The MuseLab was created as a place to explore museality; it is a creative and collaborative space for thinking, doing, and learning about museal things. But what is museality, you say? Probably another made-up word from those crazy theoretically-minded academics, right? Well, you might be surprised to know that museality is a term that developed out of the study of museums themselves, not from any other discipline. It is, in fact, one of the few concepts that is home-grown to our field of museum studies. The concept has been used in European museum circles for several decades, but it is not yet in common usage amongst U.S. museum professionals. As it turns out, it is a very useful way to understand objects in a museum.
Here’s where it gets a bit academic (but have patience, it’s worth it). Museality refers to the characteristic of something that in one reality, documents another (Stransky, in Van Mensch, 1992), or the aspect of reality that we can only know through the presentation, organization, and/or categorization of the object. In other words, an object has been taken from some reality (for example, a house from the Plains Woodland culture, or the Brazilian rainforest) to document some represented reality in another context (in this case, a museum). The museality of the object exists because it stands as a witness to the time and social relations in which it originally existed. When something is musealized, it is transformed into a representation of something—some time, place, or person. Interestingly, this transformation is not limited to the museum context; we often see musealized things in many other contexts, such as antique malls, memorial sites, churches, and more. When it comes to the kinds of things that can be museal, there is no limit. From iconic objects, such as Abraham Lincoln’s hat, to everyday objects, like a generic rolling pin, the process of musealization can occur. Museality is directly linked to physicality. An object in a museum, then, is a carrier of this museality and is therefore called musealia.
In all of my museum studies courses, students learn and use this concept. It has become very important in helping them understand the unique position museums hold in today’s world. As a practitioner for over 25 years, I spent most of that time knowing what museal things were but never knowing they had a name. You know those moments when there is something you understand but can’t quite put words to it? With museal, we finally have the word. For me, finding the word opened up new ways of thinking about exhibit-making, collecting, and cataloging in the museum. And—this is exciting—although we can find museal things in other contexts, the museum is the only place where those things are collected systematically, organized and presented for us to enjoy and learn from.
Van Mensch, P. (1992). Towards a methodology of museology. PhD thesis, University of Zagreb, Croatia.