Museums and Museology

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Term 1
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of History of Art and Archaeology & School of Arts

Module overview

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 – especially non-Western objects – within diverse cultural contexts. It analyses the meanings produced via architecture, space, and display, and explores key issues in relation to museums and sacred art, gender, emerging forms of digital curating and museology, colonialism, and decolonisation.

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 and museum visits:

  1. Introduction: Museums and Museology
  2. The Origins of the Museum: From cabinets of curiosity to civic spaces
  3. Architecture and the ‘Museum Effect’
  4. The Curator and the Exhibition: Assimilating and Exoticising
  5. Interpreting Museum Texts
  6. Museums and Colonialism
  7. Exhibiting Sacred Art
  8. Museums and Gender
  9. Digital Museums, Digital Museology
  10. Decolonising the Museum

Method of assessment

  • One exam (worth 50%)
  • One 750-word review (worth 20%)
  • One 1,500-word essay (worth 30%)

Suggested reading

We will refer to some of the following books quite often during the course. You should try to familiarise yourself with them as soon as possible and develop a study plan to cover as many of them as you can.

  • Ames, Michael (1992). Cannibal tours and glass boxes: the anthropology of museums. Vancouver: University of British Colombia Press.
  • Bennett, Tony (1995). The birth of the museum: history, theory, politics. London: Routledge.
  • Bouquet, Mary (ed.) (2001). Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future. Berghahn Books: Oxford and New York.
  • Duncan, Carol (1995). Civilizing rituals: inside public art museums. London: Routledge.
  • Greenberg, Ferguson and Nairne, Sandy (eds.) (1996). Thinking about exhibitions . London: Routledge.
  • Karp, Ivan and Steven D Lavine (eds.) (1991). Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Marstine, Janet (Ed.). (2010). New museum theory and practice. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Vergo, Peter (ed.) (1989). The New Museology. London: Reaktion.


Apart from keeping informed about current affairs, you need to check journals that relate to museums. Some of the key general ones are:

  • Museums and Society
  • Museums Journal
  • Journal of the History of Collections
  • Journal of Material Culture
  • Journal of Museum Ethnography

Museum Catalogues

One of the best ways to understand how curators think and understand the approaches they take is to read museum catalogues. Introductory chapters are a good place to start as they usually outline the rationale, goals, and perspectives of the exhibition. Reviewing the catalogue entries of objects can also provide insights into the approaches taken. Below is a brief selection of catalogues, many of which we will discuss during the course, that you should try and familiarise yourself with.

  • Bashkoff, Tracey (2018). Hilma af Klint: paintings for the future. Exhibition Catalogue. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
  • Bolton, Andrew, (2019). Camp: Notes on Fashion. Exhibition Catalogue. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Chong, Alan and de Moura Carvalho, Pedro (2016). Christianity in Asia: sacred art and visual splendour. Exhibition Catalogue. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum.
  • Darbyshire, Jo. (2003). The Gay Museum: An exhibition exploring the history of lesbian and gay presence in Western Australia . Western Australian Museum, Perth, January 22 to March 16, 2003.
  • Greenwood, William and de Guise, Lucien (eds) (2019). Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western Art. London: The British Museum Press.
  • Guy, John (ed.) (2014), Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia , Exhibition Catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Distributed by Yale University Press.
  • Kries, Mateo and Klein, Amelie (eds.) (2015). Making Africa: a continent of contemporary design . Exhibition Catalogue. Weil am Rhein, Germany: Vitra Design Stiftung.
  • Murphy, Stephen A., (ed.), (2016) Cities and Kings: Treasures from Ancient Myanmar . Exhibition Catalogue. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum.
  • Ramos, Imma (2020). Tantra: enlightenment to revolution . Exhibition Catalogue, British Museum: London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Volper, Julien. (2018). Unrivalled art: Spellbinding artefacts at the Royal Museum for Central Africa . Exhibition Catalogue Belgium: Royal Museum for Central Africa.
  • Also: The Metropolitan Museum has put its entire collection of out-of-print catalogues online for free.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules