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


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transformation, to the development of praxiological approaches to practical and professional texts, or to the study of historical documents and archives.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.

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  1. 1.

    The statement is available online: [http://network.icom.museum/fileadmin/user_upload/minisites/cidoc/DocStandards/Statement6v2EN.pdf].

  2. 2.

    In this paper, I focus on documentation as a professional practice. For a study of visitors’ documentation practices and innovations in museum documentation systems, see Cameron and Mengler (2009).

  3. 3.

    See Garfinkel (1967), Heath and Luff (1996), Hartswood et al. (2011), on patient records; Bittner (1967), Cicourel (1968), Meehan (1986), Komter (2006), on police records; Zimmerman (1969), on the management of records in Welfare Institutions; and, for more broaden considerations on professional texts and practices of working with documents in an ethnomethodological perspective, see Wolff (2004), Watson (2009), Atkinson and Coffey (2011).

  4. 4.

    As Garfinkel and Bittner write, “In reviewing the contents of case folders it seemed to us that a case folder could be read in one or the other of two contrasting and irreconcilable ways. On the one hand, it could be read as an actuarial record. On the other hand, it could be read as the record of a therapeutic contract between the clinic as a medico-legal enterprise and the patient” (1967: 198).

  5. 5.

    The MNAM’s collection is constituted indeed of around 120,000 artworks (at the time of the study), among which only a few thousands are presented to the public (at the museum or in other institutions), while the others are kept in the museum’s storage, in-between two presentations.

  6. 6.

    For a broader reflection on “complexity” in knowledge practices, see also Law and Mol (eds.) (2002), and more particularly, in relation to the topic of this paper, Callon’s chapter for a discussion of writing practices as a tool for managing complexity. I owe this relevant reference to one of the anonymous reviewers.

  7. 7.

    The MNAM also uses a digital information system to manage its collection, entitled G-coll. Some of the pieces of information are to be found on both sites, paper and digital: for instance, some elements available online have their source in the paper record, and some documents in the record are printed from the online database. Nevertheless, the two systems are not equivalent and are not used for the same purposes. In this paper, I focus on the record as a documentary unit.

  8. 8.

    Indeed, there is not only one record about the artwork in the museum: for instance, one might find a record at the conservation and restoration department, or in the registrars’ own archives. But the record I focus on here presents itself as a centralized collection of pieces of information about the artwork in the museum.

  9. 9.

    As Domínguez Rubio (2015) explains about Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the best way to preserve an artwork is sometimes to keep it stored.

  10. 10.

    As Meehan explains: “When records have a projected external career, they will be primarily accountable to formal legal and organizational expectations and will be taken at face value. Indeed, they are designed to fulfill these expectations. […]. Although such records can be used internally and interpreted ‘between the lines,’ this possible interpretation does not define its production. Similarly, records with internal careers differ greatly in form and content. Although these could be used externally, it is questionable what use could be made of them by outsiders as they do not provide an ‘objective’ account to be taken at face value. Rather, they depend upon an interpretive ‘between the lines’ reading and access to the organizational routines and expectations that define their production and are presupposed in such a reading” (1986: 88).

  11. 11.

    Although I do net delve into this matter here, and as a reviewer fruitfully suggested, it would be worth engaging in a proper study of how such standards of description emerged—following, for instance, Bowker and Star’s perspectives on classification (1999).

  12. 12.

    Museums indeed purchase a supposedly fixed version of the artwork: that is why a practice such as the French painter Bonnard’s, who is famous for giving brushstrokes on his canvas on the museum’s wall, is not tolerated. Of course, such a principle is challenged by pieces which imply a process of change, or even loss, as part of their definition, like sculptures made of ice (50 Cakes of Ice, by Rafael Ferrer, presented at the MoMA in 1970).

  13. 13.

    For another study of this situation, see Kreplak (2018).

  14. 14.

    For a picture, see [https://www.centrepompidou.fr/cpv/ressource.action?param.id=FR_R-12e8ae49dbc1b28098446d11a02d8f2f&param.idSource=FR_O-e2feffa6c1f8d4d8b596d287c6f2ae1].

  15. 15.

    For instance, see Scholte and Wharton (2011).

  16. 16.

    For an investigation of the reproducibility of protocols in the context of molecular biology, see Lynch 2002.


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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.

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Correspondence to Yaël Kreplak.

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Kreplak, Y. On Thick Records and Complex Artworks: A Study of Record-Keeping Practices at the Museum. Hum Stud 41, 697–717 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-018-9479-3

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