Welcome to PRAM

Welcome to a refreshed PRAM – the Practitioner Research in the Art Museum blog – that explores what it means to be a practitioner researcher in the art museum.  It looks at how research and practice operates in art museums today and by whom and explores how we might expand on current models to re-shape and broaden our understandings.  My background is in art practice, gallery education and research and I have a longstanding interest in widening access to art through supporting visitors and curators to engage in processes of shared enquiry.  I see value in framing the gallery as a space for research-led and reflective practice where museum professionals can operate as practitioner researchers, working with audiences and colleagues to co-produce new knowledge.

In this blog I worry away at questions relating to knowledge, creativity, expertise, rigour and authority and look at models of collaborative and practice based research being employed in art schools, universities and schools to see how these can be applied in the art museum.  I ground my ideas by learning at first hand from art institutions that are developing innovative cross-disciplinary and collaborative research-led practice, both in the UK and internationally. And I draw attention to writers and thinkers whose ideas are helpful and relevant in reconceptualising how research and practice operates in art museums currently.

This blog began life as part of an AHRC funded fellowship I undertook from September 2017 to July 2018 to research and develop a framework for practitioner-led co-produced research for the art museum of the twenty-first century.  This fellowship allowed me to step away from the role I had then as Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate to read, research and write.  I visited museums and art organisations, interviewed and spoke with colleagues in the UK and internationally, facilitated seminars and talks and wrote this blog and a book – ‘Rethinking Research in the Art Museum‘ – that was published by Routledge in 2019.  The experience challenged and broadened my thinking about my own practice and art museum research in its entirety.

Participants at ‘The Physicality of Research’ seminar at Tate in June 2018

In August 2018 I returned to Tate and took up the role of Head of Research in February 2019. For the next year  I worked alongside others to write the Research Strategy, reframe our practice and develop research projects.  It was a rich and productive time.  Things changed profoundly when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and over the last two years, whilst continuing to support research and implement the strategy across the organisation, much of my time has been spent managing people and projects in challenging circumstances.  I have learnt a great deal and benefitted from working with extraordinarily dynamic and thoughtful people across different departments and disciplines in a creative and ambitious organisation. I have been privileged to connect with a wide range of brilliant colleagues from across the arts and academia who have expanded my thinking.  However I have missed writing and researching and in December 2022 I left Tate, to be able to focus my energy on these.  I plan to bring all of my experience and my ongoing explorations to my writing in this blog going forward.  And I hope to include the voices of fellow practitioner researchers as guest contributors.

As I wrote when I began the blog, the title ‘Practitioner Research in the Art Museum’ is a little too wordy for my liking.  However the acronym PRAM is very appealing. As well as the familiar definition of a carriage for young children, the Oxford English Dictionary also describes a pram as a ‘flat-bottomed boat for shipping cargo’.  I still think, even though it is a bit cheesy, that this blog functions as a means to transport ideas, as a place where ‘young’ and emerging thoughts can be communicated and carried forward.  As I enter the next new phase of my professional journey I look forward to sharing more of the cargo.

Historical perspectives on museum research

Part of the reason why I became interested in how research operates within the art museum was that I found it very confusing. My sense was that the dominant model of research was of a specialized activity, based largely around the collection, which curators were tasked with undertaking. However, my experience was that curators were rarely able to commit time to collection-focused research. At the same time there was a wealth of other activity happening across the museum that often went unrecognised as ‘research’. Amongst others, conservators, learning team members, those working in the library and archive and colleagues in marketing were regularly engaged in rigorous modes of enquiry, often practice-based, that led to the generation of new insights for themselves and others. Yet this work was at times overlooked in conversations and publications around research. So why is the model of the scholar curator so dominant?

In trying to find answers to this I have recently been examining the history of museums to see if historic constructions of research can help illuminate how current discourses are operating. My investigations suggested to me three historic agendas that help formalise the central role of the ‘expert’ curator and the primacy of curatorial research in justifying the choice of the objects in a collection and to some extent the museum itself. Below is a whistle-stop tour of these ideas.

  1. Research as a means of conferring status on the collector

The scholar curator first emerges in the service of those wealthy Europeans who, from the 15th century onwards were acquiring rare and precious objects to demonstrate their power, status, erudition, and taste.  For example, Cosimo de Medici, the head of the powerful Florentine family relied on the advice of the artist Donatello to acquire paintings for the palace he had built in 1444. The palace itself and the collection of objects within it constituted a visible demonstration of the family’s political and financial dominance.  Therefore, from the earliest formulations of the museum, the quality of the collection and the judgements on which it is founded are of vital importance as a reflection of the owners themselves.

2. Research as a way of ‘ordering’ the world

The 16th century sees the growing popularity of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – private collections of miscellaneous objects that presented a sometimes eclectic picture of the world. However, when we reach the 17th century we see the establishment of private collections whose purpose was actively to assist scholars. The drive to collect and taxonimise was aligned with the Enlightenment ambition to establish a universal science based on order and classification. Objects from antiquity and specimens from nature in private collections were examined and rationalised to increase knowledge of humanity and the wider world at that time.

