Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum

Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum

Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum

Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum


Re-Imagining the Museum presents new interpretations of museum history and contemporary museum practices.Through a range of case studies from the UK, North America and Australia, Andrea Witcomb moves away from the idea that museums are always 'conservative' to suggest they have a long history of engaging with popular culture and addressing a variety of audiences. She argues that museums are key mediators between high and popular culture and between government, media practitioners, cultural policy-makers and museums professionals.Analyzing links between museums and the media, looking at the role of museums in cities and discussing the effects on museums of cultural policies, Re-Imagining the Museum presents a vital tool in the study of museum practice.


The last ten years or so have seen a heated debate between those who argue that museums need to change and those who defend its traditional practices. Often, this debate has been sparked by the development of a number of new and refurbished museums around the Western world. In Australia, where I wrote this book, it has been evident over the opening of the refurbished Museum of Victoria in Melbourne in late 2000 and the opening of the new National Museum of Australia in Canberra in March 2001. Often aggressive in tone, the debate has raised issues on the nature of historical interpretation and questioned the clear orientation of these museums towards market forces, their use of multimedia and attempts to engage with popular culture. Here I want to relate only one such exchange in order to set the scene for this book.

In mid-2001, The Australian newspaper staged a public exchange between Dawn Casey and Tim Flannery, directors of the National Museum of Australia and the Museum of South Australia respectively. The debate began with a report quoting Tim Flannery (in DiGirolamo 2001) on the emergence of the 'super museum' - marked by the use of multimedia and other populist strategies for attracting new audiences. For Flannery, their emergence threatened the traditional responsibility of museums to undertake serious research on their collections. It also undermined the museums' distinctiveness from other cultural institutions and the entertainment industry: 'Australia has spent $500 million in the past year on state-of-the-art, multimedia museums in Canberra and Melbourne that try to compete with amusement parks at the expense of research and artefacts' (in DiGirolamo 2001). The 'super museum' was clearly, for Flannery, an opposite of the kind of museum he himself directs. The Museum of South Australia holds one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of indigenous Australian material culture and bases its identity on scholarly research and traditional exhibitions.

Dawn Casey wrote a stinging reply in which she suggested that Flannery's view was the sort of view that held museums back:

Flannery seems to prefer the old-style museum which invites people to admire serried ranks of boomerangs, rocks or stuffed birds. That's fine; there is plenty of room for diversity in museum practice and no single best

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