Locating Museums: Communities and Contexts

Module code: MU7505

Module co-ordinator: Katy Bunning

This module sets the context for the course by establishing some common ground. It begins by examining definitions of the museum and how these have changed, a discussion which naturally leads to a consideration of mission statements and management philosophy. We then contrast this view of the modern museum with our understanding of museum history. In particular, this discussion of history is concerned with its utility to present conceptualisations of the museum. This leads to a discussion of professionalism and ethics. Having established and contextualised the provision and purpose of museums, the module explores that most central of museum resources: the object. It goes on to introduce museum education and learning, community-related roles, the key public function of contributing to an inclusive society, and the challenges of the technological age. 

Topics Covered

Unit 1 - The modern museum

This module takes that initial and essential step of exploring different understandings and definitions of museums. It charts how thinking about museums has changed, and the manifestation of this thinking in how museums perceive themselves and their aims. 

Unit 2 - Museum histories

Unit 2 considers the purposes of histories of museums and, indeed, proposes that these histories need to be purposeful. Museum histories permit a re-evaluation of values, roles and agenda; a means to debate contested roles and histories; a kind of spiritual guide to policy; and perhaps even a means to consider how to respond to future opportunities and challenges.

Unit 3 - Objects of knowledge

We will discuss the reason why we have object-focused institutions (museums). Here we disassemble the role of the object as empirical evidence, as proof of real events. We explore the factuality of objects, connoisseurship and the intellectual processes that make it possible to construct knowledge from order and make objects represent meaningful ideas. The unit ends by challenging much that it has proposed.

Unit 4 - Objects in lives

This module is concerned with the circulation of objects in society. It is a discussion which draws much from sociological and anthropological readings of human-object relationships, suggesting that museums should think beyond objects in disciplinary frameworks to also consider them as objects of material culture bound up in human relationships. The unit considers the biographical aspects of objects, their movement and valuing in acts of exchange and art, and other, worlds. It ends by considering the role of agency in the formation of meaning.

Unit 5 - Objects in museums

This unit considers many of the issues that surround the use of objects by museums. The unit addresses the agency of the interpreter and institutional collector, the inadequacy of the term ‘interpretation’ and collecting as appropriation. It considers the differences between evidence and representation before pursuing the essence of the object – its materiality – and considering the role of embodiment and the possibilities of wonder. The unit ends by discussing the meaning of authenticity and returning to an overview of the role of the museum in the material world.

Unit 6 - Museums and communities

Unit 6 continues a discussion of many of the issues raised in the previous units’ concern with material culture. It explores how museums involve communities through shared responsibility, consultation, and ownership of museums. This unit also introduces the political nature of museums, begins to explore issues of representation, and takes a closer look at the issue of repatriation - returning objects to their originating communities.

Unit 7 - Access, social responsibility and the inclusive museum

We will link ideas of the social role and responsibility of museums and the politics of representation to ideas about social inclusion and access prevalent in museums worldwide. This unit explores the way museums have been, and have been perceived as, exclusive organisations, and considers the challenges and opportunities for museums to break down existing barriers to access, engage with wider issues, agendas and agencies, and become more socially inclusive.

Unit 8 - Learning in the museum

We will explore the role of museums as learning environments. You will be introduced a set of ideas and beliefs about the museum that link closely with the way museums are forging relationships with their communities and visitors. This unit also sets up the theoretical underpinning of the course as a whole: that museum audiences are active in their own learning and meaning-making.

Unit 9 - Museums and the Web

We will examine the ways in which museums are engaging with new technologies. This unit considers the role of the website as marketing tool, as an alternative channel for public engagement and even as the basis for a museum in itself. The unit examines the Web as learning environment, as a localised, personalised and socialised medium, and ends by imagining the implications of the semantic web.

Unit 10 - Museum ethics

This unit brings our understanding of museums right up-to-date, considering the ethical and moral obligations and formal ethical codes of museums. This unit introduces some current ethical issues, and considers the meaning of accountability. It forms a logical ending point for the module as in many ways all the previous units hold potential for ethical reflection and action.


  • 225 hours of guided independent study


  • Essay, 1,500-2,000 words (67%)
  • Newspaper article, 2,500-3,000 words (33%)