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Course descriptions

Heritage Studies: Museum Studies

Museums and the Mobility of Artefacts 

Throughout time, artefacts acquire different meanings. Altarpieces originally created to visualise and explain biblical scenes for illiterate worshippers are presented as art; decorated human remains, transformed and estheticised as trophies, once collected as a demonstration of primitiveness, are now kept as ethnographic objects. Fragments of ancient churches and temples, destroyed in revolutions and religious wars, are shown in order to understand the development of sculpture. Precious intimate memorabilia have become public, objects of daily use have turned into historical documents and all of a sudden certain forms of art can become controversial. 

Museums are often regarded as a final station for art and cultural artefacts. However, shifts in geopolitics and in scholarly thinking, societal changes and claims for restitution by national governments and ethnic minorities continuously disprove this view. In addition, there is a growing tendency to share collections in national or transnational agreements. This parallels issues of ownership, stewardship, the sociological perspective of museums as part of the public sphere, or the philosophical perspective of museums as free havens whose ‘inhabitants’ (the exhibits) can be seen as exiles.

This course aims to understand how the current academic discourse in museum studies, historiography, national policy and international affairs affect the museum practice of acquisition, selection, presentation and restauration of artefacts.

Museums, Concepts and Narratives

Over the past decades, many new museums opened their doors, existing museums added new wings, galleries and exhibition spaces and satellite institutes abroad, all of which were the result of years of internal, governmental and societal debates about concepts and narratives. The discussions reflect the complexity of museums, which have to deal with the visitor expectations, wishes of curators, current academic discourse in the field, educational drive, museum missions, marketing strategies and finance. Ultimately, however, a collection is presented and a narrative is told. That is precisely what is criticised in the newspapers and what is required to attract an audience - not to underestimate the impact of delightful glossy photos of famous people at festive openings. 

Permanent exhibitions are not as permanent as they used to be. Whereas a department used to last as long as its curator’s career, exhibitions currently last around 5 to 15 years. Every radical change in collection or exhibition policy is closely intertwined with discourse in the field and societal or geopolitical changes and ruptures. This course, a continuation of ‘Museum Studies: History, Theory and Sources’, aims to understand museum concepts in the Netherlands and abroad in the past and today. It questions the museum as a mirror of time and society. It offers empirical, archival, literary, anthropological, and stratigraphic methods to analyse historical and contemporary exhibitions in historical, art, archaeological and ethnography museums and in influential serial temporary exhibition spaces such as the Documenta, found in one of the earliest public museums in Europe, the Fridericianum in Kassel.

Teaching methods of this course: Lecture, tutorial, excursions to the Rijksmuseum, Jewish Historical Museum and National Museum for World Cultures.

Museum Studies: History, Theory and Sources

Over the course of this module, students will practice analytical reading skills and the effective transfer of knowledge. Texts consist of both primary and secondary sources, and are classified under various themes, such as 'old source texts', 'the socio-anthropological perspective', 'the semiotic post-modern perspective' and 'recent developments'.

Students will be familiarised with important thinkers and cultural historians that have influenced the current field of Museum Studies, such as Von Mechel, Bode, Huizinga, Valentiner, Duncan, Pomian, Benett, Foucault, Derrida, and Bal. Texts will be discussed during the meetings within the context of their historical and methodological context.