Thought crimes

Last week I told one of my panelists that my interests were really moving away from the museum objects I’d originally proposed to study, and more towards broader representations of the horse… maybe even moving away from the museum altogether. I mentioned that I’d been pursuing some interesting intellectual tangents via my blog and various conference/journal papers, and he jokingly referred to my extra-curricular activity as ‘thought crimes’.

On Monday, I had to give a paper to students and academics, including my panel, outlining my research. It’s known at ANU as the First Year Conference, though elsewhere it’s referred to as the Approval to Proceed.This week’s post is an edited extract from that paper, to give you an idea of the difference between my ‘official’ research, and the ‘thought crimes’ being committed here!


Research question

Locating my enquiry within the museum context, my primary research question seeks to explore how equine remains in museum collections are interpreted, particularly in relation to narratives of national identity. This question has evolved through my professional background as a social history curator. For two years, from 2009 until 2011, I worked in a curatorial capacity with Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia. Phar Lap’s heart is the single most requested object among visitors to the Museum. My involvement with this iconic object was in re-interpreting it as part of an exhibit on Flemington Racecourse and the Melbourne Cup.


While my research is not directly about the representation of horse racing per se, I am seeking to investigate how the horse, via its physical remains, is represented through exhibitions, interpretation and collection documentation. More broadly, I am interested in exploring the wider cultural narratives that surround such objects.


My methods derive from museum practice, and include the collection survey, and the object biography. The research will be carried out in two phases. The first phase is a large-scale collection survey, from which I will draw qualitative data on the prevalence (or otherwise) of equine remains in collections, and how they are being interpreted. This will be followed by the second phase of the research, which involves field work and site visits to further investigate specific objects and their interpretive contexts.

Theoretical underpinnings
[This bit is kind of boring unless you’re into museology – it basically outlines the theoretical context of my proposed research]

The function of museums as sites of public history, and the role they play in cultural construction, cannot be overstated. Sociologist Tony Bennett argues that the museum played a fundamental role in the foundation of the modern state during the eighteenth century. This was enacted through what Bennett terms ‘the exhibitionary complex’, whereby the public was represented to itself, becoming simultaneously the subject and the object of knowledge. [1] This legacy continues to shape the museum institution, which today serves a key function as an agent of social reproduction, defined by museologist Susan Pearce as ‘the continuous process which enables each society to go on being itself.’[2]

Most museum practitioners recognise that ‘[t]here is … no unmediated access to the past and, indeed, the very act of recalling and telling the past is an exercise in interpretation’,[3] yet the mediations through which the past is constructed remain invisible in the museum context. The operational functions of museums are the same processes that are used to construct significance and meaning – acquisition proposals, object documentation, significance assessments, and exhibitions. In a comment published in the journal Museum Anthropology in 2010, Nicholas Thomas asked some key questions of the museum method: ‘What kinds of knowledge underpin the interpretation of collections? What methods does that interpretation involve, and what knowledge does it generate?’[4]

Academic Laurajane Smith reminds us that heritage is a discourse, a social practice within which cultural ideologies are embedded.[5] Smith identifies what she has termed the Authorised Heritage Discourse, which ‘works to naturalise a range of assumptions about the nature and meaning of heritage.’[6] Highlighting the processes through which knowledge is constructed at sites of public history not only makes interpretive practice more accessible to visitors, but more visible.[7] My research will focus on examining these processes of historification. I am also interested in exploring the notion of the horse’s significance to Australians within the framework of the Authorised Heritage Discourse, as conceptualised by Smith.

While the research is primarily situated within Museum Studies and the broader field of Public History, my work is further informed by the growing field of animal studies. Recent years have witnessed the ‘animal turn’ in academia, a consideration of the ethics and politics surrounding representation of the non-human animal. The animal turn is yet to have a significant impact on museum studies, though the work of scholars such as Samuel Alberti, and Australian environmental historian Libby Robin, could be positioned in this context.

It is not uncommon in the museum for the specimen status of natural history objects to eclipse the fact that they were once alive, vital, with blood and viscera. It is this eclipse of the once-living creature that Alberti and others working in this field seek to highlight through re-conceptualising the objects via the notion of the ‘afterlife’.[8] In keeping with the animal turn, this paradigmatic shift emphasizes the animal that pre-dates the object, and has been fundamental to the conception of my own research, though at this stage it remains more of a philosophical underpinning than an applied practice.

‘So what?’ Research significance

One of the questions to emerge for me since beginning my PhD is, ‘WHY is the horse deemed to be so significant to Australians?’ [Thought crimes alert!] While much work has been done in documenting the role that horses have played in Australia’s development, there seems to have been little unpacking of this bigger issue. Though the research I have outlined today is not focused specifically on this question, I hope that the outcomes of my thesis may contribute to answering it, at least in part.

My PhD research, as outlined today, looks at issues of identity construction in the museum context. It aims to contribute both to scholarship on museums, and scholarship in museums. As a museum practitioner, it is impossible to separate myself from the research – the boundaries between museum researcher and museum practitioner are fluid. I hope that in this context of my research, this positioning will prove to be an asset.



[1] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: history, theory, politics, Routledge, Abingden, Oxon, 1995.

[2] Susan M. Pearce, Museums, Objects and Collections: a cultural study, Leicester University Press, Leicester, 1992, p.22.

[3] Steph Lawler, ‘Stories and the social world’, in Michael Pickering (ed), Research Methods for Cultural Studies, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2008, p. 39.

[4] Nicholas Thomas, “The Museum as Method”, Museum Anthropology vol 33 no 1 (2010):6.

[5] Smith, Laurajane. Uses of Heritage. (Oxon: Routledge, 2006) 4.

[6] ibid.

[7] Ken Torino, accessed 23 August 2014

[8] Samuel J.M.M. Alberti (ed), The Afterlives of Animals: a museum menagerie, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2011.


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