Toward an Occult Museology: The Museum as Spirit Laboratory

Toward an Occult Museology: The Museum as Spirit Laboratory

Lois H. Silverman

Introduction: The International Council of Museums defines museology as a field of scientific study that “includes all the efforts at theorization and critical thinking about the museal field” with “the common denominator” being “a specific relation between man and reality…. expressed by documenting that which is real and can be grasped through direct sensory contact” (Desvallees and Mairesse, 2010, p. 56). This prevailing view, although accepted globally, stands in stark contrast to the etymology of the word “museum” from the Greek word mouseion as a temple or haunt of the muses and to the plethora of historical and contemporary accounts of seemingly non-material museum experiences characterized by qualities of intuition (Fisher, 2006), psychometry (Fischer, 2013), magic (e.g., Ciaccia, 2022), and other unexplained phenomena. What if, instead of overlooking these anomalous visitor experiences which rarely gain notice in mainstream museological literature, a framework was crafted to elevate, connect, and study “unusual” experiences that occur in the presence of objects across museums of art, history, and anthropology? Inspired by the Society for Scientific Exploration 2023 annual conference theme of Maverick Science, this paper aims to heed the call by Durakiewicz (2022) to accept risk and embrace diversity in service to envisioning a new occult museology.

Methods: This integrative and interdisciplinary study will sample and connect several bodies of literature in order to generate new knowledge. First, this paper will briefly survey and describe the history of and prevailing approaches to the scientific study of visitor experiences in museums, including common findings and “norms.” Secondly, the paper will then present and describe a number of historical and contemporary accounts of non-material museum experiences, including compelling examples from non-museological literature as well as from visitor studies in major museums, like the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others. Third, the study will draw upon a variety of relevant occult and spiritual perspectives, including animism and spiritualism, to offer a preliminary framework for describing non-material museum experiences. Finally, the paper will map a theoretical and research agenda to further develop an occult museology, including suggested research methods.

Results: The results of this integrative review will offer an important reconceptualization of the importance of anomalous experiences in museums and a framework for expanded study. This new perspective will inspire museologists, visitor studies researchers, and museum practitioners toward greater diversity in theoretical and practical perspectives and the role of museums in society. The results of this study will hopefully chart a course both conceptually and methodologically to foster further research into the spiritual potential and value of museums.

Implications / Discussion: Beyond its value to the field of museology, this study aims to inspire scholars of anomalies research to consider and recognize the value of museums as important sites and laboratories for a host of topics, including spirit communication, mediumship, healing, and other unexplained phenomena.

Lois H. Silverman, PhD, MSW, is Professor of Museum Studies, Public Scholar of Museum Education, and Director of Graduate Studies for the Museum Studies Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. A longtime museologist, visitor studies specialist, and museum consultant, she is the author of The Social Work of Museums (Routledge, 2010) and the forthcoming chapter entitled On Museums, Transcendence, and Magic in Flourishing in Museums (Routledge, 2023), among many publications. Her current research interests include the spiritual potential of museums, including the intersections of museums, magic, and spiritualism.

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Published on February 4, 2024