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Museum Studies in the Twenty-First Century: Theory and Praxis (September): Home

By Juilee Decker


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Choice (volume 55 | number 1). 


In 2014, the Institute for Museum and Library Services released a report revealing that in the United States active museums numbered 35,000, some 10,000 more than the number of Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.1 Together these museums sustain some 400,000 jobs.2 This essay looks at the literature on museum studies—also referred to as museum science and museology—which extends back some hundred years. Though some of the early germane sources are included in the essay—e.g., seminal works of John Cotton Dana, John Dewey, George Brown Goode—the focus is recent literature that speaks to the ways in which museums have begun to challenge themselves to move beyond their storied position as authorities within niche audiences to become community-focused institutions that embrace shared authority and participatory practice, and that offer themselves as sites for experiences rather than mausoleums of past treasures. Though museum studies is among the less familiar disciplines at the undergraduate level, the tide is turning and certificate programs, minors, and other curricular emphases are emerging at liberal arts colleges and universities. The primary audience for this essay is museum studies students and faculty at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. But it is also written with attention to the interests of museum professionals of all ranks.

For the purposes of this essay, museums are collections not defined as archives or libraries. These collections may be living (as in the case of botanical gardens and zoos) or site based (historic houses, memorial museums) as well as institutional. Museum studies curricula may be anchored in disciplines such as art history, history, anthropology, cultural studies, American studies, material culture, and visual culture, but they may also intersect with public history, historical administration, and broader fields such as library and archival studies and cultural heritage.

The sheer number of resources necessitates constraints on the scope of the essay: in addition to concentrating primarily North America, the essay excludes works on particular kinds of museums (art museums, history museums, children’s museums); particular constituents; histories of individual institutions; and exhibition catalogues.

Museum studies curricula and scholarship are marked by “waves,” or phases.3 The first wave ties to the disciplines of history and art history, and material culture—primarily museums as sites where the politics of power and display are evident in what is on display and what is not. The second wave, which emerged in the 1970s and was eventually labeled “new museology,” asked questions about identity politics, postcolonial theory, majority-minority power dynamics, and the relationship between the museum and its source communities. The third wave—which has roots in the social work of museums from the 1960s practice but became widespread in the first decade of the twenty-first century—articulates museums as dialogic, needs based, advocacy and action oriented, and community focused. The fourth wave affirms the importance of multivocalism, collaboration, and participation, and it is marked by the digital as well as the physical.

As a discipline museum studies emphasizes key tenets of theory and praxis—learning by doing. This essay is divided into four main sections: museum history and theory; museum functions and approaches; technology and digital culture; and museum administration and ethics. A brief last section identifies book series, journals, and digital resources encompass all of the areas listed above.


1.   See

2.   AAM, “Museums: Did You Know? Infographic” cites AAM’s Financial Information Survey in noting that “Museums sustain more than 400,000 jobs and directly contribute $21 billion to the US economy each year.”  See

3.   For an understanding of the phases of museum studies, see Kylie Message, Museums and Social Activism: Engaged Protest (Routledge, 2014). In the present bibliographic essay, however, the approach is informed by my own scholarly framing of museum studies as having “waves,” itself in turn informed by feminism’s waves. 


Juilee Decker, PhD, is associate professor of museum studies at Rochester Institute of Technology.