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About Museum Studies

Field of Museum Studies

Museums Studies includes both the scholarly study of museums and the training of the people who work in them (e.g., collection managers, curators, educators, exhibition designers, facility managers, registrars, to name only a few). Hence, Museum Studies programs  provide students with conceptual tools to examine and evaluate the historic and contemporary roles of museums and their contributions to societies, and the practical information necessary to operate museums according to professional guidelines (e.g., in areas such as collections care, exhibition development, and educational and outreach programs).

Since the 1980s, museum scholarship has drawn heavily from the field of cultural studies and its interdisciplinary approaches to understand how visitors learn about themselves and the world around them within the “informal” setting of museums, as opposed to the “official” setting of schools. Through their studies, Museum Studies students are introduced to theoretical concepts and research methodologies from art history, anthropology, history, linguistics, literary studies, and continental philosophy, and taught to analyze the links between the daily practices of museums and the production of cultural knowledge by museums.

In recent years, museums have undergone significant changes. Along with shifts in collection care protocols, creation of interactive exhibitions, and development of substantial outreach programming, museums are rethinking their relationship and obligations to the communities represented in their collections. According to Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, museums are moving from being “sites of authority” for social elites to becoming “sites of mutuality” where everyone is putatively welcomed. Many museums are actively soliciting the views of social groups previously ignored or considered unimportant.  In the process, some have actively or inadvertently challenged widely held social practices and beliefs. In these instances, they have been at the frontlines of “culture wars,” becoming embattled sites over the role of public institutions, government funding, and diverse viewpoints. Museum Studies courses examine these ideological shifts and some of the theoretical and pragmatic issues that underlie them and how these shifts index larger global transformations in cultural institutions.

Museum Studies in Hawai‘i

The Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Hawai‘i offers students an opportunity to learn about museums, acquire professional experience, and develop research skills while earning a certificate. Currently housed in the Department of American Studies, it is the only official program in the state to offer formalized training for people interested in making a career in museums. The program is the result of a working partnership between the university, local museums, and the Hawai‘i Museums Association.

Through classes, field trips, guest speakers, workshops, and internships, the program offers a broad spectrum of practical and scholarly experiences for enrolled students. In addition to learning about the roles and responsibilities of museum professionals, students become familiar with the multiple challenges facing local, national, and international museums.

In Hawai‘i, many museums, historic homes, and cultural centers work closely with the multi-ethnic communities in the islands to document, display, and preserve immigrant histories, historic objects, and cultural practices. In addition, many cultural institutions consult with Native Hawaiian scholars, practitioners, and community leaders to develop exhibits that accurately and respectfully present Native Hawaiian perspectives. A few museums are involved in the repatriation process and the return of Native Hawaiian sacred and funerary objects guided by (and in certain instances going beyond) policies articulated in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). Museum Studies students in Hawai‘i are encouraged to situate and understand the concerns and criticisms voiced by Native Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples about museum practices within the larger contexts of colonial histories and indigenous struggles for political independence specific to a geographic space.

In Hawai‘i, there are over 90 museums and related places. Among the larger institutions are the Bishop Museum, with the world’s largest collections of Polynesian and scientific objects, and the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor. The latter, managed by the National Park Service, includes the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the islands, attracting over 1,500,000 annual visitors. The recently renovated Hawaiian Hall at Bishop Museum (2009), and the new exhibits at Pearl Harbor (2010), offer examples of innovatively designed displays and informative interpretive texts.  Bishop Museum now offers three floors of Native Hawaiian historic and modern objects presented from the perspective of Native Hawaiians. The Pearl Harbor exhibits are notable for depicting the “states of mind” of both the United States and Japan as a way of providing insights on the “road to war” and events that led to December 7th, 1941, when Japanese aircrafts bombed military installations on the Hawaiian island of O‘ahu.

The Honolulu Museum of Art (formerly the Honolulu Academy of Arts) is most widely-known for its large collections of Chinese and Japanese art.  In late 2011, the museum designated its Spalding House site (formerly The Contemporary Museum) as an experimental place where the curation of exhibitions is guided by the museum’s education department. This unique opportunity for the education staff supports and updates many of the mandates set forth by the American Association of Museums in its 1992 report, “Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums.”  Students who intern at Spalding House will be able to participate in and learn from the innovative exhibitions and programs planned for this space.

The King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center in downtown Honolulu is one of the smaller museums in Hawai‘i. Located in a historic building, school groups learn about citizenship and civic education by taking tours of the exhibition gallery, viewing films, and/or participating in mock-court trials presided over by local judges. One of center’s specialties is teacher training. In 2009 and 2011, public and private school teachers attended summer institutes on “The Constitution and Native Hawaiian Self-determination” and the “Challenges of American Citizenship for Native Peoples.” Sponsored by national and local organizations, teachers learned to develop interactive curricula around historic events and legal issues after attending a series of lectures by prominent Native and non-Native legal scholars, and presentations by national educators. Responding to questions about the effectiveness of the institutes, some teachers acknowledged that it “changed my life,” “changed the way I teach,” and “made me a more effective teacher.”

Lastly, the Waikīkī Aquarium and the Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden are vital institutions in Hawai‘i for their significance to visitors and the scientific community. Both are affiliated with the University of Hawai‘i and highly regarded for their displays of living collections unique to the Pacific, for conducting scientific research on species and problems in the region, and for promoting environmental awareness and sustainability practices through their educational and outreach programs.