One such individual was Dr John Lettsom (1744 –1815) whose estate encompassed the house where I live in South London. An eminent physician, who established the Medical Society of London, he also acquired sizeable botanical and geological collections through financing expeditions. He also researched and published.

The naturalist’s and traveller’s companion, containing instructions for collecting and preserving objects of natural history and for promoting inquiries after human knowledge in general. John Lettsom, 1774

In several cases it was these private collections with the associated scholarship undertaken by private individuals that provided the sources for the ‘university museum’. Many will be familiar with John Tradescant the 16th century British naturalist, who created a large collection of artifacts and natural specimens. This collection became the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum, the first university museum. Likewise, the collector and ‘Grand Tourist’ Richard, seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, bequeathed his works of art and library to the University of Cambridge in 1816, seeking to create a place of learning as well as a gallery

This trend away from the private ownership of collections was accompanied by the growing involvement and greater status of expert ‘keepers’ whose job in part was to establish and maintain collections for use as educational resources. And whereas research had been regularly undertaken by scholarly amateurs, within art museums increasingly it was connoisseur art dealers and curators who were tasked with creating new taxonomies of schools and histories.

3. Research to create and uphold a dominant narrative

Expanding on the collection as an educational resource, a further development sees the creation of the national museum in the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally associated with Enlightenment ideals of knowledge and rational judgment bringing about a just and ‘better’ society, the national museum was imagined as a ‘utopian’ space providing the ‘best’ of science and culture to educate and improve the populace.

What constitutes the ‘best’ of art and culture is needless to say inextricably linked to the presentation of a particular national narrative through objects. We can see this playing out in the early collection displays within the Louvre Museum in Paris founded in 1793 and conceived as a centre of scholarship for the whole world. The chronological sequence of paintings displayed culminated in the French School, thereby affirming the principle of progress on which the French Revolution was based. At the same time, the presentation of the collection was consciously designed to communicate that the future of art belongs to France. Museums and their rationally organized collections thus offered an irresistible opportunity for newly formed nation states to present a positive national narrative.  Consequently, we have the opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (1808), Prado in Madrid (1819) and the National Gallery in London (1824), amongst others.

We can see therefore that by time we enter the 20th century, curators working within museums to build, maintain and display their collections are tasked not only with demonstrating the taste, maturity and status of the owners (be they individuals or nation states) but also justifying the irrefutable rationality of these collections. At the same time their expertise is relied upon to tell a powerful narrative that unites these two agendas, thereby validating the very existence of the museum. The writer Anthony Shelton makes this point beautifully in identifying that the expert curator brings their knowledge and rigorous research processes to the object thereby ensuring the integrity and authority of the collection. This becomes a self-serving cycle, whereby ‘curatorship guarantees the knowledge-value of material culture, whilst the knowledge-value of material culture reciprocally guarantees the curatorial authority on which museums are based.’

Having explored this history, the dominance of the scholar curator as the legitimate researcher within the museum makes more sense to me. However, as regular readers of this blog will know, that does not mean I think that this model is appropriate for the 21st century museum. Museums clearly need collection-focused research undertaken by experts, but that is not the only form of research that should be (and is being) done within these complex organisations.

A longer version of this text formed the basis of a talk I gave recently at Cambridge University. A recording of this talk can be found here.

Collaboration and Authorship

There are certain phrases that to me brilliantly encapsulate a complex and important issue.  I came across one of these in the early 2000s when I was exploring methods of collaborative research and it has stayed with me since then.  The quote is from a text written by Peter Reason in 1998 on participatory action research, and it goes as follows; ‘one of the key questions about research is the political one; who owns the knowledge, and thus who can define the reality?’

One reason why this quote is so significant in my view is that it draws attention to the fundamental relationship between research, knowledge and power and reminds us that whoever authors or ‘owns’ any research holds a great deal of power, which in turn comes with responsibility.  Specifically, Peter Reason highlights the relationships of power and representations of knowledge that researchers need to negotiate if they are working collaboratively.  This applies throughout a research process but is especially true at the point when any findings are written up or communicated publicly in any way.  For it is at this moment that the ‘reality’ of the research becomes defined.

Peter Reason’s observation has resonated for me particularly when I have been involved in research or evaluation projects that have explicitly been concerned with empowering participants and/or have aimed to enable co-researchers to have an active role in improving their practice or transforming their social, personal, or working conditions.  In projects of these kinds, I have at times occupied the role of principal researcher or evaluation consultant, tasked with ‘leading’ the project, or in the latter case, examining and analysing the success of an activity in achieving its aims.  Over time I have become aware of the privileged and powerful position the researcher or evaluator occupies in these projects, not least because it is generally their responsibility to author the final report.

