Essays Old and New #1

I am planning, in a series of posts to edit down some of the essays that I submitted for my two archaeology degrees for a more general audience. I think that many of the topics covered will be of interest to you all. I have attempted to remove jargon and keep references down to a minimum. Feedback on this idea for a series of posts is welcome.

This is the first of those, an essay from my MA: The topic was on the pressures on material culture studies in modern museums, there were many more pressures mentioned in my submitted essay but this short version covers what I believe to be the most pertinant:

Discuss how the changing roles of museums and other curatorial bodies in the UK has provided both opportunities and hindrances to material culture studies in the last ten years.

UK Museums in the last twenty years have been under increasing pressure from multiple external agencies. This is in part because of an increasing need to prove that they are worth funding and in part because of new government policies that aim to increase social inclusion through museums. These two pressures are the main reasons that the responsibilities of curators and their studies of the material culture under their care have changed. In this blog post/essay I will refer only to archaeological examples but that does not make the conclusions drawn any less relevant to the rest of the museum sector although different types of museum will have their own subtleties.  

One of the few arenas for the public to experience ‘real’ interactions with past material culture is in museums. Museums articulate and challenge preconceptions of the history and identity of a nation, society or culture and their central use of objects differentiates museums from all other institutions (Kavanagh 1989: 125). This means that ‘History museums’ must move with the theoretical changes in material culture studies or risk being intellectually outdated (Kavanagh 1989: 135).  


The first change affecting the role of the museum is financial. Museums have never been a statutory service in the UK and as such are the first to have to justify any public funding they receive. This is not an issue for the national museums run by charitable trusts such as the British Museum. Local Authority Museums, however, are usually run directly by the council in whose jurisdiction they are located and thus have to account for their budgets to government. This need to justify public income has led to an increase in ‘Museum managers’; people whose job is solely to create a museum that can prove that it is value for money. This focus is somewhat in conflict with the traditional role of curators. It makes the study, preservation and presentation of the past somewhat incidental. It has also led to market ideology becoming more and more central to the running of local authority museums in the UK (Lawley 2003: 75).  

The modern museum focuses on the visitor first, and some go as far as to consider these people to be customers. A seemingly minor semantic shift that entirely changes the nature of the relationship; visitors come to view the museum, customers come to receive a service or product from the museum. The fact that this product is possibly knowledge rather than a tangible object (gift shops notwithstanding) does not alter the fact that the customer not the objects must come first in this conception of a museum. Further the need to demonstrate that culture can be value for money is problematic because individual interaction with museums is incredibly complex to model and assess (Mason 2004: 49-73).  


One part of widening access to museums is what might be termed popularisation, leading to galleries and exhibitions being designed based on a supposed customer experience. This approach is problematic due to a lack of understanding of that visitor/customer experience. However, most museum services recognise that a large gap exists in the market to popularise archaeology and that museums should be filing it; it is currently filled by journalists and fiction writers in various mediums (Skeates 2000: 112). This tactic appears to work to increase visitor numbers; the number of museums in the UK was increasing year on year until the year 2000 (Foley and McPherson 2000: 164). However it cannot be ignored that there is a gap between the purposes of museums for the curator and the museum visitor.

Social Inclusion

Another aspect of widening access to museums is the increasing trend towards socially conscious museum management. This is a little difficult to define but most commentators seem to agree that it includes using the material culture in museums “for both reading the past and reading ourselves” (Crowther 1989: 44). Most people find their interaction with the past rewarding when objects are presented in their own setting or in reconstructions and ideally linked to their own identity on some level.  Object interpretation should illuminate the role of that artefact in the ‘operation of society’ both its original society and also others it has come into contact with. Thus museums need to acknowledge the multi-voiced narratives of the past, something that can be difficult when the major museums in European cities tend to show deep discomfort with imperialist aspects of their own heritage.  

The UK government in 2000 set out social inclusion as a policy applying to the all museums under local government control, although many commentators claimed that most museums already had social inclusion high on their priorities (Lawley 2003: 82). Some writers think that initiatives emphasising social inclusion in museums are patronising and compromise the future of, museums in Britain. Others think that social inclusion is empowering . Whichever is true the museum collection was no longer the central function of the museum (Edwards 2007: 101). It had been replaced with a visitor focus, and the need to promote social responsibility and education in museum environments. Thus a focus on non-elite, everyday material culture is encouraged as it is thought that this is more likely to engage more sections of society. This aspect of the changing roles of museums in recent years is, interestingly, the one that has provided the most opportunities for material culture studies as the need to think pluralistically about cultures and the objects that they created inevitably leads to in-depth interpretations of that material culture.


This post has been necessarily broad as there are many issues relating to material culture studies in museums, especially in the volatile environment of uncertain funding and increased governmental pressure to justify services. The social inclusion agenda of government gives great opportunities through the analysis of material to represent the multi-voiced narratives of the past and thus the multi-cultural present state of the community likely to view the collection. Museums can enhance social inclusion and they have the potential to promote tolerance and challenge stereotypes. Financial pressures however have made the role of the curator, the material culture specialist, expand into new areas. There is now a need to be a manager and an analyst of visitor reactions and interactions with the displays under curatorial care. This has made material interpretation a smaller part of the job, perhaps restricting the expansion of material culture studies in museums. However, the success of overtly object focused projects such as the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ (BBC 2014) shows that there is still visitor interest in the insights that material culture studies in museums can provide.


BBC (2014) A History of the World: The 100 British Museum Objects. [Accessed: 17/05/2015].

Crowther, D. (1989) ‘Archaeology, Material Culture and Museums’ in Pearce, S.M. (ed.) Museum Studies in Material Culture: 35-46. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Edwards, E.C. (2007) ‘The Future for Curators’, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology S1: 98-114.

Foley, M. and McPherson, G. (2000) ‘Museums as Leisure’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 6(2): 161-174.

Kavanagh, G. (1989) ‘Objects as Evidence, or Not?’ in Pearce, S.M. (ed.) Museum Studies in Material Culture: 125-137. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Lawley, I. (2003) ‘Local authority museums and the modernizing government agenda in England’, Museum and Society 1(2): 75-86.

Mason, R. (2004) ‘Conflict and Complement: An Exploration of the Discourses Informing the Concept of the Socially Inclusive Museum in Contemporary Britain’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 10(1): 49-73.

Skeates, R. (2000) Debating the Archaeological Heritage. London: Duckworth.