In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy of Museums

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews, Collections
  • Museum Ethics
  • Holocaust Museums
  • Museums and Philosophical Aesthetics
  • The Philosophy of Museum Practice
  • Museums and the Philosophy of Education
  • Related Collections
  • Other Disciplinary Connections

Anthropology Philosophy of Museums
Victoria S. Harrison, Philip Tonner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0241


Museums and their practices of collection, curation, and exhibition raise a host of philosophical questions. The philosophy of museums is a relatively new and growing subdiscipline within the academic field of philosophy. While only recently taking shape as a distinct area, this subdiscipline builds upon a tradition of interest in museums that has been taken up by prominent philosophers, such as Theodor Adorno (Prisms 1967) and Michel Foucault (Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology 1998). Philosophers active in the philosophy of museums are less concerned with intra-disciplinary differences (between, e.g., “continental philosophy” and “analytic philosophy” and their recent permutations) than they are with thinking about the museum on its own terms as a phenomenon calling for philosophical engagement. Indeed, as Beth Lord put it, the basic conviction among scholars in this area is that “philosophy can help us to think about museums, [and] . . . that museums can contribute to philosophical thinking” (Philosophy and the museum. Museum Management and Curatorship 21.2 (2006): 80). As such, the promise of the philosophy of museums is that, despite it being a subfield of a larger discipline, it will enable a fresh look at its parent discipline while also prompting the development of new perspectives on more traditional philosophical questions. Philosophical approaches will also help us to understand museums and their objects in myriad new ways, as this emerging discipline within the broad church of philosophy matures over the coming years. Although many of the philosophical questions raised by museums are ethical, the philosophy of museums goes beyond the confines of any single established area of philosophy, such as ethics, aesthetics, or metaphysics. Work within the philosophy of museums thus now ranges over themes such as philosophical museology, the epistemological and ethical dimension of humanity and social life, culture, and religion, as well as those more directly connected to issues arising from museum practices of curation, conservation, and exhibition. The philosophy of museums is not entirely independent of scholarship within the field of museum studies, therefore, this article makes reference not only to works that are philosophical in a narrow sense but also to work of philosophical interest within museum studies and more occasionally to scholarship within other disciplines such as anthropology and history.

General Overviews, Collections

Two collections, both based on conferences held at Scottish universities in 2005 and 2013 respectively, provide an overview of philosophical engagements with museums and their objects in the first two decades of the 21st century. The collections, separated by a decade, are Lord 2006a and Harrison, et al. 2016. Lord 2006b set an initial agenda for the developing field of the philosophy of museums. A more comprehensive agenda, targeted at a philosophical audience, was provided in the period between the two conferences by Gaskell 2012a and Gaskell 2012b.

  • Gaskell, Ivan. 2012a. Museums and philosophy—of art, and many other things, Part I. Philosophy Compass 7.2: 74–84.

    Part I of a two-part article providing an overview of some of the ways philosophers have engaged with museums. Gaskell’s analysis falls under the following headings: cultural variety, taxonomy, epistemology. Available online by subscription.

  • Gaskell, Ivan. 2012b. Museums and philosophy—of art, and many other things Part II. Philosophy Compass 7.2: 85–102.

    In the second article of a series of two, Gaskell considers philosophical engagements with museums and their objects under the headings: teleology, ethics, therapeutics, and aesthetics. Available online by subscription.

  • Harrison, Victoria S., Anna Bergqvist, and Gary Kemp, eds. 2016. Philosophy and museums: Essays in the philosophy of museums. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The first collection of essays under the banner of the philosophy of museums and the most comprehensive introduction to the range of topics covered by the subject. Essays cover a wide variety of issues concerning museums, from developments in museum epistemology to specific aspects of the core museum practice of collection, curation, and exhibition. Also published as the Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 79 (2016). Available online by subscription.

  • Lord, Beth, ed. 2006a. Special issue: Philosophy and the museum. Museum Management and Curatorship 21.2.

    The special issue contains six articles covering interrelated themes from the perspectives of philosophy and museology. Available online by subscription.

  • Lord, Beth. 2006b. Philosophy and the museum: An introduction to the special issue. Museum Management and Curatorship 21.2: 79–87.

    DOI: 10.1080/09647770600102102

    A brief but useful introduction to some ways of thinking about the intersection of philosophy and museums, providing a brief description of papers in the special issue of Museum Management and Curatorship on philosophy and the museum. Available online by subscription.

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