No Museum is an Island: Ethnography beyond Methodological Containerism

Sharon Macdonald, Christine Gerbich, Margareta von Oswald


This article addresses the question of how to go beyond the conceptualisation of museums as islands in museum ethnography without losing the ethnographic depth and insights that such research can provide. Discussing existing ethnographic research in museums, the ethnographic turn in organization studies, and methodological innovation that seeks to go beyond bounded locations in anthropology, we offer a new museum methodology that retains ethnography’s capacity to grasp the often overlooked workings of organizational life – such as the informal relations, uncodified activities, chance events and feelings – while also avoiding ‘methodological containerism’, that is, the taking of the museum as an organization for granted. We then present a project design for a multi-sited, multi-linked, multi-researcher ethnography to respond to this; together with its specific realisation as the Making Differences project currently underway on Berlin’s Museum Island. Drawing on three sub-projects of this large ethnography – concerned with exhibition-making in the Museum of Islamic Art, in the Ethnological Museum in preparation for the Humboldt Forum (a high profile and contested cultural development due to open in 2019) and a new exhibition about Berlin, also for the Humboldt Forum – we highlight the importance of what happens beyond the ‘container,’ the discretion of what we even take to be the ‘container’, and how ‘organization-ness’ of various kinds is ‘done’ or ‘achieved’. We do this in part through an analysis of organigrams at play in our research fields, showing what these variously reveal, hide and suggest. Understanding museums, and organizations more generally, in this way, we argue, brings insight both to some of the specific developments that we are analysing as well as to museum and organization studies more widely.


ethnography, museum, methodology, organization, organigram, Berlin

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Copyright (c) 2018 Sharon Macdonald, Christine Gerbich, Margareta von Oswald

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360

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