that reflects the present trajectory and one that can be obtained by re-invention. One needs to understand that this is in many respects a managing of myths, as neither past nor future are neutral or factual; both are political.


Access is given to the accepted manuscript version of chapter 3 via the chapter link below.


Simon Knell: Introduction

Much of this introduction is inserted below to explain the content of the chapters.

Shaping museums and manifestos

The book begins with contributions which are essentially about change as invention. In the language of revolutions, these are about manifestos and their implementation.

1 Philippe Taquet: Establishing the paradigmatic museum: Georges Cuvier’s Cabinet d’anatomie comparée in Paris

Philippe’s Cuvier re-invents a museum in the Jardin du Roi in Paris as a manifestation of his own ideals and intellectual ambition. The Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle became the paradigm for the museum across Europe and her colonies and Cuvier the very model for the heroic savant. 

2 Susan Pearce: William Bullock: inventing a visual language of objects

Sue discusses a rather different inventor who, although often portrayed as a sensationalist, began to probe the visual language of exhibition. Out of sheer necessity, William Bullock needed to understand the nature of audience appeal and soon understood that science alone was insufficient to create attention-grabbing interpretation. At a time when the museum in Britain was still an emerging phenomenon, Bullock’s methods seem to have been given serious consideration amongst the literati. It was only a matter of time, however, before the museum as serious scientific and educational enterprise distinguished itself from the amateur collector’s mania or the London shows’ attempt to reach beyond the fact. More than a century later, however, museums began to study and understand their audiences much as Bullock had. What followed were carefully designed and immersive galleries which pushed academic pedantry and collections into the background. Conversations much like those that surrounded Bullock’s activity again emerged which attempted to reassert the roles of scholarship and the object. 

3 Simon Knell: Museums, fossils and the cultural revolution of science: mapping change in the politics of knowledge in early nineteenth-century Britain

My museums grew up in the shadow of Cuvier who was widely considered – by those who did not feel in competition with the French – the greatest savant of the day. I consider a longer period of change and merge manifesto with context to explore change which is partly modelled and partly beyond control.  Locating institutions and practices in relation to the contemporary desires and expectations of society, the individual and the emergent discipline of geology, I detect change and even revolution. The first part of the nineteenth century is, as a result, exposed as a period when the museum was being repeatedly reformulated. The paper culminates in proposing a cultural (rather than intellectual) revolution in the science of geology.

4 Christopher Whitehead: Establishing the manifesto: art histories in the nineteenth-century museum

The lens of a single discipline is also useful to Chris who attempts to understand the making of a national museum. His interest is reflexive and revealing: both discipline and museum are formed as bounded, divided and ordered intellectual and physical spaces. It reveals that while museums are inevitably victims of change, at moments in their history individuals take control, and establish a manifesto which like an architectural plan gives structure with long-term impact. 

5 Savithri Preetha Nair: Economic logic versus Enlightenment rationality: evolution of the museum-zoo-garden complex and the modern Indian city, 1843-1900

Savithri’s Indian museums also emerge from individual visions, but she sees them more broadly in terms of the geography of social transformation (‘spaces of modernity’) which have largely been overlooked by historians seeking to understand the formation of the modern country. There is here a drive for mass access and education which by then was also affecting the largely private museum culture in Britain. 

Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is perhaps the only institution in this book that sees the masses in revolt and taking possession of a museum. Although brutally put down, this was hardly a call to arms; it was rather a clash of class values. As Suzanne reveals, the Walker is a curiously elite product of an industry which fed the development of a drinking culture which contemporary society deemed unacceptable. For Suzanne, however, this is but one moment in a study which examines the changing Gallery through the modelling of space and the politics of control. As she explains, this is not a standard architectural history but one that shows how the material nature of the institution naturally resists change, producing an inertia which repeatedly has to been addressed through acts of appropriation and renewal.

