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August 2019 cultural, arts, and museum education in review

Hello again!

In this series, I discuss a few cultural, arts, or museum education articles that you may have missed or didn’t have time to read in the past month. All of the resources are publicly accessible.

This month focuses on the democratization of culture and the museum space (featured article: “Citizen Curators”) and the importance of museums’ (self-)positioning (highlighted articles: “Communication and Museums” and “Looking for Edutainment”).


(P.S. If you can’t access one of the articles or if you find something interesting that you’d like to have included in next month’s newsletter, send me an email!)

Right: Model of museum power based on an inverted pyramid © Tehmina Goskar; Left: Competencies in five key areas of skill and awareness © Curatorial Research Centre


Citizen Curators: An Experiment in Cultural Democracy,” Tehmina Goskar, blog post, 25 minutes to read

Summary: This blog post lays out the Citizen Curators program, based at seven museums in Cornwall (UK). The program is meant to provide an alternative pathway to museum work as well as to act as a democratizing force in the museum labor force.

Main points:

  • This program is based on “experiential learning”; it’s aims are “to support the democratization of museum decision-making, open up the knowledge locked in collections, and provide the start of an alternative pathway into museum work.”

  • Although “socially-just representation, participation and interpretation matters,” the catalyst for progress in these areas has often come from external forces, rather than from within the museum itself, especially from the curatorial perspective.

  • “Negotiation is a critical element of the scheme’s resilience and the role of an effective mediator organisation like Cornwall Museums Partnership [a third party mediating between the museums and the participants] is critical, providing oxygen to all parties engaged in a democratic process that seeks to generate internal pressure for positive change.” 

  • The Citizen Curator program is an active research project—the Curatorial Research Centre collects data, as the Citizen Curator program continues on as a pilot project. This puts the Citizen Curator program in a position to train volunteers, interns, and staff, as well as to contribute to museum discourse and research with evidence and practice-based research.

  • The fundamental idea is based on the power model of museums. Museums need to understand where their power lies and then learn how to share their power more widely.

  • The main criticism of the program thus far was that the integration of the volunteer participants into the museum could’ve been smoother, so the program set up a staff mentor for each of the participants.

Major takeaways:

  • “well-functioning museums are critical indicators of a civil society.”

  • Collaboration is essential for a program like this one; each institution can learn from the other (whether museum or otherwise).

  • “Like any experiential learning programme, being able to balance the diverse needs of participants and organisations is essential. Open dialogue helps…” 

  • Results of the pilot project: “Participant satisfaction in the pilot was high… In general the features they found most appealing were the behind the scenes aspects of the programme, the permission to represent the museum on public platforms such as radio and the chance to work towards a goal that they had a large role in shaping.”


Communication and Museums: Museums as a Place of Discourse,” Ka Tat Nixon Chen, 16 pages, 25 minutes to read

Summary: The author uses museum discourse as a frame for object interpretation, mission, purpose, and values. The discourses of different museums—which he describes thematically and chronologically throughout the article—have great implications for how they function in and affect society and how visitors interact with the knowledge presented in the museum.

Main points:

  • “No discourse is neutral.” (p. 25)

  • Throughout this history of museums, “museums performed different meanings to make themselves meaningful to their temporal and spatial context” (p. 26).

  • The discourse of museums frames a certain understanding or expectation of the mindset of its visitors and can frame how visitors use the information or knowledge available in museums to make sense of the world (p. 26).

  • The “traditional” museum concept, which focuses on “the physical value of objects inside museums,” seeks to “convey the importance of objects inside museums” as its discourse, whereas the “new” museum concept, which focuses on “the influential value of objects inside museums and the roles and functions of museums; in particular toward local communities,” seeks to “communicate the responsibilities of museums towards societies” in its discourse (pp. 26–27).

  • Throughout the history of the modern conception of museums, museums were founded on and formed by the (Western) ideologies of elitism, nationalism, and democracy (p. 32).

  • The discourses of museums throughout history is an indication of how the museum’s contribution to society was framed: “To protect and to preserve objects for generations,” “To civilise and to rationalise civilians,” “To generate income for society,” “Museums are social service providers” (pp. 35–37).

Major takeaways:

  • The discourse and history of a museum can affect the way that museums are perceived by people (p. 25).

  • “The discourse of museums can change people’s mindset of certain events or issues.” (p. 29)

  • “The discourse of museums can interpret the same objects from different perspectives.” (p. 31)

  • “The discourse of museums has the power to reflect the nature of the temporal and spatial contexts within which museums exist, to pivot the meaning of museums to societies, to express different ideologies of societies and eventually to label the contributions of museums to societies.” (p. 38)

Looking for Edutainment at Lithuanian Science Museums,” (PDF) M. Mazeikiene, O. Norkute, and I. Tandzegolskiene, 12 pages, 30+ minutes to read

Summary: This paper focuses on the evolution of Lithuanian science museums—which have a short history in Lithuania—in the face of the “‘Science Centres Movement’” (p. 5692). Specifically, the authors sought to discover how the exhibitions and websites of these institutions could be interpreted as knowledge-sharing and into which category (science center or science museum) each would fall.

Main points:

  • The distinction between science center and museum as described in the article depends on the presence (or lack thereof) of a collection. In other words, a science museum focuses on “artefacts having historical value and object-based epistemology” (p. 5692).

  • The Science Centres Movement encourages a “focus on a visitor, closer ties with local community and empowerment, links to formal education and aiming at educational outcomes, focus on leisure attractions and edutainment” (p. 5692).

  • “The science museum is acquiring features of the science centre.” (p. 5693)

  • The science center model encourages visitor empowerment by focusing on the visitor’s interaction with the exhibitions (rather than on the historical value of the objects) (p. 5693).

  • The science center model also focuses on learning by doing, without a strong linear didactic theme or story line throughout its exhibitions (p. 5693).

  • Empowerment, doing science, and personalization are all also aspects of “edutainment” and the “commercial basis of [science centers’] functioning and the aim to generate a revenue” (p. 5693).

Major takeaways:

  • “‘The empowering exhibit must offer real choice with multiple outcomes, all equally valid.’” (p. 5693)

  • There are three different eras of the science museum: the function in the 19th century “which is represented by traditional technical or heritage museums that are object-oriented”; the second generation of science centers, which did “not have collections and are comprised of interactive expositions meant for exploration of scientific phenomena without broader context”; and the third generation of science museums/centers, which encompass “thematic interactive expositions focusing not only on the scientific phenomena, but also on the cultural, social and political science related issues” (p. 5701).

  • Science museums (in Lithuania) span the first and the third generations of science centers/museums (p. 5701). University museums tend to fall into the first-generation category, because their primary focus is on teaching students (rather than meeting and serving the public as a whole) (p. 5701).

  • The authors conclude that Lithuanian museums/science centers don’t necessarily fall neatly into the categories created by other countries, but that their development is also dependent on the “specific historical and cultural context” of the country (p. 5701).

Source: Dr. Eleanor Janega

Fun Fact: MEDIEVAL PEOPLE BATHED, OKAY!? Eleanor Janega wrote this entertaining (& well-sourced!) blog post to dispel an overwhelmingly common misconception about medieval people and their bathing habits.


Research shows it's easier for Britons to get culture than for people in any other European country”: As the debate over access to arts and culture continues (what constitutes a barrier, exactly?), it’s interesting to see how Britons framed their ease of access based on time, money, and prior knowledge.

Yes, Museums Need to Step into the Future, but First We Must Acknowledge our Past”: In response to an opinion piece in The New York Times, which Jennings claims only addresses racism and colonial legacies in museums on the surface, rather than at the root.

What makes a great museum label?”: Museum labels are such an essential part of the museum experience, but they’re often long-winded or include too much jargon. Faherty explains some clear baselines for how to write a great museum label.

See you next month!


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