Human Studies

, Volume 41, Issue 4, pp 697–717 | Cite as

On Thick Records and Complex Artworks: A Study of Record-Keeping Practices at the Museum

  • Yaël KreplakEmail author
Empirical Study/Analysis


In 1967 Garfinkel and Bittner were investigating good organizational reasons for bad clinic records, demonstrating how the reading of such records as sociological data should be reported to the understanding of their production’s practical contingencies and to the situated circumstances of their use. This seminal paper opened new avenues of research related to the study of records in various professional contexts and of their transformation, to the development of praxiological approaches to practical and professional texts, or to the study of historical documents and archives. To contribute to this ethnomethodological strand of research, I propose a case-study of artworks’ records management at the museum, investigated as a perspicuous site to reflect upon how artworks are experienced, apprehended and defined in the institutional ordinary business. Drawing on observations and materials collected at the French National Museum of Modern Art, I study records’ careers (how they are produced, used and transformed by museum’s members) and describe their material and organizational properties, by giving a close look at some elements (initial artworks’ descriptions, installation instructions and confidential correspondence). More particularly, I focus on one distinctive property of some records: their thickness, investigated as a scheme of interpretation of the situated features of documentation work. By reading artworks’ records as local collective practices of assemblage, disruption and reconfiguration of pieces of documentation, I demonstrate that what is documented in this process is not only the artwork: it is also the collective work of working with artworks, dealt with as ongoing achievements of institutional practices.


Ethnomethodology Contemporary art Museum practices Documentation Archives Record-keeping Instructions Descriptions 



This study was funded by the Laboratoire d’excellence Créations, Arts et Patrimoine (Labex CAP) and by the French national council for visual arts (CNAP) and hosted at the French National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. It would not have been possible without the constant support and generosity of the staff at the contemporary collections department. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the Université de Lausanne, in Paris (at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and the Archives nationales), as well as at the International Institute of Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis in Westerville (Ohio). This paper benefited a lot from numerous comments by Albert J. Meehan: I am very grateful for his careful and generous reading. I owe, among other things, the title of this paper to Albert Ogien. The two anonymous reviewers provided with insightful comments, references and ideas for further research: many thanks to them as well.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All pictures were made by the author, with the consent of the museum staff for reproduction.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SENSE Laboratory (Orange Labs)ChâtillonFrance
  2. 2.IMM-EHESS (Paris)ParisFrance

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