7 Ali Mozaffari: Modernity and identity: the National Museum of Iran

Ali’s study of the National Museum of Iran is the only paper in this book to discuss a museum that experienced national revolution – in this case during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. As he explains, Iran long found itself in difficult encounters with West, and as a result it developed its own notions of national identity built around tangible heritage. Before the revolution this heritage was used as part of a process of modernisation and secularisation; after the revolution it held potential for rejecting Western influences and for the re-interpretation of a traditional and religiously-observant past. At the National Museum of Iran today, two buildings materialise and represent this ideological revolution: one reflecting the old Iran, the other representing the new.

8 Richard Toon: Science centres: a museums studies approach to their development and possible future direction

Richard’s American science centres might be understood to materialise that nation’s faith in science, economy and private patronage. He investigates the shaping of these institutions, and in doing so locates rather different influences from those often repeated in the long established heroic history of the science centre movement.  Richard locates some contextual necessities, such as the Cold War, and internal ideologies, such as decontextualised ahistoricism, which the movement had to locate as defining principles. The American science centre movement also constructed and manipulated its heroes as it spread its influence around the world. Often formulaic in their construction – each centre in some ways a clone of those that have gone before – science centres give a rather different perspective on change.

9 Conal McCarthy: Before ‘Te Maori’: a revolution deconstructed

In terms of revolutionary impact of museum exhibitions, few have acquired the status of the Te Maori exhibition at the Met in New York in 1984. Here, Conal reveals that the revered status of that exhibition relies on the production of a self-perpetuating mythology. Te Maori signalled the birth of a postcolonial present and in doing so objectified ahistorical colonial past. History was to be politically manipulated into black and white, self-determination and equality replacing White supremacy and exploitation. Returning to documents written in the Maori language, Conal re-examines the period before Te Maori and demonstrates that the politics of representation were never so clear cut, that the revolution was a product of presentism.

10 Robert R. Janes: Museums, social responsibility and the future we desire

This section ends with a modern day manifesto produced by Bob Janes which reflects modern day concerns. No longer Cold War or colonial, for Bob there is a need to re-evaluate purpose rather than slip into endless business-driven model of a heritage industry. This model is most developed in North America but has been adopted by many other countries and heritage organizations in a world in which service and cost can no longer be kept apart. He shows how this business-driven model of heritage forces the museum to lose sight of its original purpose and its relationship to the needs of the community. In order to convince us of the importance of ideals and responsibilities, Bob takes the reader on a journey which leaves the museum and enters wider political debate regarding society’s activities and values. An experienced and influential manager, he is here giving an alternative business vision which attempts to displace the necessity of merely becoming a business with a return to purpose. 

Changing places, changing people

The step into the second section of the book, is not a huge one. Many of the papers here might also be considered to be about agendas and contextual shaping. The emphasis in this section concerns the role of museums in shaping identities – in changing places and people. 

11 Bronwyn Labrum: Making Pakeha histories in New Zealand museums: community and identity in the post-war period

Here Bronwyn takes the reader back into the rich New Zealand context already explored by McCarthy. One of the hothouses of postcolonial museological debate, she looks at the Pakeha – the settler communities – and the role of museums in the production of histories, and shows that histories were renegotiated according to changing context. Here museums are to be understood as key public intellectual frontiers which challenged past conceptions amongst these communities which imagined a pioneer age. 

12 Sheila Watson: History museums, community identities and a sense of place: rewriting histories

Sheila’s exploration of a socially-deprived English coastal resort is also about a renegotiation of history, but here the museum is active and the history overtly democratic. An act of proactive and open public engagement is necessary in order to locate agenda for change. What Sheila’s museum ends up valuing is the inevitably poetic past as much as the hard data. The history produced is no more fictional than any other history, but if history is a process of foregrounding aspects of the past in order to construct a narrative, then here that narrative is one which centres on identity, local pride and the use of history for social and urban regeneration. Some might suggest this is a manipulation of heritage, perhaps forgetting that the very notion ‘heritage’ conceals that very act. 

13 Chia-Li Chen: Museums and the shaping of cultural identities: visitors’ recollections in local museums in Taiwan

Taiwan has undergone a period of rapid social change. As Chia-Li explains, its museums have been fundamental to establishing a Taiwanese identity, with the necessary unpacking of ethnic difference, waves of immigration, a renegotiated past, and relationships to the People’s Republic of China. Her museums have been established from a traditional understanding of heritage and the necessity of memorialisation. The impact of museums on an individual’s sense of place and identity here is profound.  