Take for example a collaborative research project that involves older people who are not regular museum visitors as co-researchers exploring models of co-curation within the museum.  Underpinning the project is the ambition to give these older people agency and visibility. Such a project might be funded by an external trust or foundation or research funding body and ‘co-led’ by a museum staff member and an academic, both of whom are likely to have developed the idea initially.  The project might well also be evaluated by an external consultant.  During the project activities are structured to give the older people freedom to lead, experiment, and develop new knowledge and practices, guided by the museum staff member and academic who work alongside them throughout the process.  

However, in my experience, at the culmination of the project it is more than likely to be the museum staff member and the academic who will write up the research findings in a final paper and go on to speak about the project at academic and professional networking conferences.  Likewise, it will be the evaluation consultant who will author the report detailing the success of the project.  In both cases the voices of the participants will hopefully be present in the reports and their views and opinions highly visible.  Nonetheless, even though this project seeks to give the older people power, at this vital moment when the ‘reality’ of what happened is being defined and communicated, the agency that comes with authorship is effectively removed from the older participants and placed in the hands of the researchers and evaluator.

There are often pragmatic reasons why research and evaluation reports are authored in this way.  Some of these might include that the funders have stipulated it, or that the project was not designed to enable collaborative writing and evaluation once the actual programming activity had ended.  Alternatively, the older people might not have the time or resources to be able to attend conferences or even to write up their thoughts after the project has ended.  And whereas there will be considerable professional capital to be gained for the researchers in ‘owning’ this project, the same may not always be true of other participants.  Either way, it can be challenging to ensure that a research project of this kind is authentically co-owned at the point of reporting and presentation.

There are no easy answers, yet there are alternatives.  In her book on Inclusive Curating in contemporary art, Jade French describes how zines can provide a mode of ‘democratic communication’ and can challenge the hierarchies present within more formal research publishing routes.  Similarly, Dr Roz Stewart-Hall has worked for many years pioneering the use of participatory models in the field of evaluation, for example on Tate’s Circuit programme.  These are just two examples and there is not space here to delve into the potential of digital technology to allow for co-authorship.  What cannot be overlooked though is the issue of representation, power, and authorship in research. Therefore, Peter Reason’s provocation is one that researchers need to have at the forefront of their minds from the very earliest stages of planning any research project that involves others, and especially any initiative that frames itself as collaborative in any way

Practice research – what’s new?

I have been thinking about practice research a fair bit recently.  As the title of this site suggests, research, practice, and the relationship between the two are subjects of enduring interest to me and I have written in previous posts on practice research, here and here.  I was prompted to revisit this topic again partly because of recent conversations I have had with UK, European and US colleagues and partly because of a recent blog post from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which spells out their support for practice research.  The AHRC post in turn draws on a recently published report on practice research published by the Practice Research Advisory Group (PRAG UK).

I will not go into the details of the PRAG report or the AHRC post, both of which are available to read online, but I will flag a few things that stood out for me.  In the first instance, both texts provide definitions of practice research, although these slightly differ from one another.  Whereas in the PRAG report, practice research is characterized as ‘when practice is the significant method conveyed in a research output’, in the AHRC post practice research is defined as ‘any form of arts and humanities research that incorporates, reflects upon, or embodies practice as part of the research process or the research outputs’.   Whilst I welcome the broad reaching and inclusive framing adopted by the AHRC, to my mind the PRAG definition is the more useful in the museum context.  This is not least because the latter’s focus on practice as a legitimate research method helps foreground the rigorous modes of inquiry that museum practitioners undertake.  I also wonder what forms of research might fall outside the AHRC’s definition of practice research, given that both the PRAG report and the AHRC blog acknowledge that ‘all research involves some form of practice’?

I am nit-picking though and would stress again how much more positive it is to have a broad definition, rather than a narrow exclusionary understanding of practice research, given how difficult it is to pin down this slippery form of knowledge generation.  Other encouraging observations of relevance to museum-based researchers in these publications include the acknowledgement that practice research does not necessarily lend itself to text-based outputs (and can include artefacts, performances, and exhibitions) and that it often takes place in communities through collaboration. These, combined with the recognition in the PRAG report that practice research can offer ‘ways of knowing’ that are intuitive, tacit, embodied, imaginative, affective, and sensory, can only help validate the work of museum practitioner researchers engaged in collaborative explorations with internal and external colleagues.  

Participants in the ‘Get Art’ project at Chisenhale Gallery in the 1990s – a reminder that innovative and experimental gallery education projects have been happening for many years!

