What does a museum think it is? Research and practice at the intersection of knowledge, interpretation and organisation

  • Miriam Leila Victoria Mallalieu

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


There is substantial literature on how museums make visible dominant historical narratives. The structures of history proposed through display and interpretation in museums are traditionally designed to instil hierarchies, a sense of progression, capitalist/imperial power structures and enact disciplinary power mechanisms. Less well investigated are the processes that occur prior to display and interpretation. I argue that there is something significant to be learned from looking smaller, that the conventions of choice, record keeping and other processes dictate how museums function in relation to theory and knowledge production.

What I am seeking to understand in the body of this research is the political rationality of the private space of the museum: the rationality relating to the producers of knowledge, rather than the passive consumers. It is not enough to assume that the private mechanisms function only to allow the public interface, but rather that we can learn through the objects and collections themselves to determine what (else) a museum is, and how objects can be understood in a collection, through examining the processes by which knowledge is formed: the arrangement of objects, their selection, their documentation and their analysis.

From these processes, it is possible to begin to understand the limitations of trying to make sense of these objects: how their identification, storage and conservation begin to determine the boundaries of how they can be interpreted. Crucially, by focussing on processes rather than outcomes, this approach removes the limitations of application of this research. The museum is just one structure in which material and knowledge are bound and although it remains the primary site of enquiry, the scope of this research extends, in principle, far more broadly.

I research the museum to explore the points of limitation and predetermination of knowledge: it has exceptions, anomalies and inconsistencies; within the museum there is material that disrupts the structures by which it is understood. By drawing attention to the moments of disruption and discrepancy, the structure by which things are interpreted are exposed and challenged, and inferences can be drawn that are much wider than the boundaries of the museum itself.

Instead of looking at the way that collections of artefacts in museums contribute to wide discourses of power and history, I focus on how objects are treated and how they are recorded (into systems, using words as codes which may or may not signify, and how they are photographed in certain ways).

My research is based at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, where I have been working as the Exhibitions and Interpretation Officer since just prior to my research starting. Perth Museum holds an encyclopaedic collection, accredited as a Recognised Collection of National Significance. Crucially, it is a site that I can navigate as an ‘insider’, without disrupting the private/public boundary and entering as an external critic. It is a site in which I have been allowed to browse, to listen, to touch and to dwell without focus. It is a site of my slow, speculative and reflective research, and one that is inaccessible to external researchers.

The research undertaken in this thesis is predominantly through practice, using artwork and writing as interpretative processes. I have collected, sorted, drawn, documented, reflected and compiled a record of research that is contained within this thesis. Cumulatively, this research explores what is happening when an object is treated as a record of something (whether history, idea, event etc.); how that record acts in relation to the object; and, how the record can become an object in itself, susceptible to the same processes of interpretation and manipulation as the original object. In this sense, an emergent new hermeneutics of objects and collections is proposed.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorMary Modeen (Supervisor), Dominic Smith (Supervisor) & Paul Harrison (Supervisor)


  • Practice-led research
  • Museum
  • Hermeneutics
  • knowledge
  • interpretation
  • organisation
  • Practice-based research

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