Museology: The Study of Museums
Updated: Jul 24
Museology, also called museography, is the study of museums — how they’re designed, organized and curated. It also seeks to understand the history of museums and how they’ve changed over time.
Why is museology important?
The more you know about it, the more museums open themselves up as fascinating places in their own right, not only for the beautiful works of art and astounding artifacts they contain inside.
When I give tours of Paris, we often go to world-class museums like the Louvre. And while we’re there, many people end up being as interested in the story of the Louvre itself as the art. I can say for myself that the more I study museology, the more I appreciate and cherish the time I spend in museums of all kinds.
It helps you to not take the careful curation for granted. There are many ways to highlight artwork using a given space, and those choices matter. They can even change the course of history itself — because the way we perceive history often affects how we make decisions going forward.
Museums, then, have an incredible responsibility to preserve the past and educate people about it. They have to do all this while also making sure to provide experiences the public will want to visit, archive their objects properly, keep their information up-to-date, acquire valuable objects and schedule touring exhibitions, maintain (and sometimes expand) their spaces, and integrate the new technologies that people expect today.
Oh, and they have to do all of this on a budget!
Exploring museology is a great way to expand your love for these special places. And who knows, maybe it’ll fascinate you so much that you go into the field yourself.
And best of all for me, it makes visiting the Louvre — what must be the best museum in the world — all the more impressive.
A Brief History of Museums
Believe it or not, museums have existed in some form or another for over 2,000 years.
We get the word “museum” from the Ancient Greek “Mouseîon” — the shrine or place of the Muses (goddesses that gave rise to inspiration). In Ancient Greece, these were sacred spaces filled with incredible works from the arts and sciences. Items on display included mosaics, complicated mechanical objects, and statuary. It was all meant to inspire visitors and to encourage the Muses to give the artists and intellectuals that next big idea.
But the museum goes back even further than that.
The First Museum
While we don’t really know what the first museum was, a good candidate comes from Ancient Mesopotamia (in modern day Iraq). Ennigaldi-Nanna, daughter of King Nabonidus, opened it in her own home in the city of Ur around 530 BCE.
She gathered objects excavated by her father, King Nebuchadnezzar, and herself. These items were extremely old, some dating to the 20th century BCE. In classic curator fashion, she created labels for items that she made out of clay cylinders. It was even a multilingual experience, with labels giving information in three languages.
Archeologists were stunned when they discovered this — radically changing our understanding of how ancient people saw their past.
Museums Through the Ages
The elite of Rome often displayed their collections of artifacts in their homes. These were usually made up of items sacked and looted while on imperial conquest.
But it was during the Renaissance that modern museums began to take shape. In Europe during the Medieval era, most intellectuals were put in the service of the Church. But the Renaissance saw a rapid return to intellectual diversity and curiosity in a number of subjects.
The modern variety arose out of private collections of artifacts and cabinets of curiosities (so called “curios”) from the 16th and 17th century. In these, items were more like illustrations of certain ideas, stand ins for knowledge.
In the early 17th century, Ole Worm — a physician, historian and antiquarian living in Denmark — created the Museum Wormianum in Copenhagen. The objects on display included artifacts brought over from the recently contacted America, taxidermy, fossils, skeletons, and similar items.
Still others filled their cabinets with art, religious items, and naturally stunning minerals. Anything of interest probably found its way into one of these collections at the time.
The Modern Museum
Museums as we would recognize them began to take shape, but access was restricted to nobility who often had to request a visit in writing before showing up.
The Louvre, the palace that French revolutionaries turned into an art museum in 1793, famously began allowing the general public to visit three days a week when it opened.
Later on, circus promoters like P.T. Barnum would take tours with the most scandalous and speculative objects bought from curiosity cabinets, charging a fee for spectators to view them. Later on, he gathered these into the Barnum American Museum. It was the first museum with no restrictions on access — except the entry fee, of course.
Into the 20th century, museums more and more encouraged the public to visit, and academia became a more important element in the curation and information presented.
Today, any mid-size city probably has at least one museum, and huge numbers of people visit them every day.
They’ve come a long way.
The Museology of the Louvre
With this history in mind, we can look at the Louvre with new eyes. This is a cultural institution that arises out of a long history, and because of its prominence, the decisions made here will help write the next chapter of that history.
The Louvre is the center of some of the biggest innovations in museums. Because of its impressive collection and cultural importance, it has attracted some of the greatest curators throughout the centuries. And in its long tenure, it has also run into every major controversy in the world of museology.
Ethics and Museology
The Louvre began its life as a museum by showing artwork once owned by the recently deposed King. After the rise of Napoleon not a decade later, its collection ballooned with items the military commander stole during his many campaigns in Europe and Africa.
The Louvre later handed much of the stolen works back — maybe the first time an art museum repatriated a work of art on ethical grounds.
The ethics of museums is a major topic in museology, with the Louvre’s history showing us examples on both sides. Who owns what? Should a country or its institutions control all of the artifacts found there or all of the art created there? But don’t we all have a right to at least some of the artifacts from around the world? After all, at some level all history is relevant to everyone thanks to our shared humanity.
The problem often arises out of how items are sourced and presented. In general, if something is gifted, it is okay. But obviously when stolen, most museologists today consider it unethical.
Why Presentation Matters
Where pieces are placed in the Louvre can have a dramatic effect on their significance in history.
The Venus de Milo has been featured prominently in the museum since its acquisition in 1820. In that time, it has gone from one of many impressive Venus statues from antiquity to being regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time.
How things are presented, then, is of major importance.
It is only natural to feature some work more prominently than others, but this shapes how people see it. Is a museum supposed to promote pieces that its curatorial staff believe are more important to art history or more beautiful? What should the standard be? Should there even be a standard?
This also gets into questions of social justice and decolonisation.
Where is the curator’s role in ensuring that voices from historically oppressed and colonized communities are heard and understood?
As you can imagine, this important debate is still being decided, but curation at the Louvre and at museums around the world is starting to present a more balanced selection with a diverse range of featured voices.
What Story You Tell
The Louvre’s collection is so broad that it has always been at the forefront of another major museological question: how do you tell the right story?
When it first opened, the Louvre gathered work based on national schools of painting, and within these schools, paintings were hung in strict chronological order. This overly rational system fit in with the Enlightenment values of the time, but it proved less than inspiring.
Today, the Louvre has a wonderful balance, but it will always remain a challenge to keep it that way.
On any day, the Louvre is presenting about 38,000 items in their collection, representing art from prehistory up to today. It becomes a major challenge to give each item its appropriate context while also staying exciting for visitors.
See the Louvre Through New Eyes
The Louvre’s collection and magnificent building are enough to amaze, delight, and educate anyone who walks through its fabled rooms. But knowing the history museums and the unique debates surrounding museums adds to its already staggering value.
When you come take one of my guided tours, I’m happy to talk through these interesting issues in this fascinating field. I’m always delighted by how many people love the new appreciation it brings. Book a tour today, and see the Louvre through new eyes!