Political Theory, Museum Studies, and Pedagogy

Ellen Grigsby – University of New Mexico

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Spring 2011 issue.  

Political theory instructors seeking to emphasize close textual analysis may find it challenging to teach in such a manner as to achieve a balance between the time-consuming task of modeling and underscoring a close reading of primary texts with the need to cover a broad range of works. Harry Berger, Jr. (2005, 495-496) has suggested that textual analysis, properly undertaken, requires a “basic exhortation to the student. . . ‘always peruse,’” with the activity of perusing understood as “to go over again. . . thoroughly, carefully, critically” (495). Perusal can allow one to read closely enough to notice paradox (Springborg, 2009, 260), to identify a change in the movement of a text’s argument, or to recognize an emergent subtext. Moreover, if scholars like Melzer are correct in asserting that texts of political theory are more deeply implicated in esotericism than is often assumed, close reading is essential if students are to be prepared to encounter multiple levels of writing in works that are often taught as canonical (Melzer 2006).

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

How can we teach political theory in a manner that enhances the perusal skills of our students? I believe that recent work in museum studies may offer possible strategies and insights. Historically, the word museum referred to an assemblage of knowledge that could take the form of an “idea or a book . . . or a room or a building, ” (Starn 2005, 76). Thus, theoretical interrogations of what it means to look at museum exhibits are not necessarily conceptually far removed from questions of what it means to read texts. For example, museum scholars have investigated how museums can function as canons, with major exhibits dictating to their visitors what counts as a knowledge. Scholars have analyzed how museums can organize exhibits to invite multiple interpretations or to produce “tamed stares” that look where a guide directs (Bonetti 2007, 172). Museums problematize the multifaceted nature of looking/reading, as when decisions about displaying artifacts in lighted glass cases prompt analysis of whether such frames promote a type of viewing that mimics shopping for the best bargain in a store’s display cabinet (Greenblatt 2004, 550). Indeed, Starn cites research suggesting that museum visitors, when asked, are “hard pressed to tell the difference between museum exhibits, exhibits in department stores or airports, and historic districts, or theme parks” (Starn 2005, 91).

In sum, museum studies scholars ask questions very similar to those asked by many teachers of political theory, as we seek to better understand how the display of a text can affect its reception by our students and how we can better teach an approach to reading that distances itself from bargain hunting in texts for the lowest cost reading strategies.

Convinced that museum studies scholarship had something to teach me about the teaching of political theory, I began incorporating selected museum studies practices into my upper-level Modern Political Theory class of 26 students at the University of New Mexico in Spring 2011. Specifically, I introduced a variant of certain pedagogical practices I observed during five museum guide experiences in which I participated in London’s National Gallery and London’s Tate Britain on visits occurring in August 2010 and March 2011. Assuming no prior knowledge on the part of the visitors of any paintings, museum guides instructed viewers to notice flow or movement and foreground/background in four paintings over the course of an hour. Invariably, when asked open-ended questions by guides, viewers were able to point to flow (e.g., in a stream, in a figure’s movement, in the direction of a crowd, in a weather pattern or shadow) and to identify spacing in foreground and background.

Struck by (a) the ease with which the guides drew this level of observation from the visitors in an hour in comparison with (b) the difficulty I had experienced in trying to teach students over the course of a semester to notice detail, evidence, and conceptual flow in texts, I created an assignment in which I asked students to examine and write about detail and flow in both (1)Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and (2) a self-selected section of a political theory text about which they felt confident and to which they had committed the most time and analysis at that point in the semester.

I hypothesized that students would find it easier to see flow in a painting than in their texts, insofar as a painting’s spatial frame discloses content within a field of vision that, at least on a cursory level (the level at which I was asking them to write about Titian in this assignment), is viewable all at once. In contrast, a book discloses primary and secondary themes over the course of chapters and, in many cases, hundreds of pages. I hoped to use this exercise to show students they were capable of seeing flow visually in a painting and thus capable of recognizing it on an abstract/conceptual level and (2) to help them build on this confidence in seeing details in Titian that could then be applied to the level of attentiveness they took into their “looking” at political theory. I compared length and detail in the students’ writing about the painting with that about their texts.

Twenty-one students were in class on the day of the assignment and participated in the exercise. Eleven students wrote more extensively and in greater detail about the movement in the painting, six wrote in greater detail about the movement they saw in their selected texts, and four wrote roughly equivalent amounts. Responses suggested that students who are confident in their ability to peruse texts may, at least at first, gain less from exposure to museum practices. It may also be the case that students in a theory class are less predisposed than museum goers to trust and share their personal observations of unfamiliar paintings.

However, students who report trouble with close reading may benefit from an exercise such as this. To illustrate, one student described the ease with which he saw movement in the Titian painting and the great difficulty he had been experiencing in noticing detail in his chosen text; he also wrote that he struggled to read “with the approach of a student of political theory.” The fact that eleven of twenty-one students wrote in a more thorough and detailed manner about the Titian painting suggests, at this preliminary level, the potential utility of using museum practices to help students identify and become comfortable with concepts relevant to textual analysis.

While it might initially seem strange to political scientists to look to museum studies, it is, perhaps, important to remember that some of the central concepts in political science—e.g., representation—originated as artistic or theatrical concepts (Viera and Runciman 2008, 4-7). The question central to my future research will focus on how to move beyond these preliminary findings in order to assess outcomes regarding whether—and if so how—exposure to museum practices has a demonstrable utility in assisting students in enhancing their skills in textual perusal.


Berger, Jr., Harry. 2005.   Situated Utterances: Texts, Bodies, and Cultural Representations. New York: Fordham University Press.

Bonetti, Roberta. 2007. “The Museum as an Inhabited Object.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 52 (Autumn): 168-180.

Greenbelt, Stephen. 2004. “Resonance and Wonder.” In Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Melzer, Arthur M. 2006. “Esotericism and the Critique of Historicism.” The American Political Science Review 100 (2): 279-295.

Springborg, Patricia. 2009. “The Paradoxical Hobbes: A Critical Response to the Hobbes Symposium.” Political Theory 37 (5): 676-688.

Starn, Randolph. 2005. “A Historian’s Brief Guide to Museum Studies.” The American Historical Review 110 (1): 68-98.

Viera,  Monica  Brito  and  David  Runciman. 2008 Representation. Malden, MA: Polity.

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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