My recent conversations with museum colleagues have reinforced for me the extraordinarily rich and rigorous research that is currently being done within museums and how vital, yet fragile research as an activity is within these institutions.  Earlier in March I listened with interest to a presentation given by the museologist Francois Mairesse at an event convened by The Flemish Institution for Cultural Heritage (FARO) in Brussels. In his talk, Professor Mairesse reminded us that the 2022 ICOM definition privileges research as one of the foremost activities of the museum, but he questioned how much time and resource is actually allocated within museums to enable this research to be done.  Consequently, in his view most research in museums is undertaken by academics, whilst well-established hierarchies within academia in what constitutes ‘valid’ research mean that museum-based research tends to be neither adequately recognized, nor funded.  Professor Mairesse took a global perspective, and although his comments suggest that research is operating in challenging circumstances, he concluded by emphasizing how important museums are as sites of investigation into the complex problems facing the world today. 

Reflecting on this talk has reinforced in my mind the importance of investing in the research that IS being done by curators, conservators, learning curators and many others in museums, often against the odds.  In light of this, the AHRC’s public endorsement of practice research in all its different manifestations is all the more welcome. The AHRC have said that they ‘welcome further discussion on the next big idea which will help support existing practice communities to flourish and exciting new areas of research to emerge’. They point to their Where Next scheme as an open opportunity to submit ideas to them, which I would urge all practitioner researchers in UK museums to do!

Experiential Programming

This last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Oslo.  I spoke at the Making Sense event organized by the recently formed Nordic Network of museums and separately met with colleagues from the Munch Museum.  It was a rich and fascinating experience.

The focus of Making Sense was ‘art-based learning’. We heard presentations from the national museums of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland on how they were exploring pedagogic methods that draw on artistic practice to connect their audiences more closely with art.  The emphasis throughout was on moving away from didactic teaching towards visitor-centred, more playful, and enquiry-based approaches that seek to make the art museum a more inclusive space.  As well as talk of artist-led and arts-informed pedagogy, there was acknowledgement of the values that inform this work.  Presenters spoke of the need to allow for risk and uncertainty, whilst Anna Carin Hedberg from the National Museum in Oslo used the term ‘trust-based interpretation’ when describing the interventions in the collection display spaces that actively encourage visitors to connect with the works on show in multi-sensory ways.

Room 28 at the National Museum showing the interactive interpretation built into the furniture

One presentation that resonated for me was given by Jonte Nynas and Johan Hildingsson from the Nordic Watercolour Museum in Sweden. ‘Art promenade’ is an art educational project aimed at care homes in the municipality of Tjörn where the museum is based that aims to make art accessible for elderly people who cannot visit the museum. The project started during the Covid-19 pandemic, working with the care-home residents, and has had various iterations, from an initial digital tutorial for residents, to providing in-person training for the care home staff and more hands-on workshops using watercolour techniques.

What struck me as Jonte and Johan were presenting was how genuinely exploratory and experimental their approach was.  Working over a longer and seemingly unfixed time period, their process appeared to involve making an intervention (the digital tutorial for instance), then pausing, speaking to staff and residents, analysing and reflecting on what had taken place, considering what had worked well and what did not appear to be so helpful and then making a subsequent intervention to try another approach.  This process happened several times as they reworked and refined the project to provide a fuller and more sustained experience for the residents and staff.

A similar highly thoughtful, yet experimental approach is being taken by colleagues working at the Munch Museum in Oslo in relation to their interactive gallery space on the 11th floor of the museum. This space is periodically given over to artists who work closely with Learning colleagues to design an immersive environment where children especially are encouraged to freely explore, create, and play.  The first intervention in 2022 – ‘The Brain Maze’ – was created by the artist Jenny Bringaker and the team at the Munch are now preparing to open the second installation.  In each case the aim is to support children and their families (especially those who may not be familiar with art museums) to feel welcome and to see the potential for art to play a positive role in their lives. 

Before, during and after each installation the team engage in extensive planning, observations and audience research.  They test out ideas with children as the installations are taking shape, review with visitors during the time the installation is active and undertake evaluation once the exhibition is closed.  Crucially, as became apparent as I was speaking to them, the team analyse and reflect on this research with the artists and make changes to the installations as each work is being created.  They also draw on their knowledge and direct experience to inform the next iteration of the programme. Thus, the project unfolds and responds, as opposed to being fixed from the start, with the programming team researching and learning as it progresses.

I titled this blog entry ‘experiential programming’ as the approach being taken in relation to these two projects reminded me of the Experiential Learning Model.  This theory of learning focuses on direct experience, coupled with reflection as an effective way of generating new understandings.  It is regularly represented as a circular process. 

Experiential learning is at the centre of arts practice and therefore in many ways seems appropriate in the art museum learning context.  It is often what we museum educators seek to facilitate for our visitors, but perhaps do not so often see it as a way of developing our own practitioner knowledge. 

Yet as these projects demonstrate, it is an approach that museums large and small can adopt.  Speaking with these colleagues it became clear that time is crucial, alongside the support of their institution more broadly to commit to projects where the outcomes are not entirely fixed at the start.  And the rewards are many, not least because the projects themselves become creative, exploratory spaces where ideas can continually be tested, by programmers and visitors alike.

