How do museums feel?

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Emotion in the Museum

DATE: 4 November 2019

13th – 14th March 2020

Humanities Research Centre, Berrick Saul Building

University of York

Keynote Speakers:

Professor Laurajane Smith                 Dr Bernadette Lynch


How do museums feel? Which of their histories are emotive, for whom, and why? What kinds of emotions could or should be represented — and evoked — by engaging with history? How should emotional experiences be facilitated in museum and heritage spaces, and to what ends?

Scholarship on the history of emotions has expanded rapidly since the turn of the twenty-first century. Within the academic disciplines of heritage and museum studies, a number of scholars have drawn attention to the role that emotion plays in the museum visitor experience, whether in relation to the curation of identification and belonging (Trofanenko, Mason, 2007; Lloyd, 2014) empathy for others (Smith, 2010; Witcomb, 2013), or the mediation of difficult histories (de Simine, 2013; Crooke, 2016). A more recent strand of work propelled by activists within the museum sector also draws attention to the wider structural conditions under which emotion may be forged and experienced in the museum, particularly in relation to race (Tolia-Kelly, 2016), class (Smith et al. 2011), gender and sexuality (Levin, 2010) and (dis)ability (Sandell et al. 2005).

That emotion is central to the visitor experience has long been recognised by practitioners in the sector, who have often sought to engage with visitor emotions as part of the movement towards ‘new museology’ — a shift which has also involved a new emphasis on diversity in content, engagement and audience development. In the UK, local authority and independent museums have a particular role to play as part of this shift. Their placement as ‘civic’ institutions and connection to local histories can enable them to engage with specific communities to develop meaningful emotion-centred exhibitions and experiences. However, such working practices are changing as a result of austerity and the more general marketisation of the cultural sector, which has brought with it both new challenges and opportunities for community-centred, emotional work (Morse and Monroe, 2018).

With these developments in mind, Emotion in the Museum will explore the changing role of emotion in the experiences of museums and heritage, from the perspectives of both the visitor and the practitioner. We will consider the meaning and usefulness of ‘emotion’ in its broadest sense, and explore emotions which aren’t typically attended to in academic or practitioner literature, such as joy, boredom, ‘flat affect’ (Smith and Campbell, 2017), disgust and fear. We are especially interested in hosting conversations around the emotional well-being of museum staff in times of economic and social crisis, as well as the impact that researching emotional histories can have on researchers and curators, and would welcome papers on this theme.

The two-day conference is a collaborative event organised by the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP) at the University of York and York Museums Trust. It aims is to facilitate cross-sector conversations among academic researchers and museum professionals about the role that emotions across the spectrum might play in unlocking renewed understanding of personal and collective pasts, presents and futures.

We invite contributions from museum and heritage professionals in any area, from researchers in disciplines across the arts, humanities and social sciences, and from special interest and community groups, including contributions which represent different national perspectives and case-studies. Although we invite contributions primarily in the form of 20-minute presentations, we are also keen to develop alternative formats and would welcome suggestions for plenaries, fringe workshops and facilitated sessions across the two days.

Contributions may encompass a wide range of themes and approaches but should focus predominantly on the museums and heritage contexts. The following list is suggestive, not prescriptive:


  • Joy, laughter, anticipation
  • Sadness, anger, fear, disgust
  • Boredom and ‘flat affect’
  • Emotional disengagement and restraint
  • Empathy
  • Decolonisation and emotional work
  • Memory and nostalgia
  • Emotion and imagination
  • Researching emotive histories
  • Emotion, community engagement and participatory practice
  • Emotion and politics
  • Emotion and museum activism
  • The ethics of emotion-focused museum work
  • Emotion work and museum governance
  • Gender, emotion and emotional labour
  • Emotion in museum learning and education
  • Emotions and everyday life
  • New audience research with visitors to heritage sites and museums
  • Facilitating emotion through museum design practice

We are mindful of the budgetary constraints facing early career researchers, independent scholars and museums and their staff. We are therefore working to ensure that the conference is financially accessible to a wide range of attendees.

To submit a proposal, please send an abstract of 250-300 words (including an indication of the preferred format of your contribution), together with a brief biographical note of no more than 150 words, to by Thursday 12th December 2019.

Queries can be addressed to the conference organisers Dr Geoff Cubitt and Dr Catherine Oakley via the email address above.



Your Comments

  1. Irina Duarte |

    Hello. I would like to see the detailed programme and fees, in order to attend the conference. Where can I find it?

    Thank you
    Best regards

    Irina Duarte