SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Museums and Museology

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 1
The course is designed to equip students with a broad range of theoretical and practical approaches to the study of museums. It examines the strategies and practices by which museums interpret, organise and display objects within diverse cultural contexts. The course provides an introduction to the theoretical issues involved in ‘reading’ and understanding the social lives of ‘things’. It also analyses the meanings produced via architecture, space, display and textual interpretation, and explores key issues in relation to contemporary curating, post-colonialism and ‘universal’ museums.  

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, students will have:

  • used a range of investigative tools and approaches with which to analyse theory  and practice in museums.
  •  gained theoretical and practical knowledge of the interpretation of a range of museum objects.
  •  applied key concepts in museological theory to the critical analysis of displays.
  •  examined some of the key issues and debates in museology.

Scope and syllabus

The syllabus will examine the theoretical and practical approaches to museums via a range of thematic topics:

Week 1: Introduction: museums & museology.
Week 2: Early museums, objects and collections.
Week 3: Museums and displays in the 19th century, and visit to Petrie Museum.
Week 4: Visit to British Museum.
Week 5: Architecture, space & the ‘museum effect’.
Week 6: Art/Artefact.
Week 7: Museums and anthropology.
Week 8: Curating case study.
Week 9: Museums and communities.
Week 10: Universal museums.

Method of assessment


  • One 750-word annotated bibliography (worth 10%)
  • One 1,500-word essay (worth 30%)
  • One 2-hour exam (worth 60%)


  • One 750-word annotated bibliography (worth 10%)
  • One 1,750-word essay (worth 30%)
  • One 2-hour exam (worth 60%)

Suggested reading

Selected Readings

  • Appadurai, Arjun (ed.) (1986) The Social Life of Things, Cambridge:
    Cambridge University Press
  • .Barker, Emma (ed) (1999) Contemporary cultures of display, Yale University Press.
  • Baxandall, Michael (1991) ‘Exhibiting intention: some preconditions of the visual display of culturally purposeful objects’, in I. Karp and S Lavine (eds) Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp 33-41.
  • Bennett, Tony (1995) The birth of the museum: history, theory, politics, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Carbonell, Bettina Messias (ed) (2004) Museum studies: an anthology of contexts, Oxford: Blackwells
  • Clifford, James (1997) ‘Museums as Contact Zones’, in Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge Massachusetts and London:  Harvard University Press, pp 188-219.
  • Duncan, Carol (1995) Civilizing rituals: inside public art museums, London and New York: Routledge
  • Fyfe, Gordon and MacDonald, Sharon (eds.) (1996) Theorizing Museums, Oxford: Blackwell.
    Giebelhausen, Michaela (2003) The Architecture of the Museum: Symbolic Structures, Urban Contexts. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
  • Greenberg, Ferguson and Nairne, Sandy (eds) (1996) Thinking about exhibitions, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean (1992) Museums and the shaping of knowledge, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Karp, Ivan and Steven D Lavine (eds) (1991) Exhibiting cultures: the
    poetics and politics of museum display, Washington: Smithsonian Institution
  • Kopytoff, Igor (1986 )‘The cultural biography of things: commoditization as
    process’, in Appadurai, Arjun (ed.) The Social Life of Things, Cambridge:
    Cambridge University Press, pp.64-91.
  • MacDonald, Sharon (ed.) (2006) A Companion to Museum Studies, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • MacLeod, Suzanne (2013) Museum Architecture: A New Biography, London and New York: Routledge.
  • O’Doherty, Brian (1986) Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
  • Pearce, Susan (ed) (1994) Interpreting objects & collections, Leicester: Leicester Readers in Museum Studies.
  • Peers, Laura and Alison Brown, eds. (2003) Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader. London and New York: Routledge. 
  • Preziosi, Donald and Farago, Claire (2004) Grasping the world: the idea of the museum, Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Ravelli, L. J. (2006) Museum Texts. Communication Frameworks. London: Routledge.
  • Shelton, Anthony (ed) (2001) Collectors: individuals and institutions, and Collectors: expressions of self and other, London: The Horniman Museum and Gardens and Museu Antropológico da Universidade de Coimbra.
  • Sherman, Daniel J., and Rogoff, I. (eds) (1994) Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Vergo, Peter (ed.) (1989) The New Museology, London: Reaktion.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules