Historians Brief Guide to New Museum Studies: A Review

Randolph Starn’s Historians Guide to New Museum Studies is an in-depth look into new museum studies and the arguments for and against the present changes to modern museums. Present museum practice versus traditional is discussed, along with several museum critics’ opinions. The following essay is an analysis of Historians Brief Guide to New Museum Studies and the positive and negative aspects of the points made by Randolph Starn.

Randolph Starn’s Historians Brief Guide to New Museum Studies is an analysis of the literature published by critics and museum employees concerning the newer museum studies and the studies’ extreme contradictions to traditional museology. In order to accurately present modern day arguments, Starn reviews past museum traditions, such as the focus on objects and education for the viewers. The guide is based on four key factors, the first being the genealogy of museums followed by the current shift of status for museum objects.

The politics of culture in a museum is discussed as a major factor in “museum wars” and finally, the experience of museums both past and future. Critics and curators literature dated as far back as the 1700s is discussed and used as the background for the characteristics of traditional, or old, museology. Starn’s guide addresses the ongoing debates between popularizers and traditionalists. As the names convey, popularizers concern themselves with popular entertainment, providing exhibitions with modern technology and “virtual reality” in order to please visitors and provide entertainment.

Traditionalists on the other hand are more concerned with maintaining the old museology, of providing objects in which to educate visitors and provide bits of history from past cultures and eras. Although most, even traditional, museums make use of some form of technology such as using multimedia and interactive computer stations, the true arguments lie in the values and museum representation. The guide consisted of several good points for and against the concepts of new museum studies. The connections made in the guide were not seen clearly a first.

The actual presentation of the information made it difficult to grasp the connections between traditional and new museum study theories. The amount of information needed in order to understand each of the arguments was condensed into a small publication causing the reader to be overloaded with concepts and historical data. However, once broken down by subject and reread, the information given was well researched and informative. Starn covered both sides of the four arguments well with the exception of museum genealogy which I felt was a week argument and not well supported.

Although the presentation was inadequate the information was interesting and provided an overall understanding of conflicts occurring in the modern day museum. Starn makes excellent points such as the argument over new museum studies “dematerializing objects” in order to create more of an entertaining quality rather than the tradition ways of focusing on the object itself as an educational experience for the viewer. It has become clear that the “permanent collection” has become a thing of the past.

The argument between Quatremere and Hegel was well represented by Starn. Although the original argument began in the late 1700s, the argument is still alive today. Quatremere believed an object separated from its original ties loses its “content, [loss of] cultural meaning” (Maleuvre, 1999) and the connections it had with life. Hegel on the other hand believes the objects original place of origin is insignificant or “superficial”. Bringing an object out of its context, “passing it through time and space” allows it to be studied and contemplated.

This is what museums had one time stood for, preserving an object, giving it meaning and allowing a visitor to study and learn from it. A value which I think is important and should be valued among the museum world. The value of an object is of great importance in the argument of new museum studies. New studies feel the object is less important than the entertaining quality it could potentially bring to the visitors. I feel this theory is what causes modern museums to lose their significance. The cultural history and meaning of an object ties in directly to the museums debate over universality and cultural differences.

This argument however has had some negotiations and in some cases has become neutral amongst rival museum critics. Because the argument involves an objects cultural importance and whether or not it should be removed from its original context, many organizations have agreed on an exchange and loan program. This is good news for visitors of museums. This debate however is by no means over and likely will never be. Any dealings in multicultural objects are going to cause controversy because of its many personal responses.

The most important and well addressed topic in this guide was the need of traditional museums in modern day society. I personally feel that it is shameful that new museum studies have had such a negative impact on traditional museums. Experience is so important in “new museology” studies that the present day need for instant gratification and entertainment has ruined what history remains. It was startling to learn that museum curators and staff will give-in to mass media by refocusing their attention on entertaining visitors rather than educating them.

Starn represents this argument of experience versus traditional in an almost neutral way; where as I would have liked to have seen a more positive reinforcement for the need of traditional museums to stay as they once were, historically based and promoting education and learning. Starn does however give some hope as to the downfall of traditional museums. He states that the “virtual museums” so popular today are not as of yet replacing the real thing. This is little consolation however, considering the majority of traditional museums are currently using multimedia museum displays and interactive computer stations.

I would have to argue that if these components were being used to further the educational qualities of an object, I would be pleased and have no objection; but as Starn reports: …practically everyone agrees that ‘experience’ is a priority of the up-to-date museum. The latest edition of a professional museum manual is perfectly straightforward about this; ‘the criterion of success for a museum exhibition is whether it has achieved an affective ‘experience’, including a new attitude or interest, not whether visitors walk away from the museum having learned specific facts or having comprehended the basic principles of a scholarly discipline.

Unfortunately today’s museums can take many forms including virtual museums and, traveling museums; if they were promoting education they would be grand ideas however the majority of new museums are in it for the quick buck, to tantalize patrons with the bizarre or extreme. I am obviously not the only one to feel this way. Traditionalists feel much like I do; however, because many of them are directly involved in the museum world they are more passionately involved in the “museum wars”.

With museums becoming “cultural marketplaces”, historians have every right to worry about “historical amnesia, the speeding up of time, and the impact of new museum technologies” as well as the “sluggish job market”. Starn briefly explains that what authority was once given to curators has now become staff centered authority dealing with “design, outreach and development” as the most common complaint heard within the museum world. This development has led to what Starn calls “media circus, funding device[s] and business deal[s]”.

This ties in directly with the lack of education now found in modern museums. To quote Starn, …museums have sold their souls to a global network of infotainment and, slightly better perhaps, edutainment. According to visitor surveys, the public is hard pressed to tell the difference between museums, exhibits in department stores or airports and historical districts, or theme parks. It is a very sad occurrence indeed. It is no wonder that there is such a heated debate amongst critics and staff of the museum world.

These new extreme changes are taking away the true benefits of the museum; learning and appreciation of history. In this I believe Starn makes clear to his readers with detail and examples. The one disappointment in Historians Brief Guide to New Museum Studies was the coverage and explanation of museum genealogy. It is understandable that Starn uses this topic as a basis for the previously mentioned arguments however it seems that the topic of genealogy of museums is less of an argument and more of a basic understanding among historians.

Starn quotes an unnamed scholar as saying “institutions now called museums have family resemblances to one another, but they share neither a common history nor a common cause”. It is this statement that is further explained as being the genealogy of the museum; however because it is not supported, other than saying museums are not of a collected history, it causes me to feel this was a failed argument and therefore has no purpose in the guide. Historians Brief Guide to New Museum Studies was very informative and succeeded in myself, as the reader, to go beyond the guide as Starn had hoped.

Although the guide was not written in a way that the actual relative points could be easily comprehended, after rereading the guide the connections between museum object and cultural importance were easily understood as well as the new museum studies obsession with entertaining the masses rather than providing education. There was a clear understanding of why these arguments exist between critics, historians and others involved in the museum world. It was also clear that Starn is right to believe these arguments are to be endless. The underlying cause for these arguments is a museums purpose, is it to educate or entertain?

Personally, I feel there is enough entertainment in the world today without museums having to give in to such demands. Traditionalists blame technology for the changes occurring in museums, they may be right. It has to be said however that technology has and can be used for enhancing the learning experience or as an educational tool. That does not mean however that museums should become an attraction the likes of Disney World. Starn succeeds in his task of providing a well thought out guide which explains the change of pace in the museum world as well as giving the reader reason to contemplate the arguments further.