(The Making Sense Conference is available on You Tube:

Jonte Nynas and Johan Hildingsson’s presentation starts at 1:46 minutes)

The chaos of knowledge and value of difference

One of the great pleasures of my new freelance life is the time I have for reading and writing, activities that I found hard to do when I was in my full-time role at Tate.  Over the last weeks I have been reading the collected writings of the American poet, writer and activist Audre Lorde, brought together in the 2017 publication ‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You.’  There is so much here I have found enlightening and instructive in relation to life generally, but also to museums, not least because it is fascinating to reflect on how Lorde’s ideas are permeating these institutions.

I, like many others I imagine, was familiar with the much-quoted sentence that forms the title of one of her essays; ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, that Lorde first gave as comments at a conference in New York in 1979.  Reading the essay from which the sentence comes, I was struck by how multi-faceted this observation is.  In the first instance Lorde is making the vital point that ‘only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible’ if the tools of a racist patriarchy are ‘used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy.’  In other words, real change cannot come about if the consciousness and experience of those who have historically or traditionally been excluded from the dominant community are not recognized and empowered.  She goes on to say that there is great danger in members of society (white feminists in the specific case Lorde is referring to in the text) assuming that their experience is universal.  Instead, what is urgently needed is not just the recognition of difference, but a championing of the ‘creative function of difference in our lives.’ It is through paying attention to our differences, seeing them as positive sources of strength and interdependency that we can start to bring about genuine transformation.

In terms of the twenty-first century art museum the obvious insight I take from this is the need to have a multitude of knowledges, perspectives, and experiences, not just accepted but actively and consistently advocated for within these organisations.  Without this, and despite all the declarations about and commitments to greater equality, diversity and inclusivity, museums will struggle to bring about systemic and sustained change.  This change goes beyond diversifying the workforce, which is not to say that this is not a crucial undertaking.  More broadly, ideas, opinions, and ways of knowing that diverge from and at times challenge the accepted canon, must be seen as positive and enhancing rather than threatening or problematic.  Is this possible within institutions whose authority, even existence, has historically rested on the creation and maintenance of a well-regulated canon of art and artists?

In an online essay on Lorde’s influence Gemma Bird talks about her own experience of teaching political science at a UK university.  She describes how she moved away from an uncritical celebration of the canon of political writers and theorists to using the same texts as a ‘springboard’, ‘a vehicle to magnify voices and lessons that have been forcibly disappeared.’ She emphasizes how Lorde and other writers helped her see how the presence of a canon silences marginalised voices whilst perpetuating existing dominant ones. And she argues that teachers can and should empower students to both critically engage with the canon and look for voices and ideas from outside it.   I wonder what this means if we situate the museum as a teacher according to the model Gemma Bird is advocating?  To what extent are museums already alert to this, seeking through their education and curatorial programmes to move away from the notion of a canon, to foreground hitherto marginalized voices and empower visitors to question dominant narratives?  What more needs to be done?

I gain further inspiration from Audre Lorde’s ideas that the dismantling of the master’s house is a creative as well as critical project.  She is clear that it is not enough to critique existing structures and knowledge. What is needed is the recognition of difference as ‘a crucial strength’ which allows for productive confusion and the emergence of new ways of being.  Or as Lorde describes so beautifully, we need ‘to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future.’  Museum professionals might justifiably feel anxious at the idea of descending into chaos, however, the key point I see Audre Lorde making is that we must never fear ideas that diverge from our own, but instead value the potential of difference to transform and improve.

Staying with the Trouble

In the last post I wrote I referenced Donna Haraway’s text ‘Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene’.  I have been re-reading this and finding much in it that resonates with how I see we need to consider our work and research in museums now and going forward in these extraordinary times.

Donna Haraway’s argument is introduced in her introduction and I will share what is quite a long quotation with you here:

‘We – all of us on Terra – live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times.  The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response…. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places…. Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.’

What I take from this specifically is firstly that we must respond to this challenging situation from the position we find ourselves in; from the present moment.  We must try and avoid nostalgia for an already idealised past, or project ourselves forward to a hazy, as-yet unimaginable future.  In other words, we need to work with what we have right now.

In the case of the art museum this translates into the recognition that time spent mythologizing about when visitors could physically visit our spaces is unproductive, as is fantasising about a magical future time when ‘things are back to normal.’  It is how we respond in the present that matters right now.

Vija Celmins, ‘Ocean’ 1975
Vija Celmins: Ocean (1975)

Every day I am witnessing the dynamic museum colleagues I work with and am reading and hearing about, adapting their energy and creativity to the current situation incredibly swiftly.  There is a palpable urgency – colleagues want to take action, to make changes to what they are doing and how they work.  New priorities are being set and programmes, projects and activities are being adapted to fulfil immediate needs and demands.  Most obviously this is evident in the shift to digital content, but there is much work going on behind the scenes also.  Education resources that would have been given to schools on their visits to the galleries are being sent directly to support home schooling. Food that would have been prepared for the museum cafes is being distributed to key workers.  The art museum is engaging with people and places in new and fruitful ways.

