School of Humanities / Sgoil nan Daonnachdan

Philosophy and Museums: Ethics, Aesthetics and Ontology

Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Conference 2013

Location: University of Glasgow and the Burrell Collection

Conference Dates: 24th-26th July 2013

Launch Event 23rd July: Public lecture by Mark O'Neill (Director of Policy & Research, Glasgow Life) 'Museums and their Paradoxes' with comments by Charles Taliaferro (Professor of Philosophy, St. Olaf College, Minnesota). Welcome by Neal Juster, Deputy and Vice Principal, the University of Glasgow. The lecture will be followed by a civic reception in the Hunterian Art Gallery. Lecture commences at 5.30 p.m. in the Hunterian Art Gallery Lecture Theatre. All welcome, no reservation required.

Organizing committee: Dr Victoria Harrison, Dr Gary Kemp, Dr Anna Bergqvist

Sponsors: Royal Institute of Philosophy; Scots Philosophical Association; Journal of Philosophy of Education; Mind Association; Aristotelian Society; Glasgow Life; The Hunterian, University of Glasgow; School of Humanities and School of Education, University of Glasgow. With the cooperation of Hutchesons' Grammar School, Glasgow.

Confirmed Keynote Speakers

  • David Brown (St Andrews), ‘Contexts and Experiencing the Sacred’
  • Ivan Gaskell (Bard Graduate Center, New York), ‘The Museum of Big Ideas’
  • Garry Hagberg (Bard College, New York), ‘Word and Object’
  • Eileen John (University of Warwick), 'The value of not liking what we see'
  • Michael Levine (University of Western Australia), ‘Museums and the Nostalgic Self’
  • Beth Lord (University of Aberdeen), ‘“A Sudden Surprise of the Soul”: Wonder in Museums and Early Modern Philosophy’
  • Graham Oddie (University of Colorado at Boulder), ‘What do we see in Museums?’
  • Constantine Sandis (Oxford Brookes), ‘Replicas and the Role of Museums’
  • Charles Taliaferro (St. Olaf, Minnesota) and Jil Evans (Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts, Minneapolis), ‘How To Get Into A Work Of Art’
  • Philip Tonner (Hutchesons’ Grammar School, Glasgow), ‘Museums, Ethics and Truth’

Philosophy and Museums conference poster

The deadline for submissions has now passed.

Papers should take 30 minutes to present and be submitted in a form suitable for blind review. Our aim is to involve speakers with a variety of perspectives. It is intended that papers presented at the conference should be suitable for publication as a special supplementary volume of Philosophy (scheduled to appear with Cambridge University Press in 2014). It is a condition of accepting the invitation to participate in the conference that we would have the first right of refusal on a final version of any paper delivered at the conference.

The deadline for submissions of papers is 31st May 2013. The conference fee will be waived for accepted speakers and lunch and dinner for three days will be provided. Speakers are expected to cover their own travel and accommodation costs.

Papers should be submitted, and enquiries addressed, to Dr Anna Bergqvist (

There has been much interest lately on the part of academics, museum professionals and policy makers on interactions between universities and museums. Critical theory, influenced by Continental philosophy, has had a shaping role on the discussions which have taken place; however, so far there has been little attention to what the insights of philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition might bring to the table. This conference will highlight the scholarship of philosophers in this tradition who have engaged with museums and taken seriously the philosophical questions they raise.

Both academic philosophy and museums can be seen as products of the European Enlightenment. Museums have traditionally been understood as places where carefully selected objects are categorized and put on display so that they can be known through observation. So-called ‘world-museums’, such as the British Museum, were designed to provide the public with access to the wider world through the knowledge they could acquire by observing the objects put forward for their inspection. Now that empiricism is no longer the dominant philosophical view of knowledge-acquisition, this understanding of museums has been increasingly called into question. A new understanding of museums is emerging that seeks to be responsive to more complex epistemological theories and philosophers are beginning to take an interest in this development. Not only is the understanding of museums a subject that increasingly attracts philosophical attention. Certain aspects of museum practises—especially concerning collection and curation, as well as exhibition—also invite philosophical scrutiny.

This international conference will bring together philosophers from a spectrum of philosophical sub-disciplines, ranging from ethics, through aesthetics, to metaphysics and philosopher of religion. It will explore how their work contributes to the understanding of museums and what light it can shed on the philosophical questions raised by museum practices. The conference will address such questions under three main headings: Ethics, Aesthetics and Ontology.


