Museum Bodies provides an account of how museums have staged, prescribed and accommodated a repertoire of bodily practices, from their emergence in the eighteenth century to the present day. As long as museums have existed, their visitors have been scrutinised, both formally and informally, and their behaviour calibrated as a register of cognitive receptivity and cultural competence. Yet there has been little sustained theoretical or practical attention given to the visitors' embodied encounter with the museum. In Museum Bodies Helen Rees Leahy discusses the politics and practice of visitor studies, and the differentiation and exclusion of certain bodies on the basis of, for example, age, gender, educational attainment, ethnicity and disability. At a time when museums are more than ever concerned with size, demographic mix and the diversity of their audiences, as well as with the ways in which visitors engage with and respond to institutional space and content, this wide-ranging study of visitors' embodied experience of the museum is long overdue.
Helen Rees Leahy is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for Museology, University of Manchester, UK. Previously Helen worked as a curator and museum director for over 12 years, and has organised numerous exhibitions of fine art and design. Helen has published on topics relating to national identity, art collecting, the art market and art criticism, and her work has addressed practices of individual and institutional collecting, in both historical and contemporary contexts, including issues of patronage, display and interpretation.
'...Leahy brings a fresh perspective to this topic through her focus on the physical modalities of looking, moving, and talking in the museum setting...the overall academic tone and quality of this volume make it valuable to researchers interested in both historical and contemporary museum studies...Recommended.' -Choice
'We have waited a long time for an adequate recognition that museum visitors usually bring their bodies with them, but we need wait no more. This is it - a book that brings the messy, varied, corporeal, sensate, touching, feeling, inquiring bodies of visitors into the centre of the museum scene and of museum theory. A significant book that will leave its mark on the field for some time to come.' Tony Bennett, University of Western Sydney, Australia
'This is a fascinating history, from above and below, of how from the eighteenth century to the present museums have sought to inculcate certain ideal forms of comportment in their visitors, but had to accommodate many recalcitrant bodies too. Rees Leahy intersperses her account of the making of the modern museum experience with asides that explore how certain contemporary artists have created installations that disrupt expectations and thereby expose the contingency of the many conventions (don’t touch, no running, speak softly) we now take for granted. Reading this book will radically transform your experience of the museum by sensitizing you to all the controls, but also all the other possibilities for sense-making, embedded in the contemporary museum.’ David Howes, Concordia University, Canada
'As museums shift focus from art to audience, object to experience, Helen Rees Leahy offers stimulating and overdue socio-historical perspectives on the museum visit.’ Andrew McClellan, Tufts University, USA
'Many histories of museums take an institutional perspective or recount how collections were acquired, or describe the people that acquired them. Museum Bodies stands out because it is a history of how people visit and how they physically react to what they find once they get through the museum doors.' Museums Journal