This shift speaks to the second inspiring point that Donna Haraway makes in my view, which is that we are all ‘entwined’.  We and the museums we work in are intimately and inevitably connected to our histories and geographies, and to ideas and ways of operating that shape what we do.  We need to recognise these connections but not be defined or constrained by them.  We are at an exceptional moment where we can build on the positives of the pasts that have brought us  institutionally and personally to where we are now, but we can also change our museums, radically if we need to.  As Arundhati Roy has articulated so powerfully in her article in the Financial times, the pandemic is a portal that offers us a chance to rethink our world.

Research can help with this process of staying with the trouble and bringing about change.  Research foregrounds the asking of questions – ‘why are we doing this’, being an obvious one to apply to any new or revised strand of activity – and creates space for people to reflect and learn.  Charting the processes of change means we can develop insights to inform our work going forward. These analytic and reflective processes must not be ignored in the rush to address the challenges we are facing.

Donna Haraway talks of settling ‘troubled waters’ and rebuilding ‘quiet places’ as well as stirring up potent responses. As I see it, action and response are essential right now, but so is questioning and deep thinking so that we understand the value of what we are changing. In other words, we need to do, but also to review and examine what it is we are doing, why and for whom, to learn how best to negotiate our ‘unfinished’ present.

Reflection in difficult times

I write this post with very mixed feelings.  The museum I work at, like other cultural organisations across the world, is physically closed for the foreseeable future.  Many colleagues at Tate and elsewhere have been furloughed, some with relief as it enables them to concentrate on looking after family and themselves.  Others I know are less comfortable with not working, even though they are grateful that they remain employed.  But stepping away from work that you are dedicated to, sometimes at very short notice, can be traumatic and can add to existing anxieties about this deeply uncertain and troubling situation.

Certainly there is no shortage of advice being given on how we should be living and working. From online articles that advocate the ‘ten best ways to keep busy when quarantined’ to suggestions for virtual gallery tours, there is a strong sense that all the energy and productivity that we bring to our jobs should be transferred to our lives at home.  Art museums have been busy repurposing their digital content, offering as much as they can in the virtual world to make up for their absence in the physical realm.

Some observers have interrogated the logic and value of this burst of institutional activity.  Nina Simon, for example, has questioned whether we are  “doing it based on some kind of expressed community need?” and asked,  “are we doing it with an eye towards serving communities that are struggling most? Or are we doing it to assure ourselves that we are “doing something,” to assure our donors we still exist— and that our jobs are worth keeping (which is in itself important!)?”

These are relevant and astute questions to be asking.  Simon goes on to propose a different set of activities that we should be undertaking, all of which are extremely laudable.  Her suggestion that we reach out to communities and offer help based on what their needs are, rather than what our institutional priorities might be is clearly important now. And creative, brilliant museum professionals are in a great position to be able to offer help.

I Love the Whole World 1999 by Agnes Martin 1912-2004
Agnes Martin: I love the Whole World, 1999

Yet if I am being honest, I came away from reading Nina Simon’s article with a sense of feeling more overwhelmed than uplifted.  It seemed as if, as with the other advice-giving articles, there was yet more activity I should be engaging in.  I should be reaching out, connecting, mapping, dialoguing, so that in a month’s time I have a clear plan on how I can make a positive difference to communities near to me and more globally.

Now I do not mean this to be a criticism of Nina Simon, whose work I greatly admire and whose approach to this situation I am somewhat in awe of.  Yet I know that I am not in a position to do what she is advocating.  I am muddling through at the moment, trying to manage people and projects that are more or less affected by the pandemic, whilst trying to support those closest to me.  I am attempting to come to terms with the seismic changes happening daily.

So I am not going to offer any advice or guidance here, or in the blogs that I hope to write over the next few months. Instead I am, perhaps selfishly, going to use this space as an opportunity to reflect and make visible my muddling; my questions, uncertainties, frustrations and hopefully insights.  I do this in the spirit of the theorist Donna Haraway’s notion of ‘staying with the trouble‘, which is one of the ideas underpinning Tate’s research strategy.  At the core of this idea is the recognition of complexity and a desire to find new ways to live in the world, both of which seem incredibly relevant just now.

As ever, I would welcome others’ ideas and thoughts on how we adjust and reshape our institutions and ourselves in light of what we can learn from everything Covid-19 is teaching us.




Defining the museum and managing conflicting agendas

I start 2020 with a blog entry on conflict. However, what I want to explore is whether conflict can be a positive force within the art museum.

