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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures : Scottish Ethnology

Undergraduate Course: Museums and Cultural Representation: Nine Conversations at the National Museum of Scotland (SCET10038)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Literatures, Languages and Cultures CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 4 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis course looks closely at cultural representation in museums, what they display, to whom, and how. Students will first gain an understanding of how museums are organized and the concerns each department faces in terms of cultural representation. Then, they will embark on an exploration of the current critical issues facing museums as they represent cultures, both that of the communities in which they reside and other peoples'. Nowhere are these issues more palpable than in the National Museum of Scotland, with its large, varied, and historical collection, tasked with representing Scotland's relationship to the global world for a local and global audience. Using the galleries of the National Museum as guide and case study, we will examine how nine specific conversations in museology - capitalism, community, citizenship, technology, scientific norms, race, colonialism, ethnology, and memory - are constructed, negotiated and challenged in the museum.
Course description This course aims to explore the current thinking and issues in museology and heritage through a deep case study of the National Museum of Scotland. Museums have changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Where they once centred on the idea of 'great art' or providing research opportunities for scholars, museums have shifted their messaging, exhibit contents, and engagement with the public in line with other heritage institutions and organizations. They have also responded to changes in political engagement, accountability, and funding pressures. These shifts have required museums to confront their pasts while trying to protect their futures. Here, students will look at what those changes look like for a large, varied, national museum. In using the National Museum of Scotland as a case study, we can pair the scholarly discussion of museological issues with real world examples of the challenges faced by museums in addressing those issues.

While this course is situated in the specific context of heritage studies and museology, the issues we will address are ones faced by many disciplines and institutions at this moment, including governments as they write policy and academia itself.


The course consists of an introduction followed by a series of weeks that each discuss a different concern facing museums, paired with one or two galleries in the National Museum itself. This organization will allow for more current museology and heritage topics to be substituted in over time.

The course will begin with a broad introduction to the study of objects and museums and museum structure, to gain a better sense of the professional routes available in museums and to explore how a single concern might have different impacts in different professional contexts.

Following that introduction, the course will progress through a series of nine conversations, each focusing on a different current issue in museology and heritage. For example, the discussion of citizenship might explore the Kingdom of the Scots exhibit and consider the role of museums in defining and maintaining national culture for both citizens and tourists; scientific norms might look at how postcolonial discourse and climate change have led to a devaluation of natural history exhibits.

Students will be expected to read scholarly writing on each of the topics, visit the National Museum, and participate in weekly discussions in both larger and smaller groups. The course will be taught through a combination of lectures and discussion. Students will be expected to write a longer 3000-word essay that engages more deeply with one of the themes of the class or applies course ideas to a new setting. This longer essay will be the culminating assessment for the course and students should demonstrate their mastery of intended learning outcomes. They will also be asked to choose three portfolio items to complete from a list. These portfolio items will offer opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge of the topics discussed and apply that knowledge.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2022/23, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  25
Course Start Semester 2
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Seminar/Tutorial Hours 22, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 174 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) Course Essay of 2000 words - 40%

Portfolio of Three Items - 60% (20% presentation; 20% for each of two written portfolio items of 500 words)

Assessments will be graded on the extent to which the goals of each task have been met, as laid out in the instructions; the information provided is clear, accurate, and relevant; the student shows clear engagement with the ideas and materials of the course.
Feedback The portfolio assessments will be distributed throughout the semester to allow for students to receive feedback on each before they submit the next. This scheduling will allow students to learn from and build on previous work, culminating in the final essay. Because this course will utilize a combination of lecture and both led and small group discussion, feedback to ideas can be offered during class meetings.
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Demonstrate a knowledge of the organization structure of museums and how that structure impacts visitor experience and mission.
  2. Gain a critical awareness of the aims, objectives and practices of museums, with key reference to the National Museum of Scotland.
  3. Analyse current political and cultural issues impacting the presentation of heritage, museology and tourism.
  4. Show competence in cultural adaptability.
  5. Improve soft skills, such as critical evaluation of written texts, visual literacy, independent research, group discussion, oral presentation, time management.
Reading List
The National Museum of Scotland


Jeffrey Abt, "The Origin of the Public Museum," in A Companion to Museum Studies. Ed. Susan Macdonald. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 115-34.
Anderson, Gail, ed., Reinventing the Museum, Lanham: Alta Mira Press, 2012.Clifford, James, "Four Northwest Coast Museums", in Routes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Deetz, James, "In Small Things Forgotten", New York: Anchor, 1999.
Huyssen, Andreas, "Twilight Memories", London and New York: Routledge, 2012.
Johnson, Kirk. "The Feather Thief". London: Viking, 2018.
Karp, Ivan, "Exhibiting Cultures: The Politics and Poetics of Museum Display", New York and London: Penguin Random House, 1997.
Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, 'From Ethnography to Heritage: The Role the Museum', SIEF Keynote Adress, Marseilles, 28 April 2004.
Kopytoff, Igor, 'The Cultural Biography of Things', in The Social Biography of Things, ed. Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
MacGregor, Neill, A History of the World in 100 Objects, London: Penguin, 2012.
Rydell, Robert W, " 'Darkest Africa': African Shows at America's World's Fairs, 1893-1940", In Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business, Bernth Lindfors, ed., 135-155.
Proctor, Alice, The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It, London: Cassell, 2021.
Said, Edward, Orientalism, London: Penguin, 1978.


From the NMS blog:
'Concepts Have Teeth, And Teeth That Bite Through Time: digital imaging and Blackfoot material culture in UK museums'
'John J. Deas: Scotland's typewriter pioneer'
'The Roaring Game: Scotland's Curling Stone Island'
'Trade, Taste, and Tea Bowls: uncovering Chinese ceramics in our collection'
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills At a pragmatic level, this course encourages the development of:
- close reading and analysis,
- visual and digital literacy,
- clear written and verbal communication,
- self-awareness and reflection
- ethical and social responsibility
- independent learning
- planning and organization
- decision making
- and group work.

At a deeper level, this course is designed to:
- help students learn to think more critically, particularly in those spaces like museums where it can be tempting to look primarily at the surface presentation.
- better analyse how cultural and political issues can impact cultural representation and policy and explore the possible implications of those decisions.
Importantly, this course will foster students' cultural adaptability, increasing their understanding of how they are shaped by their own culture and being able to use that knowledge to communicate more effectively with others.
KeywordsMuseums,Museology,Heritage,Scotland,Context,History,Colonialism,Tourism,Cultural Representation
Course organiserDr Willow Mullins
Course secretaryMrs Vivien MacNish Porter
Tel: (0131 6)50 3528
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