14 Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta: Political and social influences affecting the sense of place in municipal museums in Portugal

Marta and Elsa explore the manipulation of heritage in the formation of identities in modern Portugal. They are dealing with changed communities and changed places, and they consider how heritage is exploited to manufacture identities which resonate with an imagined past. 

15 Peter Davis: Ecomuseums and sustainability in Italy, Japan and China: concept adaptation through implementation

Peter’s communities have also engaged with heritage with open eyes, becoming part of what he calls a ‘movement’ – a term which suggests a shared philosophy, ideology or set of values. Despite playing a key role in this movement, he remains a dispassionate observer who wishes to understand rather than take on the role of advocate. He can define its very being in terms of characteristics, such as sustainability, which lie at the heart of the vision. It is these latter which he then tests by studying the implementation of the ecomuseum model in diverse national and regional contexts. In terms of revolution, the ecomuseum model can fundamentally alter communities, but yet Peter is also interested in how the model itself is changed. Rather than believing in a orthodoxy, one suspects that his past as a biologist makes him amenable to evolutionary adaptation.  

16 David Butts: Māori, museums and the Treaty of Waitangi: the changing politics of representation and control

David raises concerns about the museum implications of a political backlash which attempts to counter New Zealand’s highly developed biculturalism with a sense of one nation equality. This shifts expertise from an appreciation of lived indigenous expertise to abstract knowledge of indigenous communities. The philosophical difference is profound and one cannot separate this from a longer political struggle between colonizer and indigenous resistance. 

17 Evelyn Tegomoh: Cultural entrepreneurs, sacred objects and the living museums of Africa

Evelyne shares many Western historians’ concerns about the corrupting effect of turning the past into heritage. Her paper shows that there is much in indigenous culture that values and preserves without ever needing to ‘museumize’. The conflict she describes is not immediately to be seen as one of imperialism, colonialism or Western appropriation but this is implicitly what it is. The construction of a universally valid concept of the museum as a signifier of civilisation, which turns the museum into an instrument of globalization and homogenization.

18 Moira G. Simpson: Charting the boundaries: Indigenous models and parallel practices in the development of the post-museum 

Moira would certainly empathize with Evelyn, but she sees the museum as adaptive and even essential as a place of safekeeping in the context of a globalized art market and the worldwide pillaging of sites. Such models of the museum challenge traditional definitions and where they prevent public access they also challenge government-endorsed funding models which relate funding to public service. 

19 Michael Pickering: Where to from here? Repatriation of Indigenous human remains and ‘the museum’ 

Mike’s paper also has a relationship to Evelyn’s since he is attempting to reverse actions which her actors are attempting to resist. A practitioner who has unparalleled experience of the issues surrounding the museum possession of indigenous human remains, he notes that professionals, for a range of reasons, tend to distance themselves from these issues. Repatriation becomes a process: a matter of professional obligation and logistical necessity. Professionals still fear its ethical, legal and political complexities and implications. Ever the pragmatist, Mike sees these matters otherwise, and does so from within the process. For him, these matters are the everyday and real rather than imagined. He has certainly witnessed and been a part of a revolutionary change in practice.

Articulating change: media, message, philosophy

The third section of this book is concerned with the ways in which museums attempt to instigate change in their publics. Clearly, this is a theme shared with many of the papers above, and many authors here relate their work to questions of identity.

20 Kate Gregory and Andrea Witcomb: Beyond nostalgia: the role of affect in generating historical understanding at heritage sites 

Kate and Andrea’s study returns us to the nature of heritage and here to its affective qualities. It is a quality underutilised and barely understood in museums but which forms a central communicative thread in the creative arts and most relevantly for museums, in theatre and film. They describe a huge gulf between the affective possibilities of the real (in the museum or heritage environment) and film, theatre, literature and other immersive narrative media. In many respects this work exists at the edge of practice but here it might be usefully informed by practices in rather different communication media. 