A host of ethical questions are generated by museum collections. Moral hazards attend the practice of both collection-building and collection-maintenance. In particular, there are pressing ethical issues surrounding the repatriation of cultural artefacts; while repatriation of such objects is a central goal of many local museums in former colonies, resisting it is a priority for many ‘world-museums’. Curators face ethical decisions about when repatriation is appropriate and when it is not (e.g., the case of the Parthenon Marbles is well known), and they are frequently faced with the task of defending their concepts of property and ownership. What rights do successor communities have withrespect to their demands for the return of objects appropriated from their ancestors and now housed in museums? Philosophers have contributed to the ongoing debate about this and related questions of ethical interest. Other pertinent questions concern objects that are, or have been, regarded as sacred. Does the inclusion of such objects within a museum collection somehow desacralize them? If so, to what extent do they then retain their value as museum exhibits? Are curators under any moral obligation to provide appropriate environments for the display of sacred objects (consider the lengths gone to by the curators of the World Museum Liverpool to create an appropriate exhibition space for their Buddhist artefacts—some of which were re-consecrated after their installation in the permanent exhibit)? What ethical questions are raised when members of the public wish to practise religious devotions in the proximity of artefacts within museum collections? Questions of propriety also arise. Are there any objects that it would be inappropriate to observe in a museums context? Particularly vexing are questions concerning displays involving human remains. If such objects are removed from public display, how should they be appropriately stored and in company with what? As prominent public institutions, museums have received surprisingly little scrutiny from moral philosophers. Yet they clearly generate important philosophical questions concerning professional ethics. What is the appropriate relationship between curatorship and other domains of human thought, action, and concern, especially matters to do with gender, race and community? What are the responsibilities of the curator? And to whom are curators responsible? What are the moral boundaries circumscribing what is an acceptable educational display and what is an unacceptable promotion of some ideology on the part of a museum? This question has been raised with respect to religious museums but is also relevant to museums which adopt an explicitly secular standpoint. A further line of questioning might probe the connection between museums, imperialism and nationalism.


The function of museums as exhibitors of art raises questions of immediate interest to philosophers. Many philosophers have given a great deal of attention to the discussion of art, yet there has been comparatively little philosophical discussion focused on museums—despite the fact that a primary function of museums is to provide access to collections of art through public exhibitions. Museums also play a key role in defining what counts as art within a culture. Philosophical questions to be addressed include: What concept or concepts of art are implicit in museums’ practices of exhibition and collection? To what extent do these concepts determine what might be included in a museum collection and what might not be? By including an object in its collection and then exhibiting it a museums puts that object forward to the public as a work of art. But how does the museum’s handling of the object—for example, a piece of Shaker furniture—make that object into a work of art? Is there anything more to a work of art than the fact that it has been selected for display and presented as something that the audience should take an interest in? Museums collect, organize, and exhibit material objects. By doing so they make accessible not only the material but also the non-material dimensions of those objects, which gives rise to the question of in what ways they are allowing for an apprehension of aesthetic value. Questions also arise about the boundary between a sacred object and a work of art. If a museum presents an object as a ‘sacred object’ does this preclude it being considered solely as an object of art or vice versa?


Curators face important ontological questions concerning the categorization of the collections in their care. In addition to questions about what should be included in a museum’s collection and what excluded, curators are faced with questions about what types of artefact should be categorized under the same headings. This is a question of great interest to metaphysicians and underlying it is the more fundamental question of what counts as an object. One common understanding of objects divides then into two basic types: those that are the result of human activity and those that are not. But this distinction between artefacts and natural objects raises a host of questions of interest to philosophers, both metaphysicians and philosophers of science. The systems of object classification used by museums today still, by and large, reflect the understanding of the collectors of the 19th century, and it is widely recognized that many such systems are no longer helpful or appropriate. Aesthetic or religious considerations, for example, might not be well accommodated by systems of classification that focus on the artefact/natural distinction or by a method of categorization that is more attuned to the tangible features of material objects. The task of scrutinizing existing systems of classification and developing new ones requires philosophical work: curators and philosophers need to work together to accomplish this effectively. Further philosophical questions arise from the construction of exhibitions that seek to educate the public about certain historical periods or parts of the world. A key part of this endeavour involves selecting objects that are able to represent something characteristic of the time period and society that is the focus of the exhibit. But what qualifies a particular object for this representational role? What criteria for the selection of such objects should be deployed? What, if anything, changes about the object when it is formally accepted as having such a representational role? Mereological questions cannot be avoided when one considers what is required for an object, or a collection of four objects, to represent a whole time period or a culture. One might also wonder what mereology might contribute to the planning of exhibitions. Museum conservation practices also raise a number of ontological questions of interest to philosophers. At what point do conservation efforts threaten the identity of the object? Can restoration fundamentally change an object to the extent that its continued display amounts to public deception?

Over the past few decades, philosophers have begun taking up the long overdue task of bringing the analytic tools of philosophy to bear on the many questions raised by museums. However there has been an history of mutual indifference to overcome. Despite being products of the same intellectual milieu, academic philosophy and museums have had surprisingly little contact. Academics specializing in other subjects, such as history, geology, and religious studies have had much more to do with museums than have philosophers. Part of the explanation for this is that museums are concerned with the same material objects that are of obvious interest to academics within many specific fields of study. Tellingly, there are museums of history, of religion, and even of mathematics; but, as yet, there are no museums of philosophy. Likewise, there are philosophies of history, of religion, of science, and so on; but there is no established branch of philosophy that might be named ‘philosophy of museums’. It is perhaps understandable that, in the days when museums were regarded primarily as places in which material objects were collected and displayed for observation and study, curators might have found few common projects with philosophers, who typically have had more abstracts concerns. Those days are, however, long past and there is now far more weight put on the process of interpretation and analysis within museums than was formerly the case. Curators are increasingly sensitive to the problems inherent in disclosing the meanings of the objects in their care. Exploring such problems opens the way for interactions which are fruitful for both philosophers and museum professionals. By bringing together philosophers whose work can contribute to answering the questions that arise from museum practice, this conference will go some way to consolidating the emergence of the sub-discipline of the philosophy of museums.

