What is Museology and why study it at the Estonian Academy of Arts?
Museology is a research area that studies, analyses and explores the activities of museums: their history, their role in society, their practices of collection, preservation, research and display, and other activities and functions, as well as typologies and buildings of museums.
Every museum has a dual identity, one part of which is based on its existence as a museum and the other on what is preserved and exhibited there. An art museum is simultaneously a part of the museum world and the art field, and is in a slightly exceptional situation in both of these contexts. An art museum is distinguished from other museums (e.g. history and natural history museums) in terms of its contents, i.e. the specific nature of the artworks in its stewardship. In the art field – among many other exhibition venues – the peculiarities of an art museum stem from its specific format and operating mechanisms, with collection and acquisition being one of its core concerns. The Museology module is built on recognizing the dual nature of an art museum, and makes use of its potential, encompassing the wide-ranging field of the necessary practical skill and theoretical knowledge.
The boom in museums that started in the last decades of the 20th century has evolved in parallel with increasingly heated discourse on the topic of museums as well as criticism directed at them. Since the 1960s, the concept of museums as institutions that embody power, knowledge and authority, has been shaped largely by critical theory, which spawned the so-called ‘new museology’ in the 1980s. Unlike traditional museology, the new museology is based on the view that no object belonging to, or displayed in a museum collection is there for ‘objective’ reasons; rather, it is the result of someone’s subjective choice influenced by context. A museum does not store or present things ‘as they are’, instead it actively creates narratives with its own sources, causes and hidden agendas. The objective of new museology – and the Institute’s Museology module also relies on it – has been to simultaneously reappraise the undisputed authoritativeness of the museum and also to draw attention to the museum’s potential as a forum that can empower many different voices.
What and how do we teach?
During the first semester of the MA programme in Art History and Visual Culture, all students study together and receive introductory courses in art history, visual culture, semiotics, art sociology and (based on preference) the field of curatorial studies or museology. In the parallel Cultural Heritage and Conservation programme, the first, introductive semester is also taught in common to all students. In the second semester, students choose an area of specialization and focus on their own narrower speciality, but exploring tangents between different specializations is welcomed as well. The Museology module is divided into three parts, focusing on collection and preservation practices, museum education and communication, and preparation and implementation of an exhibition project. All stages of study include observing practical museum activities, learning about the operating mechanisms of the museum institution as a whole, and processing relevant literature and discussing it in seminars. In the final phase of study, the students plan and complete an exhibition project at a museum in Estonia. All semesters include visits to museums, with analysis of exhibitions, audience programmes etc., and during the programme, there are at least two trips abroad to art museums in other countries. A majority of the practical studies takes place at the Art Museum of Estonia, and the Tartu Art Museum, Museum of Estonian Architecture and the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design are also actively involved.
The master’s thesis in the Museology module may be a theoretical work that deals with a problem relating to art museums, or a practical work (an exhibition, an advanced education or audience programme, or a collection-based research project at an art, design or architecture museum) accompanied by a explanatory paper laying out the theoretical background.