Museums as Ritual Sites is both a celebration of and critical engagement with Carol Duncan’s seminal book Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (Routledge, 1995). Published over two decades ago, this book changed the way we understand the cultural role of museums.
In 2025 it will be thirty years since Duncan’s seminal Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums was published. This book offered a groundbreaking perspective on the functioning of western art museums, by analyzing these through the theoretical lens of ritual. Duncan’s ritual studies perspective offered a much-needed nuance to the (today still) popular trope of museums being the new churches. In doing so, she identified ritual scenarios as offered by various types of museums, ranging from national and municipal galleries to the donor memorial and modern art museums. The ritual scenarios Duncan identified predominantly concerned secular values and perceptions of progress, capitalism, nationalism, and gender.
Shifting Museum Landscape
In the twenty-first-century museum landscape, these museum types as well as values still have an important place. Yet, remarkable changes have occurred in the museum world itself and in the social roles museums have come to play. The ongoing debates about a new ICOM museum definition clearly signals these transformed expectations. Museum tasks are shifting from presentation to representation, from the formation of canonical narratives to the negotiation of histories and identities.
If we are to understand the ritual functioning of museums in the twenty-first-century, we need to include and simultaneously move beyond the institutional perspectives and agendas Duncan studied in her book. In full acknowledgement of Civilizing Rituals achievements, these also deserve to be reconsidered in the light of the past decades’ developments and future perspectives.
Crucial reconsiderations concern, but are not limited to:
1. the changing societal role – and societal or political demands – of museums;
2. visitor engagement with museums and visitor experience of exhibitions and displays;
3. how the museum world has become a globally operating world, urging cross-cultural scholarship that reaches beyond the formulation of a western perspective.
Such reconsiderations are encouraged, exchanged, and published in the project Museums as Ritual Sites, by bringing together interdisciplinary experts from across the globe that address the question: How do museums function as ritual sites today?
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