Registration form


The registration fee for the whole conference (excluding dinners and accommodation) is £80 (£65 for students/unwaged). Day registration is also available. The deadline for receipt of registration forms and full payment is 1st July. An Early Bird discount is available until 31st May 2013.

No registration is required to attend the opening event on the 23rd or the events at the Burrell Collection on the 25th.‌

Accommodation is plentiful in the West End of Glasgow. However, please book early as July is a popular month to visit the city. In planning your trip to Glasgow you may find the University of Glasgow Conference & Visitor Services website helpful. The website provides information about Glasgow, including details about accommodation near the University, travel advice and maps.

A limited amount of subsidised accommodation is available for graduate students wishing to attend the conference. Please contact Dr Victoria Harrison ( for further information.

Dr Victoria Harrison
School of Humanities
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ

Dr Gary Kemp
Senior Lecturer
School of Humanities
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ

Dr Anna Bergqvist
Geoffrey Manton Building
Rosamond Street West
off Oxford Road
M15 6LL

Launch Event: Tuesday 23rd July, 5.30 p.m. Hunterian Art Gallery. Open to the public.

Welcome by the Deputy and Senior Vice Principal, Neal Juster. Lecture by Mark O'Neill (Director of Policy and Research, Glasgow Life), 'Museums and their Paradoxes' with comments by Charles Taliaferro (Professor of Philosophy, St. Olaf College, Minnesota). The lecture will be followed by a wine reception in the Hunterian Art Gallery. No registration required.

Conference Schedule

Wednesday 24th July (Bridie Library, 32 University Avenue, University of Glasgow)

9.15 – 9.30 Welcome

9.30 - 10.50 Garry Hagberg, Bard College, New York, ‘Word and Object’


11.00 - 12.20 Beth Lord, University of Aberdeen, ‘“A Sudden Surprise of the Soul”: Wonder in Museums and Early Modern Philosophy’

12.20 - 1.00 Anna Bergqvist, Manchester Metropolitan University, ‘Framing Effects in Museums Narrative’


1.45 - 3.00 Constantine Sandis, Oxford Brookes, ‘Replicas and the Role of Museums’

3.00 – 3.40 Andreas Pantazatos, Durham University, 'The Normative Foundations of Stewardship and Trusteeship'


4.00 – 5.15 Michael Levine, University of Western Australia, ‘Museums and the Nostalgic Self’

5.30 – 6.30 Wine and Canapé reception at the Hunterian Museum. Welcome by Hunterian Director, Professor David Gaimster



Thursday 25th July

9.30 - 11.00 Graham Oddie, University of Colorado at Boulder, ‘What do we see in Museums?’ (Art History Lecture Theatre, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow). Introduction by Penny Enslin on behalf of the Journal of Philosophy of Education (sponsors of this lecture).

11.10 Depart for Burrell Collection

Free time to view the collection

Lunch 12.15

1.00 - 2.45 'Identity and Museum Objects' and 'Philosophy, Madness and Museums'. Presentations of research projects by advanced students from Hutchesons’ Grammar School (Burrell Collection Lecture Theatre). Introduced and chaired by Leon Robinson.

Break for refreshments

3.15 – 4.40 Public lecture and demonstration by Charles Taliaferro, St. Olaf College, Minnesota, and Jil Evans, Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts,  ‘How To Get Into A Work Of Art’. (Burrell Collection Lecture Theatre)

4.45 Depart Burrell Collection

5.45 - 7.00 Eileen John, University of Warwick, ‘The value of not liking what we see’. Venue: Bridie Library

Conference dinner


Friday 26th July (Bridie Library, University of Glasgow)

9.30 - 10.50 David Brown, University of St Andrews, ‘Context and Experiencing the Sacred’


11.00 - 12.20 Ivan Gaskell, Bard Graduate Center, New York, ‘The Museum of Big Ideas’

12.30 - 1.10 Sarah Hegenbart, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford, 'The Participatory Art Museum: Approached from a Philosophical Perspective'


2.00 - 2.40 Philip Tonner, Hutchesons’ Grammar School, Glasgow, ‘Museums, Ethics and Truth’

2.50 - 3.30 Paul Morrow, Vanderbilt University, 'Are Holocaust Museums Unique?'

3.30 - 4.10 Alda Rodrigues, University of Lisbon, 'People and Things'


4.20 - 5.00 Roundtable discussion