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

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Journals and Databases
  • Collecting as Antecedent
  • The Beginnings of the Art Museum in 18th-Century Europe
  • Museums, Reform, and Cultural Distinction
  • Private Collections, Public Museums
  • Art History
  • Literature and Memory
  • Modern and Contemporary Art
  • New Approaches, New Territories

Art History Museums of Art in the West
Daniel J. Sherman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0045


Art museums, their antecedents, and, related exhibition spaces have produced texts of various kinds—catalogues, guidebooks, travel accounts—since their inception in Europe in the Early Modern period, and museums have been an important site of research since the beginnings of disciplinary art history in the 19th century. Courses of study aimed at museum professionals have also produced, over the past century, an abundant literature on the technical aspects of the various activities in which museums engage. But art museums have emerged as the object of sustained scholarly inquiry in their own right only since the 1980s. The scholarly study of art museums, moreover, is most fruitfully considered a subfield not only of art history, but also of an interdisciplinary field, critical museum studies. Contributions to this field come from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, literature, and sociology as well as art history. Critical museum studies focuses on the functions, practices, and ideology of museums in society, understanding these to be neither fully autonomous nor wholly derivative of social or political structures. While recognizing that different museum types, such as art museums, have distinct protocols and histories, scholars in critical museum studies have often looked to work on related museum types, such as history, natural history, and anthropology museums, for theoretical insight. Indeed, the role of institutions in constituting distinct categories of knowledge, and in delineating borders between them, has long been a significant area of inquiry in critical museum studies. As a contribution to Oxford Bibliographies in Art History, this article is not an introduction to the entire field of critical museum studies; it does not, for example, include works concerned solely with museums of science, history, or anthropology. The focus is on resources pertinent to the study of art museums within the parameters of art history, excluding primarily technical works (those related to conservation, for example). In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of scholarly research on the history of museums, however, the titles surveyed include many that are not limited to museums of art. For among the signal insights of critical museum studies is that questioning the boundaries of art history and its institutions is a productive way of bringing art history to the forefront of humanist inquiry. The overriding, but not exclusive, emphasis on museums in Europe and North America reflects both the way the study of art museums has developed and the contours of the field, though the rapid proliferation of art institutions in other parts of the world has spurred scholarship worthy of attention.

General Overviews

The texts in this section offer a number of starting points for the critical study and historiography of art museums. They share, either singly or in in combination (Thematic Collections), a concern with general or overarching problems that can frame or structure deeper exploration of art museums in society. The primary sources in the first section, Foundational Texts, include some of the earliest and most influential works to reflect on the purposes, functions, and possibilities of art museums as well as on their contradictions. The essays gathered under Theory and Method (including those brought together in books) exemplify, for the most part self-consciously, specific approaches that open up museums for scholarly inquiry from a number of disciplinary angles. The titles in Surveys have in common a broad chronological or geographical scope, which allows the authors and editors to highlight patterns and trends among and across institutional types and national borders. While often focusing on particular aspects of the histories and institutional dynamics of art museums, the books in Thematic Collections seek to demonstrate the importance of those aspects by also including a wide range of examples that together offer broad overviews.

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