21 Lynda Kelly: Visitors and learning: adult museum visitors’ learning identities

Lynda’s study of museum visitors as learners addresses the active role of visitors’ identities. Her research reveals that a visitor’s learning image is fluid – that context shaped how they performed as learners. Kelly attempts to understand this by establishing a five component model of museum learning.

22 Jem Fraser: Museums – drama, ritual and power

Jem offers her own model of visitor engagement, again locating identity as a key component of performance. She is here implicitly locating affective change. While Pierre Bourdieu’s class-based analyses of the museum also saw power and identity as fundamental to rejection and acceptance museums, Jem considers how such things can be turned into meaningful rituals.

23 Margaret A. Lindauer: Critical museum pedagogy and exhibition development: a conceptual first step

Critical pedagogy, Peggy explains, uses teaching techniques for socially activist purposes, to deal with such things as social inequalities and exclusion. As her paper admirably demonstrates, museums can be seen as a manifestation of social policy, and their research agenda can thus be socially moulded. It positions the museum as an active participant in fields which possess essentially caring and socially responsible ideology. 

24 Viv Golding: Learning at the museum frontiers: democracy, identity and difference

Viv sees museums playing a key role in the production of a more equal society. Her work is particularly concerned with educational programming, and draws upon her own Black and feminist-inspired studies of the museum as a neutral space – a clearing, away from formal education and home life – within which new relationships, new ways of seeing, new opportunities, can be explored and can counter other negative media portrayals. She shows how museum workers turn self-perception on its head and fundamentally address issues of low self-esteem and exclusion.

25 Fiona Cameron: Moral lessons and reforming agendas: history museums, science museums, contentious topics and contemporary societies

Fiona asks how well museums are positioned to deal with controversial subjects and begins by taking issue with Janes’s view that museums can work outside government policy. She argues that there can be a morally illegitimate position in some topical areas which make a centre-ground objective view appear leftfield. Thus if museums are instrumental in changing society, their messages do not always conform to the middle ground; museums court acceptability, they wish for patronage. Fiona concludes that museums do have a role in the projects Janes so desires, not as advocates but as providers of information. One should not, however, underestimate the political difficulties of attempting this.

26 Mary M. Brooks & Claire Rumsey: ‘Who knows the fate of his bones?’ Rethinking the body on display: object, art or human remains?

Mary and Claire’s contribution acts as an example of the controversial in museum practice and reveals how fundamentally acceptable practices in museums have changed over the last decade or so. Their focus is the body, an object that remains very much at the museum edge in terms of affect and instrumental use. Its place is utterly perplexing: moral obligations unaffected by the secularisation of society; the bones of the long dead re-humanised; the flesh of the recently living objectified as art; bodies controlled by codes and bodies used for sensation. 

27 Beth Lord: From the document to the monument: museums and the philosophy of history

Beth’s contribution continues the theme of museum communication and in philosophical mood, she turns to Michel Foucault’s work to consider the perceived dichotomy in the production of museum histories between ‘objective’ didacticism and ‘subjective’ aestheticism. She considers, contrasts and unites Platonism and hermeneutics which seem to define past and present values for communicators, which might be simplified to be understood as a move from fact to meaning. Here, it is Foucault’s effective history which most interests Beth with the opportunities for visitors to work with objects to construct history, rather than to visit the monuments of written history. Her assertion is for object first and active meaning-making second with the removal of traditional tools of narrative, empathy or memory. This looks like another manifesto. 

28 Eilean Hooper-Greenhill: Education, postmodernity and the museum

From the chapters in this section, it is no surprise that sees museum education as a field ‘trying to establish new paradigms in relation to long-established frameworks’. One cannot deny, even if the comparative data is not fully available, that there have been fundamental changes to ideas about learning – that the field has a disconcerting theoretical fluidity. One cannot escape the politics of learning and knowledge, or social control of the process. Eilean fears that the ghosts of the past might be inescapable and certainly the politics of provision suggest that past values can return into vogue. What is inescapable, however, is that museums will change, never simply heading to become the post-museum or to re-invent themselves as cabinets for the curious, never gaining finality but remaining in flux ready to be appropriated and remodelled, and perhaps to experience revolution.