In part this exploration has been prompted by the decision in 2019 by ICOM (the International council of museums) to seek to change their definition of what constitutes a museum. The old ICOM definition recognised the multiple responsibilities of museums. These include acquiring, conserving, researching, communicating and exhibiting the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity for the purposes of education and enjoyment. Nonetheless, in 2018 the ICOM Executive Board decided to develop an alternative definition that was ‘more relevant and appropriate for museums in the 21st century and future museum landscapes.’ In the document that details how the new definition was arrived at (which I would urge anyone to read), emphasis is placed on the changing role museums play within societies that are themselves facing complex and urgent challenges. Ecological and human rights issues are foregrounded, as is the importance of cultural democracies and cultural participation. The text emphasises the responsibility museums have in supporting critical thought and providing spaces where ‘a plurality of voices can speak.’

In light of this, the new definition emphasises how museums are ‘inclusive, democratising and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures.’ It identifies the need for museums to acknowledge and address the conflicts of the present and to enable equal access to heritage for everyone. And whilst the new definition recognises that museums hold artefacts in trust for society, priority is given to the active partnerships that museums must embed with communities. The museum of the 21st century still needs to collect, research and communicate, but now with a transparent purpose of ‘contributing to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.’
The revised definition has not met with universal approval. For example, a survey by the UK Museums Association in August 2019 identified that 61.9% of its members who had replied to the question ‘Do you think [the new definition] captures what a museum is in the 21st century?’ said no. Further comments by members on twitter suggest that museum professionals feel the new definition is too wordy, too complicated and too prescriptive. Other critical comments go further, identifying that the new definition strays too far from the museum’s fundamental responsibility to its collections.
I myself find the revised definition helpful, not least in acknowledging the conflicted terrain of current museum practice. In a previous blog I have explored how competing discourses operate within the museum, because of the multiple agendas that twenty-first century cultural organisations need to juggle. I read in the new ICOM definition an attempt to surface this complexity and set a progressive agenda for museums. It is aspirational to a greater degree than the previous definition. But in recognising the multiple and at times opposing responsibilities museums have within society, it is arguably more accurate and relevant.
In my view, what becomes more interesting than dismissing the new definition is grappling with it. If we accept that museums are inherently conflicted, how do we as museum practitioner researchers work productively with these struggles? In starting to think about this question I have been drawn to the political concept of agonism and particularly the writings of Chantal Mouffe. Within agonism conflict is framed as a space where difference is respected; an emancipatory space where the engagement with contested views allows for a plural democracy. Rather than aspiring to move beyond conflict to consensus, agonism sees value in tolerating, indeed respecting, the conflicting positions that people hold.

Curator Bojana Piskur from the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana outlining the role of the museum in the social and political sphere at the ‘Creating Stories’ conference at Buk Seoul Museum of Art, South Korea, December 2019

I am interested in the potential offered by Mouffe’s situating of the art museum as an agonistic space. But whereas Mouffe argues that such an agonistic space can allow the public to come to terms with the contradictions of the world, I am interested in how agonism can help makes sense of difference and complexity for those working within the 21st century museum. Put simply, one example could be that rather than seeing the tension between maintaining a collection and foregrounding participation and audience engagement as problematic, how can we see this conflict as generative? And what happens if we begin by acknowledging that the different agendas at play in the museum are inherently conflicting, but that this need not be destructive?
The revised ICOM definition, whilst not providing a simple, bite-sized articulation, seems to be trying to attempt this task of recognising complexity. For that reason, in my view we should test it out and try and work with it, rather than dismiss it.

Research Publishing – making time and reaching people

It has been some time since I’ve posted on this blog.  This is not a reflection of a waning interest on my part, but more that the pace and volume of work in the museum can make it hard to carve out the time.  Days and weeks go past extraordinarily quickly and there always seems to be something that needs my attention more urgently.  Finding the mental space to reflect and write is challenging, despite my deep commitment to both these activities.  No doubt this dilemma sounds familiar to you if you work in a museum.

But all is not lost. In the time since I last wrote a post, my book – Rethinking Research in the Art Museum – has been published. This book brings together the research I undertook whilst I was away from Tate for ten months on an AHRC Leadership Fellowship.  It expands on many of the themes and ideas I have detailed in this blog and examines in depth what is needed to create a nurturing culture for practitioner-led research in the art museum.  I am delighted and relieved that it is now out in the world.

Book cover

The publication of the book has prompted me to think about how research that happens in the museum is shared with the people who would most benefit from reading it.  In the case of my research I am very keen that it is read by as many museum professionals as possible, as well as academics.  I would be happy if policy makers read it too.  This got me wondering if a book is the best vehicle for sharing the findings.  On the plus side a book is a familiar format that people associate with serious, scholarly work.  Books have longevity, are generally portable and can be lent to others.  On the other hand, books are expensive and reading them to completion requires a time commitment that busy practitioners may not have.  It was also sobering to hear from a knowledgeable colleague that the average readership for a single authored academic book in the arts and humanities is 34 people.

Perhaps then it would be better to share the research via a series of articles in peer reviewed journals? That way I would benefit from expert colleagues assessing  the quality and rigour of the work, which in turn would give the research credibility within the academic community.  Open access journals published by museums such as Tate Papers (freely available on the Tate website) or Stedelijk Studies published by the Stedelijk Museum are very viable options.  By definition they are easily accessible to practitioners and academics alike and both publish a rich variety of cross-disciplinary museum-focused research.  Likewise Museum and Society which is published by the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies.

However, a great many academic journals that publish exactly the type of material that museum professionals want to read are subscription only (and tend to be very expensive). Curator, for example, publishes a huge amount of fascinating research on museums. But unless you are registered with a university or organisation that subscribes it can be difficult for non-academics to access the articles.  Plus journal articles take a good deal of time to write, which I know from experience is off-putting for many museum-based practitioner-researchers.

Which brings me to this blog.  Throughout the fellowship and beyond I have found writing these posts to be an invaluable way of sharing provisional ideas and findings and documenting significant events. The relative informality of the language, combined with their immediacy and accessibility make blogs and online forums such productive spaces to open up research. Courtney Johnson’s blog, for example, is a mine of useful information, with generous links through to other people’s writings. And although they may not have the academic credibility of a journal article, arguably blogs can make a greater impact, reaching a wider group of readers within and beyond academia.

So even though I will often need to write this blog in the brief spaces between the ‘to do’ list, I will continue to put the ideas out there.




Research, complexity and love

In the last post I wrote on anxiety. Now I want to think about the importance of love in relation to research. I imagine that some reading this will be surprised, if not unnerved, by the idea that love has a place in the research process. Surely love is erratic, messy, emotional and highly subjective? Love is not objective, measurable or ‘rigorous’, so what relevance does it have to a process of scholarly investigation? Yet I find valuable insights in some formulations of love that can inform and support the type of research many of us are trying to instigate in art museums.

Take for example the advice given to educators by the writer and teacher Paulo Freire who identified that:
We must dare, in the full sense of the word, to speak of love without the fear of being called ridiculous, mawkish, or unscientific, if not antiscientific. We must dare in order to say scientifically, and not as mere blah–blah–blah, that we study, we learn, we teach, we know with our entire body. We do all of these things with feeling, with emotion, with wishes, with fear, with doubts, with passion, and also with critical reasoning. However, we never study, learn, teach, or know with the last only. We must dare so as never to dichotomize cognition and emotion.

I interpret Freire’s words to mean that it is vital that we bring emotional as well as intellectual commitment to all that we do. ‘Love’ for Freire represents the degree of engagement that we must make to our work to ensure it is of the highest quality.

Thinking about how I do research I recognise the states of being he lists – doubt, fear, wishfulness and passion – and the importance these have in shaping not only my thinking but the entirety of my involvement in any project. Put another way, the more passionate and committed I am to a question or problem I am interrogating, the harder I try to dig into it and understand it more fully. The more doubtful I am, the more I persist in finding out more. The more I ‘love’ my research, the more I give to it.

child in red in front of artwork
Copyright Tate Photography

In the past I have written about how Freire’s ideas can help guide processes of teaching and learning, and I return here to a quote I have cited before as again I see it being relevant to research. Try reading it substituting the words ‘researcher’ for ‘teacher’ and ‘research’ for ‘teaching’:
The task of the teacher, who is also a learner, is both joyful and rigorous. It demands seriousness and scientific, physical, emotional, and affective preparation. It is a task that requires that those who commit themselves to teaching develop a certain love not only of others but also of the very process implied in teaching.

What Freire is saying here as I understand it, is that teaching (or researching) requires us to love the ‘very process’ as well as the people we might come into contact with. It necessitates a focus on an emerging set of understandings, rather than a specific outcome and a involves a wholehearted commitment to an ethical practice.

More recently I have been reading adrienne maree brown’s writing on the concept of ’emergent strategy’. Love is here too in her articulation of an approach to change based on recognising complexity and the importance of authentic connections and entwined relationships. maree brown celebrates the adaptive, the non-linear and the iterative, all of which resonates with my understanding of how art museum research needs to function. She talks about ‘just relationships’ that value multiple forms of knowledge and advocates for transparency and co-operation around decision-making. And she concludes by identifying that practising emergent strategy is ‘a way to practice love.’

Love then, in my view, sits at the heart of a transformative research practice within the art museum. This is research that seeks to bring about positive change, that draws on multiple knowledges non-hierarchically, that celebrates difference and does not seek to simplify complexity. It is research that engages people emotionally and intellectually, allowing them to commit entirely to the exploration of ideas in collaboration with others.

It’s probably not that easy or simple, bringing as it does elements of doubt, frustration and fear, but it’s got to be worth it.