Engaging curators: curator perspectives on audiences and developing postcolonial ethics in the small museum

Sutherland, J (2022) Engaging curators: curator perspectives on audiences and developing postcolonial ethics in the small museum. PhD thesis, Bath Spa University.

Repository Terms Apply.

Download (2MB) | Preview


The roots of UK museum traditions have been identified and exposed through museological scholarship and practice and have been subject to developing postcolonial and decolonial critiques over the past fifty years: museums are primed for revisiting themselves and rethinking how they respond to twenty-first century concerns. This study investigates how the curators of small museums in the South West of England are navigating their obligations towards a postcolonial public. Set against a backdrop of conflicting views from sector discourse and guidance, the pressures and expectations for museum professionals to meet audience-related demands are increasingly complex. Shedding light on how curators, whose decisions are often seen as representing a museum's voice of authority (Chandler, 2009; Procopio, 2019), the thesis examines how some curators are navigating their responsibilities in small museums in a regional context and provides a discussion of the internal and external factors contributing to their respective approaches to practice. Scholarship regarding small museum practices in the UK is scarce, therefore this study supports the development of curatorial work and research for, and about, small museums. After observing the trajectory of museum studies literature and a noticeable 'turn' in attention in scholarship towards the social impact in museum displays, the study provides a discussion of the ways in which museological developments relate to theories located in postcolonialism. This research thus sits within an emerging area of discourse, following postcolonial theory and pushing beyond new museology. In this space, literary theory, museum criticism, historic traditions and contemporary debate collide, revealing the tensions between traditional and contemporary audience engagement concerns in curatorial practice, in the words of curators. Through qualitative interviews and grounded theory methods, the study adopts postcolonial theory as an interpretive framework to interrogate and analyse how the curators operate their choice and control in an environment replete with nuanced dynamics of power, hierarchy, expectations, and limitations. Theoretical models are presented to 'map' the interpreted behaviours, experiences and curatorial approaches identified and demonstrate the impact of perceptions, influences and museological traditions on practical, curatorial, approaches to audiences. The models, such as the 'Spectrum of Curatorial Practice', are presented as the result of 'aggregated hypotheses' based on the qualitative data generated (Glaser and Strauss, 1965) and are positioned within the context of an emerging paradigm of museum practices and museological discourse observed at the time of this study. As a result, this research provides a discussion of the complicated relationships involved with individuals, objects, custodians, society, knowledge, ethics in curating, and the manifestations of 'race' within such dynamics and identifies a need for change in both internal and external perceptions of museum curatorial practice and its functions. In additional to highlighting the restraints some curators experience concerning audience-related practices, it further examines how-and whether-small museum curators can respond to contemporary museum contexts through taking opportunities to support post-and de-colonial developments in curatorial practice. The 'Engaging Curators' study contributes to furthering our understanding of the ways cultural organisations, such as small museums, and their decision-makers, such as curators, in peripheral areas of the West are responding to a postcolonial world, and explores how contemporary social concerns, old assumptions and inherited notions continue to leave physical and metaphysical marks. Finally, through engaging with postcolonial scholarship and by navigating concepts of minority research and diasporic history in England, this research recognises the potential for developing more social, ethically engaged, and 'racially reflexive' curatorial practices.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: curatorial practice, museum studies, museum curators, cultural organisations, south west England, postcolonialism, postcolonial theory, decolonisation, user experience, social issues, ethical issues, qualitative research, interviews, grounded theory
Divisions: Bath School of Art, Film and Media
Identification Number: https://doi.org/10.17870/bathspa.00015028
Date Deposited: 17 Oct 2022 14:26
Last Modified: 21 Apr 2023 12:59
URI / Page ID: https://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/id/eprint/15028
Request a change to this item or report an issue Request a change to this item or report an issue
Update item (repository staff only) Update item (repository staff only)