In addition to this website, the Museums as Ritual Sites project will also bring forth an edited volume. This volume is now under contract with Routledge’s Museum Studies series – the series in which Carol Duncan’s book was also published in 1995! The volume is anticipated to be published by early 2024.

The volume Museums as Ritual Sites: Civilizing Rituals Reconsidered offers a substantial contribution to the understanding of how contemporary museums function as liminal zones in contemporary societal contexts. In celebration and critical engagement with Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (Routledge 1995), the volume brings together a diverse group of interdisciplinary scholars and curators. While the thirtieth anniversary of Duncan’s publication is approaching, it is remarkable that only a handful of book publications have directly interrogated and advanced her groundbreaking analysis of art museums as ritual sites. Duncan’s book has seen a continuously steady sale since its publication, is widely used in college teaching, and has been cited more than 2100 times.[1]

Since Duncan’s landmark book, the museum world has experienced a ‘paradigm shift’ (Anderson 2012) beginning in the late 1990s. The extended debates about a new ICOM museum definition since 2019 exemplify this shift. Museum tasks are shifting from presentation to representation, from the formation of canonical narratives to the (re)negotiation of histories and identities. They have become sites aiming to engage social justice, equality, and diversity as paramount values. This raises a multitude of questions. How does the ritual nature of museums relate to these significant changes? How does the set-apart, liminal character of museums coincide with their increasing societal orientation? And how does it balance commitments to curation and preservation with these more recent, socially-oriented activities? Does this shift impact fundamental museum responsibilities, such as collection and education? And what about the ways in which diverse publics engage with museums? Can the ritually set-apart site of the museum become inclusive through methods of participation and commemoration?

Museums as Ritual Sites critically examines the assumption that museums inherently function as ritual sites and, in turn, are poised to exert influence on cultural and societal change. Throughout the volume, the approach to ritual is grounded in the notion of liminality. The collection of chapters presents a wide-ranging exploration of how museums function as liminal zones in broader societal contexts. This exploration consists of a range of analyses of liminal dimensions, such as set-apartness, sacralization, and dynamics of in- and exclusion. The case studies collected in this volume explore efforts of engagement with local, indigenous, and minority communities, which demonstrate both the complexities and potential of the museum’s rituality. Simultaneously, museums still try to make grand gestures and formulate major (counter) narratives. How do these two types of efforts relate to one another?

The volume presents newly researched contributions from fifteen scholars, both early career and senior, and curators from seven countries that cover four continents. In addition to a wider geographic scope, the volume expands on Duncan’s strict discussion of art museums to consider museums of history, ethnography, religion, and museums as sites of commemoration. As such it covers a wider variety of ritualized museum forms and their societal implications.

[1] This figure comes from a Google Scholar search on May 5, 2021.

%d bloggers like this: