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Museums Thought Constitutionally: Opening the Inquiry

Page history last edited by Helen Graham 3 years, 2 months ago

Museums Thought Constitutionally: Opening the Inquiry

Helen Graham

May 2021


This is an opening piece for Deconstituting Museums. This piece will be developed over the early summer of 2021 into three longer chapters, better situating, deepening and extending the arguments summarized here. It is published on the Liquid Books wiki as ‘free content’ which means it is open for use and editing, as well as comments.


Of course, this is too simple. Too clean. Too bright. Too sharp. Simplifications always carry dangers. But there have been significant dangers in not making visible the political logics of museums. There have political costs to not seeing within the complexity, the embroilment, the ambivalences and on flow of practice the loops of logic that are at work in museums seeking their legitimacy.[i]  


We need to ‘force a reading’ of the museum.[ii] Wrestle from its messy everyday something like its basic structure. Something we might think of as being the constitution of museums, how they establish themselves and by what system of principles. This is a throwing of the normative architecture of museums into hyper relief. It allows us to see something clearly, maybe too clearly. It also requires us to carry the weight of what is then thrown into the dark, even if this darker shadow produced by over-illumination is cast only temporarily.


Below is a constitutional sketch for museums that have collections. It can be objected that not all museums have collections, but those that don’t are freer of this constitution. It is through the concept of things as objects and objects as requiring of protection and preservation that a museum constitution has been raised.[iii] It is this I am interested in here.


The Museum Constitution

Let’s start with the core of the constitution.


Museums conserve objects for future generations.

Museums make objects accessible for everyone now.


Every one of these words has been subject to significant debate, but let’s say for the moment that this basic structure is at work in most museums.


This basic constitution of conservation and access is constitutionally defined – as in the sentence structures above – through a set of constituencies: future generations and everyone.


‘Future generations’ is generally in operation in all museums, the not-yet born to which we owe some kind of duty.


‘Everyone’ varies. Sometimes it is defined very widely – ‘for everyone’, for the nation, for society, for humanity[iv] – and sometimes it is focused on everyone in a locality and in practice it is often broken down into demographics. Yet still there remains a group of people, alive now, who are an imagined totality.[v] Both ‘future generations’ and ‘everyone’ are expansive constituencies, impossible to know, too abstract to be real or specific people. They don’t, in effect, exist. The result of this is that ‘future generations’ and ‘everyone’ need to be represented.[vi]


It is the need for the interests of these expansive imagined constituencies to be represented that produces the role of professionals. Professionals need to manage the collections on behalf of future generations and everyone now. Through a concept of stewardship, they seek to balance out the competing interests of these two constituencies.[vii]


Very often in museum the responsibility to speak on behalf of the two constituencies are distributed to different types of professional roles. With conservation and curatorial teams holding ‘future generations’ and learning and exhibition teams holding ‘everyone now’. The constitution is therefore an enshrinement of a tension – a conflict of interest – that has to be endlessly negotiated as part of everyday work. The question of what and who the museum is for – an existential question – is at play in every meeting and every decision.


The museum constitution is therefore representational in a political sense. Professionals hold authority to represent and determine the interests of the constituencies of future generations and everyone now.


To this very basic structure we need to add another element.


          Museums represent the world


Like ‘everyone’, the ‘world’ also varies. For some museums this is their local area or a specific topic. For other museums it is precisely the ‘world’ which is evoked. In all cases there is a worlding, a sense of something outside the museum that can be better understood through a series of techniques of representation on the inside.


Every object is both treated as singular yet is also collected for its representational capacity, for its potential to stand in for something else; a person, a period of history, an event or other similar things.


The Museum Constitutional is therefore representational in an epistemological sense.


The two types of representation come together in the responsibility of professionals to make choices about what to collect and what to display. They make those decisions about what can stand in for the world on behalf of the expansive imaginaries of future generations, everyone and the world.[viii]


This where we are so far. The Museum Constitution creates a resource – ‘objects’ – that are in need of protection, preservation, conservation. It creates imagined constituencies with conflicting interested. It creates a requirement to represent an equally expansive constituency. Through this potent material-conceptual mix the authority of the professional is established. Having established this internally consistent, balanced and antagonistic constitution, the representational political work of professionals is to negotiate conservation, access and representation.


What you might notice about the Museum Constitution is it is self-authorising in its representational legitimacy. It is through mobilisation of objects, future generations, everyone and the world that museum authority is secured.


The Museum Constitution: A representational political ontology

Before we look at its weaknesses, the points where the Museum Constitution has proven less robust and open to unravelling, let’s consider this political structure ontologically. By which I mean, let’s consider the Museum Constitution in terms of its theory of what there is in the world.


The Museum Constitution is based on very clear ontological distinctions between:


people and things

past, present and future

inside and outside


These are the entities which keep the Museum Constitution in place.[ix]


At the core of this ontology are things which are transformed through museum processes into objects. It is crucial that these objects are in danger.[x] The have to be fragile. They have to be in need of care. In economic terms they have to be ‘rival’. Use by one needs to preclude use by another.


It is because there are objects which need protection and because a zero-sum conflict of interest is set up between future generations and everyone now that the museum is needed. Because of this, objects need to be taken inside. Brought within the walls and behind doors. Doors that will open everyday but also close, safe and tight, every night.


Time helps here too. If time is an arrow, ‘a racetrack or a street’ (Morton 2013: 29) where the past is complete and the future is yet to come then neither the past and future are directly accessible. This secures the agency of the museum professional who can, through their expertise and the responsibilities they assume, conjure up and speak on behalf of the past or future. As a result, at any point, past or future generations can be enrolled to populate and expand the world enough to constrain the agency of people alive and near now. Museum time is its own ‘spacetime’ (Barad 2010, p.140).[xi] An inside outside of the on flow of life and a present that relies on active foreclosure of the past and the future.


Objects – now firmly on the inside of the museum – can then be made to do representational work from the epistemological perspective already introduced. Objects are held apart in a new space and a new time so they can stand in for other things, people and happenings outside.


The Constitutional Weaknesses of the Museum Constitution

The Museum Constitution is an internally consistent loop. It is cleverly populated with different entities which are assigned different interests in order that authority always flows back to the museum. It sets up a tension so that museums can claim legitimacy through negotiating that tension.


Yet there are flaws in the loops of logic set up by the Museum Constitution. The Museum Constitution is never perfectly lived. All the ‘yes, buts’ you might have thought as you read my constitutional outline are valid. Museums always have more greys, more colours, more variants than the sketch above allows. However, one dimension of this imperfection is a constitutional imperfection.


The self-authorising nature of museum professionalism is a generic trait of professionalism based in the self-regulatory tradition of the professions. Yet the other part of this self-authorisation has a specific museum flavour and is based, as described above, through the very conjuring of expansive constituencies (future generations, everyone, the world) and how these constituencies connect to particular aims (conserve for future generation, make accessible to everyone, represent the world).


Democratic theorist Michael Saward describes two different types of political issue, one of which is reserved for democratic process and the other can be delegated to professionals. He names the first ‘non-contingent’. ‘Non-contingent’ issues are fundamentally political. Such issues are about what living together means and need to be subject to democratic debate and democratic processes (1998, p. 9). Saward names the second set of issues ‘contingent’. Contingent issues are delegated to people with professional or technical expertise: ‘the garage mechanic knows better than I how to fix my car; the nuclear engineer knows better than I how to build a nuclear reprocessing plant; the social worker knows better than I how to deal with runaway teenagers’ (1998, p. 9). Saward’s overall argument is ‘that politics is not a realm where contingent claims to specialized, superior knowledge are legitimate; rather, it is a realm in which only non-contingent claims are admissible in principle’ (1998, p. 12). Taking Saward’s view, all professional work, including museum work, should be based in contingent knowledge.


Yet the nature of the museum task, set in terms of conservation and representation of the world for future generations and for everyone, has the scope of being non-contingent. One way of thinking about this is that museum workers have the scope and scale of non-contingent issues and yet they have become delegated to do this as if it is a specialist technical form of work.


Members of parliaments, assemblies, senates, councils in liberal democracies seek their legitimacy through the representational process of elections and the vote. They become representatives through this representational process. They then deal in issues of what it means to live well together.


Museums without any representational democratic process to secure legitimacy nevertheless take on a representational role, dealing in what it means be human, to live in this world, to represent everyone equality and to steward what matters for future generations. Often, along the way, mistaking representation for democracy itself, as Stacy Douglas has argued (2017, p. 20).[xii] Yet, Saward’s distinction would suggest, these are non-contingent tasks which are impossible to do with a theory of representation based in self-authorisation.  


The most common governance model of boards and trustees – which are, in some contexts, political appointments – are a means of managing delegated representational authority. But in these structures the link between the voter and a politically-appointed trustee is very weak. Recent signs are that this is a form of political legitimacy too vague to be sustainable, especially when strongly asserted.[xiii] The question this raises – of democratic design – is returned to in the final part of this essay.


The last fifty or so years of museum practice has been defined by significant debates about the legitimacy of museums because of this constitutional weakness. There have been ongoing challenges that museums need to represent a greater diversity of people and experiences. There has been ongoing recognition that museums’ claim to be accessible to all is always failing and that there is a need to do ongoing work with those who do not think museums are for them. But there have also been other challenges, not related to representation or access. There has been significant concern that the forms of expertise prized traditionally are inadequate and need to be challenged and expanded through deep collaborative work with ‘source communities’ – calls related to participation. There have been fifty years of sustained critique of the colonial basis of museum and the illegitimacy of retaining objects stolen and otherwise taken by force or coercion – calls related to decolonisation. There are more recent arguments made that museums’ use of resources and attempts to control temperature and light are, in the context of climate change, precisely failing to secure a future for the ‘future generations’ so often evoked – calls related to the climate and ecologies emergencies.


We could think of these together as a form of ‘legitimation crisis’ (Habermas 1988 [1973).[xiv] Yet in a certain way the museum constitution – and this particular democratic weakness of the non-contingent issue – sets up the potential for challenge.


Tony Bennet in his 1995 The Birth of the Museum argues that an ‘insatiability’ is generated precisely by the tension produced by the dissonance between the great claims of accessibility and representation and what the museum actually does:


[…] first the principle of public rights sustaining the demand that museums should be equally open and accessible to all; and second, the principle of representational adequacy sustaining the demand that museums should adequately represent the cultures and values of different sections of the public. While it might be tempting to see these as alien demands imposed on museums by their external political environments, I shall suggest that they are ones which flow out of, are generated by and only make sense in relation to the internal dynamics of the museum form. Or, more exactly, I shall argue that they are fuelled by the mis-match between, on the one hand, the rhetorics which govern the stated aims of museums and, on the other, the political rationality embodied in the actual modes of their functioning - a mis-match which guarantees that the demands it generates are insatiable.

(1995, p. 90)


The Museum Constitution is therefore both produced by expansive constituencies and expansive aims – it is this that enables self-authorisation – and is perpetually open to challenge by precisely the same mechanism.


There have been three significant responses to this problem.


The first has been to double down on the self-authorisation to try and position all the challenges that emerge (not being representative enough, not being accessible enough) as in effect a renewal of the constitution – the challenges being a sign of the constitution working.  A strategy that fails in the context of participation, decolonisation and climate and ecological emergencies – none of which are political claims that can be metabolised as ‘representation’ or ‘access’.


The second has been to shift the status of political issues from non-contingent to contingent issues via making politics into policy – turning politics into technical work.  A tactic which only serves to weaken the existing representational constitution, without proposing an alternative.


The third has been to turn to participation. A mode of working which might have appeared to be consistent with the constitutional claims to be accessible and to represent but, as we will see, is not.


The constitution as a response

There are no doubt instances of a form of doubling down which is just an assertion of a professional right to decide. Yet the most common approach has been to activate the dynamic potential within the Museum Constitution.


That is for the line between conservation, access and representation to be negotiation in new ways – but using the same constitutional logics of professional debate and self-authorisation. This has included expanding what is collected, who is represented and how collections and displays are made accessible.


In line with Bennet’s point, part of the constitutional loop is to deal with new demands in terms which are activated and enabled by its own non-contingent constitutional claims (to represent the world, to be accessible to all). This approach attempts to turn every critique into a question of either representation or access. It is notable that so many of the political claims made of museums have been converted to a question of who or what is in the collection or on the wall or the techniques by which accessibility is managed.


The Museum Constitution is set up to manage the political critiques of representation or access – it is what the constitution is for. Yet museums cannot so easily metabolise all types of political critique that have been coming its way. In the list of challenges above I noted calls related to participation, decolonisation and the climate and ecological emergency. It is the type of political or ontological claim that cannot be converted into representation or access which has started the deconstitution of the museum constitution.


Policy as a response

Another response – notable in countries that have had progressive cultural policy – is to see museums serving government-defined policy ends. For example, using access to collections for wellbeing or economic regeneration.  Such aims have also been enshrined in funding agreements and reveals the way in which political contingency is baked into many museums in liberal democracies. The effect of this – to return to Saward – is to turn the non-contingent (when thought of as ‘representation of the world’) into contingent matters and under the purview of policy set by government.


This strategy has sought to contain representation – and its non-contingent scope – into frameworks such as wellbeing, employability or inclusion.  While this policy move appears to make museum work politically safe and to stabilize museum legitimacy under the wing of government, ironically it may have done the opposite. After all it is only because museums have expansive constituencies with conflicting interests that museum authority is established. The policy move makes museums less self-authorizing and vulnerable in new ways. The tactic of turning museum work into a contingent political issue has only loosened the existing Museum Constitution, without providing an alternative.


Participation as a response

At first glance, taking a participatory approach to museums can appear to be in line with the Museum Constitution. It can seem like simply a better way of being accessible and being more representative in terms of collection, exhibitions or events.


Indeed, there are many examples of participation being activated as if it is representational – either just bringing more voices into the mix to then be subject to professional decision making or, worse, in effect responsibilizing specific people to carry the burden of representational forms of authority (as if they can speak on others’ behalf, as professionals claim to do).


Participation in museums has proven fraught – as is attested in numerous forms now. The reason it has proven fraught is because it has too often been grafted onto the representational Museum Constitution. This has been so difficult because its political and epistemic logics derive from a different logic of legitimacy, as we will explore below.


It is through introducing to the museum a different and incompatible logic of legitimacy that participation has started to loosen and tug at the internally consistent, self-authorising loop of museums. Participation has already been deconstituting museum.


The museum is already deconstituting

The Museum Constitution is set up to secure authority through setting up a conflict of interest (fragile objects for everyone now and for future generations) and inviting political challenges through making expansive claims (represent all, accessible to all). The Museum Constitution holds as long as this conflict of interest exists and as long as all political challenges can be converted into issues of representation or access.


Yet the major political challenges being posed to the Museum Constitution cannot be metabolized by this loop of legitimacy. Participation is non-representational, both politically and epistemologically, and establishes authority directly. Decolonisation is a call neither for representation nor access but for a dismantling of the very architecture of the Museum Constitution. The Climate and Ecological Emergencies challenge the dualist ontology of the Museum Constitution and in particular the versions of ‘future generations’ on which it is based.



Participation derives from a different logic of political legitimacy than representational politics. Participatory politics is about self-representation. It is about different techniques of direct decision making. It doesn’t operate with notions of the public, or abstract totalities. It scales horizontally, not vertically. It scales through syndicates and associations. No one speaks or works on behalf of anyone else. Participation is also self-authorising. However, unlike the abstract form of self-authorizing that replies on abstract totalities of future generations and everyone and the world, a participatory form of self-authorizing is negotiated between people who know each other and can be accountable to each other. It is anti-foundational, you can’t know in advance what is right or useful.


This is a radically different political basis than is set up though the representational Museum Constitution.


Participation when thought of ontologically offers a very different idea of what there is in the world and what the world is. A participatory ontology – sometimes also called a relational or non-representational ontology – would see entangled:


Humans and the more-than-human

Bodies and minds

Materiality and meaning

Pasts, presents and futures

Locales in different parts of the world[xv]


A participatory ontology offers a way of living where knowing includes intuition, memory and feeling. Where things mean through their connections to people and other things. Where to conserve might not only mean sustaining materiality but sustaining meaning. Where there is no zero sum. Where the past is not over and the future is tumbling out of our present. Where there are no scales of local, national and international but local places, different connected.


This is a radically different ontological basis to the representational Museum Constitution.



The Museum Constitution, as described above, is a means of maintaining authority, of creating a flexible loop that can deal with certain challenges on its own terms and as a renewal of its own legitimacy.


It can be drawn in abstract as a means of making the structure of power visible. However, it is a logic of legitimacy that clearly shores up certain people’s interests. It is also a way of making more palatable and concealing the economic foundation of museums – whether in colonial appropriation, proceeds of enslavement or corporate philanthropy based on extraction of different types.  The Museum Constitution is ‘white infrastructure’ in Dan Hick’s terms (2021). It is how pervasive and visceral racialised inequality has been reproduced.


It may be possible for certain forms of repatriation or restitution of collections to operate consistently with the Museum Constitution. Restitution is clearly a challenge to the reserved right for museums to decide what it means to conserve for future generations – and indeed this argument has often been mobilised in terms of whether objects would be adequately cared for if returned. Nevertheless, it can be imagined that objects can be returned without necessarily undoing the museum constitutional loop of legitimacy through a framing of restitution in terms of a better way of telling the story of colonisation or creating access to objects for people in places where acts of colonial violence took place.


Yet as with participation, decolonisation is not compatible with the Museum Constitution. There have been attempts to transform the demands to decolonise into questions of access or representation and therefore make them containable with the Museum Constitution and to come comfortably under the purview of the museum and museum professional. But these are failing. While what it might come to mean is being developed now through 1000s of interventions, the decolonisation of museums is neither about representation nor access. It challenges the very political logics of the Museum Constitution, it questions the loop of legitimacy and reveals the evocations of ‘everyone’, ‘future generations’ and ‘world’ as technologies of enlightenment-coloniality. Simply adding different people into the same constitutional structure is not an answer – without deconstitutional work diversifying the workforce or visitor demographics will change very little. The process of decolonisation is one of deconstitution, of actively dismantling the Museum Constitution.


Climate and Ecological Breakdown

The Museum Constitution survives as long as we see humans as separate from non-humans, minds separate from bodies, bodies separate from environments. It can exist only as long as we accept its version of the future and of ‘future generations’. It can continue only as long as we believe that museums’ stabilizing materiality through the expenditure of carbon in the form of climate and atmospheric controls is an honourable act of future creating, rather than an act of ‘defuturing’ in Tony Fry’s terms (2000, p. 10).[xvi]


Taking seriously climate and ecological breakdown requires deconstitution. It questions the fundamental ontology of the constitution. It renders suspect the series of entities in whose name the Museum Constitution operates and authority is secured.


Deconstitution as Method

The Museum Constitution has already started to be deconstituted. Participation, decolonisation and responses to climate and ecological breakdown work outside the constitutional cast of entities and distribution of conflicting interests that secure museum legitimacy. Neither participation, decolonisation nor climate activism desire more representation or greater access and so cannot be entirely constitutionally contained. If challenges cannot be contained as representation or access then the authority of the museum and museum professional cannot be firmly secured either.


Thinking museums constitutionally – as we’ve been doing – offers a range of conceptual cues for developing a methodology for deconstitutional work. What is within the word ‘constitution’, its capacities and potentials, can open up pathways:




The act of making, the act of establishing


The way something is made up, through its parts and different elements


The nature or character of something


The mode in which something is organized


A system of fundamental principles




The act of restoring, the act of reestablishment


The restoration of something to its original condition, for example to add liquid to a dehydrated or concentrated substance


In French criminal procedure: the action of going over the presumed details of a crime at the place where it was committed.


Deconstituting – a word not in the Oxford English Dictionary


An unmaking, a disestablishment of how something is organized


A conceptual dehydration, a making concentrate


A disentangling of parts and elements


A dismantling of the infrastructure that enables violences


A tarrying with the nature or character of something


A system without fundamental principles


An understanding that whatever comes next will not an act of reestablishment


Working with what might be within the word ‘deconstitution’ proposes a method. Really a collective of methods. We will need different resources drawing from quite different philosophical and epistemic traditions: the normative, the affective, the anti-foundationalism of pragmatism and democratic design.


The first methodological strand – which you’ve witnessed above – will be informed by the following resonances of deconstituting:


A conceptual dehydration, a making concentrate


A disentangling of parts and elements


We have begun above through a mode of simplification. Constitutionalism is based in establishing principles and foundational structures. Museums do not generally have formal constitutions and so what we often have in play are normative architectures, none of which is today proving entirely successful at establishing or legitimising the institution.


Constitutions are themselves a political tool of generational constraint. They hold people in the present to frameworks and ideals of those that came before, a familiar enough issue in museums. A starting point, as above, is to draw out the political logics of museums, to model, make too bright, too sharp and too clean.  This is a dehydration of the complexity of the lived nature of any museum, it is a making concentrate.


Alongside this generic constitutional work, I focus on the now of the last 12 months and the months to come. I will attend events – including those in the past that have been recorded and published. COVID has closed museums, it has also opened up new spaces for dialogue about museums. The number of spaces for dialogue, the sheer energy of this – all so rigorously and transparently documented. What we have is a precious emerging archive of a sector grappling with itself, intensively and on record.


In attending events I will sketch the political logics at play, the loops of logic through which legitimacy is being conjured and sought. This will help qualify, refine, expand and destabilise the Museum Constitution model with which I have initiated this inquiry. I expect this is a method that will also by virtue of its simplification nourish a desire for alternatives and for ideas of antifoundational politics. Democratic in the full sense that the world is for the making, that the decision of what is passed on cannot be loyally delegated to those who came before.


Force readings to throw normative architecture into hyper relief – can anti-foundationalisms be cultivated in its shadows?


To lurk in today’s parts – they may hold the potential for both terrible and wonderful future worlds? 


In recognition of the dangers of simplification and lived complexity of museums, alongside the sketching of normative architecture I will be in and with the affective and atmospheric flows both of my previous work in museums and of the events of 2020 and 2021, as much as they can be felt and imagined through the digital. Part of this is to find a form for the emergent, for what-is-happening or starting to happen, for what is mattering and might-be-starting-to-matter, to try and be attentive to this leading edge, to use writing to burnish its potential.[xvii]


To dwell in how something is made, the fertile everyday – what are the seeds of everyday deconstitution and alternative constitutions?


To move with affects, of how things matter and how much – do we need to deconstitute how things matter so things can matter differently?


In time and once all this sketching and affective poetics has done something, given room for something, I will start on the questions of democratic design. An issue I have been very concerned with in other areas of my work.


To make palpable the straitened path dependencies in current institutional forms – can confronting ourselves with the futures they will have created prompt experiments with new forms?


And finally, I hope this will help nourish where joy is, where the struggle of democratic questions and everyday peace might meet.


To use both the concentrated and expansiveness to seek and enliven many different ways of organizing and living together.


Participatory Democratic Design


The current intense debate about decolonisation has included references to different structures of organising. Different to the trustees model and the arms-length model. Different political forms that will also require different economic models.


In the final part of this inquiry, I will start to work on what those democratic forms might look like. I will draw on debates from democratic innovation, cooperative and participatory models, horizonal and distributed agency. They might not be for museums. But for art, culture and heritage, for living together, for futuring.[xviii]


The pulse of deconstitution is to refuse to think it in advance as simply as a matter of reconstitution. The basic structure needs to be unpicked entirely. Without that structure it may be that whatever there is, whatever we come to need, it might no longer be ‘museum’.




Tony Bennet (1995) The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge.


Karen Barad (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.


Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart (2019) The Hundreds. Duke University Press.


Britta Brenna (2014) ‘Nature and Texts in Glass Cases: The vitrine as a tool for textualizing nature’, Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, 2/1: 46–51


Fiona Cameron (2015) ‘The Liquid Museum: New Institutional Ontologies for a complex, Uncertain World’ in The International Handbook of Museum Studies eds. Andrea Whitcomb and Kylie Message. London: Wylie-Blackwell


Caitlin DeSilvey (2017) Curating Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.


Caitlin DeSilvey and Rodney Harrison (2020) Anticipating loss: rethinking

endangerment in heritage futures, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 26:1, 1-7,


Stacy Douglas (2017) Curating Community: Museums, Constitutionalism, and the Taming of the Political. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Jurgen Habermas (1988 [1973]) Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. London: Policy Press.


Rodney Harrison (2018) ‘On Heritage Ontologies: Rethinking the Material Worlds of Heritage’, Anthropological Quarterly, 91 (4), 1365-1384.

Rodney Harrison, Caitlin DeSilvey, Cornelius Holtorf, Sharon Macdonald, Nadia Bartolini, Esther Breithoff, Harald Fredheim, Antony Lyons, Sarah May, Jennie Morgan, and Sefryn Penrose (2020) Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices. London: UCL Press.

Rodney Harrison and Colin Sterling (2020) (eds) Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene (London: Open Humanities Press).


Dan Hicks (2021) The Brutish Museum. London: Pluto.


Cornelius Holtorf (2015) ‘Averting loss aversion in cultural heritage’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 21:4, 405-421


Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2006) ‘World Heritage and Economics’ in Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations, in I. Karp, C. A. Kratz, L. Szwaja and T. Ybarra-Frausto, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press): 161-202.


Bruno Latour (1983) 'Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World', in KD Knorr-Cetina and. M Mulkay, Science Observed (London: Sage): 141-170.


Bruno Latour (1991) We Have Never Been Modern. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).


John Law and Annemarie Mol (2001) Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. (Durham: Duke University Press): 1-22; 15.


Timothy Morton (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.


Carole Pateman (1970) Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Donald Preziosi (2003) Brain of the Earth's Body Art, Museums, and the Phantasms of Modernity: The 2001 Slade Lectures in the Fine Arts, Oxford University. Minneapoliss: University of Minnestoa Press.


Donald Preziosi and Claire J. Farago (eds.) (2004) Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum. London: Routledge.


Peter Reason (2005) ‘Living as Part of the Whole: The Implications of Participation’, Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 2:2, 35-41


Michael Saward (1998) The Terms of Democracy (Oxford: Polity Press)


Laurajane Smith (2006) The Uses of Heritage (London: Routledge).


Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton (2009) Heritage, Communities and Archaeology (London: Duckworth).


Gayatari Chakrovorty Spivak (2003) Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press).


Kathleen Stewart (2007) Ordinary Affects. Duke University Press.


Nigel Thrift (2008) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (London: Routledge)


D. F. Thompson (2010) ‘Representing future generations: political presentism and democratic trusteeship’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 13, no. 1 (2010), 17-37.


Michael Warner ‘Publics and Counterpublics’, Public Culture 14 (1), 2002, 49-90, 55.


[i] John Law and Annemarie Mol in their introduction to Complexities argue both ‘that there are good reasons for worrying about simplification’ (2002, p. 2) but also – drawing on Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour – that simplification is ‘also productive’. They note, ‘none of these traditions simply denounces the simplifications that occur in knowledge practices. Each sees these as productive, but so, too, is whatever escapes the paradigm, the episteme, consciousness. On the one hand there is an order that simplifies, and on the other there is an elusive and chaotic complexity expelled, produced, or suppressed by it’ (2002, p. 5) They advise us to be ‘to be suspicious of simplification’ and ‘suspicious of […] denunciations of simplicity’ (2002, p. 11).

[ii] This phrase comes from Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak (2003, p. 91). In her use of ‘force a reading’ in Death of a Discipline Spivak deploys this phrase to ‘see if [a] text could sustain’ her project of pluralizing for the planetary. It is in recognition that her method of does something with a form that was not intended. I use it to acknowledge the ‘force’ needed to make the Museum Constitution visible and that this is too strong, too bold but also needed.

[iii] An allusion to Bruno Latour who will figure significantly in the full version of this argument, both to his Modern Constitution in We Have Never Been Modern (1991) and the title of the article ‘Give me a Laboratory and I will Raise the World’ (1983).

[iv]In an article on the UNESCO Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett shows how ‘World heritage is predicated on the idea that those who produce culture do so by dint of their “diversity,” while those who come to own those cultural assets as world heritage do so by dint of their “humanity” (2006, p. 20). This is a political form of scaling:


We might therefore distinguish rights based on ancestry and inheritance (people related to one another); citizenship (relationship of individual to the state); and humanity (relation of individual to international law). All three relationships are at play in heritage as a mode of metacultural production that moves cultural goods from one rights’ context to the other. The enterprise effects a series of shifts, from local to national to world heritage. Or, more recently, from local to world heritage, that is, from a privileged relationship to a cultural good deriving from notions of ancestry, descent, and inheritance to a relationship based on interest, choice, freedom, democratic notions of inclusion, participation, consent, and investment. (2006, p. 21)


Culture production happens by small groups of people or communities; whereas its political significance – where it comes to be owned and managed – happens precisely through deploying the entities of ‘public’ or ‘humanity’.

[v] The idea of a public in Michael Warner’s terms public is never specific people but rather a necessarily abstract idea, it is a ‘social totality’ and a ‘relation between strangers’ (2002, p. 55)

[vi] In Curating Community: Museums, Constitutionalism, and the Taming of the Political, Stacy Douglas engages in a sustained way with ideas of constitutionalism – and the legacies of its critical engagement with constitutionalism, including countermonumental constitutionalism (open to reflexivity and change) and non-foundationalist approaches. Throughout Douglas draws commonality between constitutions of national states and museums as well as differences. The overall thesis being that museums can act as an ‘external reflexive’ resource to the constitution in interrupting the constructing of community that is the focus of a liberal democratic constitution (2017, p. 19). Douglas therefore hopes museums can offer an institutionalisation of writing the interruption of a stabilised community and sovereign notions of the individual or state (2017, p. 107). In this sense the way I am using constitution is different to Douglas as I am interested in the very embedded political dynamics – what I am calling the Museum Constitution – that make the role Douglas sets out for museums unlikely as long as those loops of logic exist.

[vii] This has been noted and critiqued in museum and heritage studies by Laurajane Smith (2006, pp. 278, 286) and also with Emma Waterton (2009, 11).

[viii] As Rodney Harrison has put it: ‘The entanglement of heritage with concepts of inheritance has contributed significantly to its symbolic rhetoric, which normalises its activities by projecting the moral and political justification for its work on to a vaguely defined set of collective future beneficiaries’ (2020, p. 25).

[ix] What Donald Preziosi has referred to museums’ ‘anamorphic’ techniques of representation, distorted and only seemingly normal from one limited perspective (2003).

[x] A discussion that has been developed in Critical Heritage Studies around ‘loss’ (Holtorf 2015; Desilvery 2018)

[xi] Karen Barad uses the term spacetime and spacetimematter to argue: ‘Phenonmena are not constitutive of reality. Reality is composed not of things-in-themselves but of things-in-phenomena. The world is a dynamic process of intra-activity and materialization in the enactment of causal structures with determinate boundaries, properties, meanings and patterns of marks on bodies. This ongoing flow of agency through which part of the world makes itself differentially intelligible to another part of the world and through which causal structures are stabilized and destabilized does not take place in space and time but happens in the making of spacetime itself’ (2010, p. 140)

[xii] Douglas argues: ‘Museums are like constitutions in that they both share a proclivity to produce community. Both rely on the idea that community can be produced and that their respective institution — the museum or the constitution — is a central conduit for the staging of this production. While this project of representation may be important and indeed necessary […]s, this proclivity to produce community confuses representation with democracy’ (2018, p. 20).

[xiii] In the UK context I am thinking of the recent assertion of political authority by Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, both in terms of the articulation ‘retain and explain’ to Britain’s colonial past approach and over the appointment of trustees. I am tracing this debate as part of the Deconstituting Museum work.

[xiv] In the terms of Jurgen Habermas a crisis is produced when the structures of a system ‘allows fewer possibilities for problem solving than are necessary to the continued existence of the system’ (1988 [1973], p. 2). The legitimation crisis of late capitalism for Habermas in particular relates to slackening in mass loyalty sought by liberal democracy and inability to sustain a depoliticised public sphere and to claim certain administrative task as apolitical leading to a ‘politicization […] of administrative interventions in the cultural tradition’ (1988 [1973, p. 50). In a point very relevant to the Museum Constitution he argues: ‘traditions can retain legitimizing force only as long as they are not torn out of interpretive systems that guarantee continuity and identity’ (1988 [1973, p.71).

[xv] In a museum and heritage studies context these types of relational ontological approaches have been developed by Fiona Cameron (2013) and Rodney Harrison (2010; 2015).

[xvi] Tony Fry defines ‘de-futuring’ as: ‘The negation of world futures for us, and many of our unknowing non-human others’ (2000, p. 10).

[xvii] In this I will be influence by non-representational theory associated with Nigel Thrift (2007), Kathleen Stewart (2007) and also with Lauren Berlant (2019) among others.

[xviii] A strand of thinking developed by Colin Sterling and Rodney Harrison. They write: ‘Referencing Tim Morton’s call for an ‘ecology without nature’ (2007), we might think of this new framework as a call for inheritance without heritage, recognizing that the idea of heritage may well stand in the way of a more meaningful relationship with ongoing and inherently more-than-human concepts and processes of care, transmission and vulnerability’ (2020, p. 40).


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