Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module HIST46030: An Exhibitionary Complex: Museums, Collecting, and the Historical Imagination

Department: History

HIST46030: An Exhibitionary Complex: Museums, Collecting, and the Historical Imagination

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2019/20 Module Cap None.


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Excluded Combination of Modules

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  • To help students develop an understanding of how and why museums grew as institutions over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and how they intersect with modes of collecting, categorizing, and experiencing objects in the modern era
  • To help students develop a deep engagement with the ways in which museums have contributed to a sense of historical time and the creation of cultural difference, and to what extent that maps onto the history of institutions in Durham and the Northeast


  • With a lineage traced to ancient Alexandria and the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ of early modern Europe, the museum as an institution proved integral to emerging concepts of nationhood during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The museum model then expanded rapidly over the course of the long 19th century in tandem with industrialization, colonialism, and imperialism – intersecting as it did so with both novel and earlier modes of collecting and categorizing art and artefacts, the natural world, and human cultures. Museums were not places merely to see (and be seen), but institutions that actively shaped understandings of the historical past and its relationship to the present. Between the late 19th century and the interwar period, that present was one in which ideas about the relationship between nature and culture, and about human and cultural difference, were a prominent concern – ideas that museums and their collections played a key role in formulating, materializing, and validating.
  • This module takes Tony Bennett’s concept of ‘the exhibitionary complex’ as the starting point for considering the development of museums over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. It will equip students with an understanding of the earlier history of museums and some of the key debates and methodologies in museum studies. The module focuses on British institutions through a global lens, by considering how collecting, curating, and visiting practices were tied to colonial and imperial spheres of influence. Colonial ways of being, seeing, and thinking were thus integral to creating a historical imagination of recent and distant pasts.
  • The module introduces students to the kinds of historiographic resources museums and their own institutional archives offer, as well as other kinds of primary sources – annual reports, sales and exhibition catalogues, media coverage, publications by professional bodies – that can form the basis of research on the history of museums and collecting. Students will also develop a critical awareness of the role museums continue to play as mediators of public history and other forms of knowledge.
  • Different kinds of museums and collecting activities provide the focus for weekly seminars, to include the decorative arts and design (South Kensington Museum/V&A), archaeology and anthropology (the British Museum, Manchester Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum), and natural history (Natural History Museum, London; University Museum, Oxford). Seminars will also look at museums in Egypt and India, to evaluate what, if anything, changed in exporting the museum model from its (presumed) European origins to a colonial environs. From the global to the local, and back again, students will also have the opportunity to investigate the history of museums in Durham and the Northeast, and to weigh up how – and whether – museums today are using their own histories to address contemporary challenges.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • To acquire a broad knowledge of the history of the museum as a public institution, from its roots in the early modern era to its period of expansion in long 19th century;
  • To relate the growth of museums to concurrent socioeconomic and political trends, in particular industrialization, colonialism and imperialism, and the gradual establishment of disciplinary specialisms;
  • To explain the public role envisioned for museums by their founders and curators, and compare it to the impact of museums on their visitors from the 19th century to today;
  • To understand the theoretical literature which has grown up around museums and the creation of knowledge, including postcolonial perspectives.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • To recognize and historicize the different kinds of museums that developed over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries;
  • To synthesize theoretical literature in museum studies with historical research on specific museums and collecting practices;
  • To link developments in the museum field in Britain with a global context, specifically the colonial and imperial networks through which collections were formed and knowledge created.
Key Skills:
  • To acquire the confidence to undertake their own research into the history of collecting and museums;
  • To develop appropriate skills of analysis and interpretation for a range of primary sources, including museum architecture and display, archives, and collections;
  • To evaluate the implications of the different methodologies scholars have used to interrogate the history of museums;
  • To interrogate the link between museum and collecting histories and contemporary debates, such as the ownership of objects and the representation (or under-representation) of different groups, identities, and historical themes.
  • http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Classes will be taught through a mix of short lectures, seminar discussion, student presentations, and field-trips to relevant collections

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 8 Weekly in Term 2 2 16
Museum Visits 2 2 visits in Term 2 2 4
Independent Preparation 280
Total 30

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words, including footnotes and legends of illustrations but excluding bibliography, table of contents and abbreviations 100%

Formative Assessment:

20 minute oral presentation and 2000 word source commentary submitted in Term 2.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University