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210 × 148 × 15 mm
176 pages
29 illustrations
01 Jul 2016

The Return of Curiosity What Museums are Good For in the Twenty-first Century Nicholas Thomas

Over the last twenty years museums have proliferated, attracting new audiences and assuming new prominence in public life. The Return of Curiosity offers a fresh perspective on museums and what they may now be good for. Nicholas Thomas argues that what is special about museums are their collections, which are not just rich resources for reflection, but creative technologies that enable people to make new things in the present.

Reflecting on art galleries, science and history institutions, and museums around the world, Thomas shows that in times marked by insecurity and increasing conflict, museums can help to sustain and enrich society. They stimulate a curiosity that is vital to understanding and negotiating the cosmopolitan but dangerous world we all now inhabit.

The Return of Curiosity is a book that anyone who visits and enjoys museums will find engaging and stimulating. Curators, arts and heritage professionals, policymakers and all museum studies teachers and students need to own and read this influential book.

‘this is a useful and deeply felt study which addresses many of the most important issues that vex the museum as it advances, ever more popular and more visited, into the 21st century.’ — Apollo Magazine

‘The thrust of his ruminations on the nature of collections is that, like collections of people, the sum is greater than the parts because of the dialogues, conversations, connections and interactions between inanimate objects (animated by both curators and public) as well as people. If this sounds twee, it is not, as his writing is spare, elegant and persuasive. And in small compass, the issues he raises are extraordinarily wide-ranging . . . In its quiet, well-mannered way, Thomass essay is a passionate polemic, of profound interest to the visitor and the museum professional.’ — The Art Newspaper

‘the conclusion to Nicholas Thomas’s short but inspiring book might be a rallying call for the troubled political times we are living through . . . he not only makes a cogent argument for the relevance of museums in the 21st century, but also connects this to the need to understand and engage with our opponents’ — Katy Barrett

‘Nicholas Thomas has written a highly intelligent and intellectually wide-ranging analysis as to why museums matter and are so successful in the twenty first century . . . It is wonderful to read someone who works at the heart of museums writing so inspiringly about the ways in which museum collections (and not just what is on display) encourage artistic interpretation, research, self-discovery and free thinking.’ — Charles Saumarez Smith, Secretary and Chief Executive, Royal Academy of Arts

‘Nicholas Thomass The Return of Curiosity is a fresh and critical look at museums as sites of knowledge and wonder. He calls on museums to reveal the complexity of their collections as things with histories as things. This is not, he argues, because everyone needs a lesson in the history of collection, but because the strange gathering of related stuff that constitutes the collection has a certain magic it amounts to a realm of exploration that people ought to have the opportunity to enter and enjoy as well as understand. Museum visitors have agency. And Thomas persuasively argues that museums should do everything in their power to encourage their visitors to follow their curiosities. For this curiosity, this questioning is a skill . . . [And] that is what, for all of their faults, museums are good for in the twenty-first century. I couldnt agree more.’ — James Cuno, President & CEO, The J. Paul Getty Trust

‘An intelligent, balanced and reflective overview of what it is, exactly, that matters about museums at the moment a broad question that should concern all present or would-be museum professionals, and any general reader who cares about the place of material culture in contemporary life.’ — Stephen Deuchar, Director, The Art Fund

‘In this eloquently argued book, one of the worlds most distinguished academic museum directors refutes critiques of museums as sites of illegitimate authority, pointing out that museums sustain civil society, and constitute a space of participation in public life. Thomas further contends that museums can only function well if they remain sites of scholarship, their collections telling assemblages rather than individual artworks and specimens, prompting and nurturing curiosity not only about visitors own societies but others, too. I breathe a sigh of relief that so fine a scholar should have written such a sober and well-informed account of the positive role of museums of all kinds. Let us hope that critics, trustees, bureaucrats, and patrons pay attention.’ — Ivan Gaskell, Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies and Head of the Focus Project, Bard Graduate Center

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Nicholas Thomas is Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, London. He has curated exhibitions in many countries and has been the Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge since 2006. His many books include Oceanic Art (1995), Possessions: Indigenous Art/Colonial Culture(1999), Tattoo: Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and Europe (Reaktion, 2005) and Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (2012), which won the Wolfson History Prize,


The Ascendancy of the Museum

The Museum as Method

The Collection as Creative Technology




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