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.

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.

Research, vulnerability and anxiety

I have always been interested in the relations of power that exist in the researcher – researched relationship.  Who is more powerful and what is the basis of that power?  How is that power manifested?  What can be done to reduce levels of inequality in the relations of power?  Recently I have had reason to think about this relationship of relative power and the anxieties that this can provoke for both researchers and researched within the art museum.  This in turn has prompted me to explore why that anxiety might exist.

The fact that research is necessarily bound by ethical codes is one indication that the potential exists for the researcher to abuse their position of power and that protection must be given to the researched.  The Nuremberg Code of research ethics that was developed after the second World War enshrined the principle of  ‘informed consent’ to ensure that no one can be forced to take part in any research against their wishes.  Whilst vast amounts of time and intellectual energy have been spent constructing and embedding ethical principles and establishing procedures to safeguard research subjects’ privacy and confidentiality, to prohibit deception and uphold the highest standards in research.  In theory then there should be no reason for anyone who is being researched to feel vulnerable, since they are most likely to have given their consent to being part of any research and will be covered by clear ethical codes of conduct. Yet in my experience the anxiety remains.

Perhaps this is not surprising.  In an article on ethics and politics in qualitative research Clifford Christians lists some of the deeply unethical research that has taken place since the Nuremberg Code was introduced, including the deceptive research that took place in the 1960s and 70s that was highly criticised for psychologically abusing research subjects.  More broadly, Christians criticises the absolutist ‘neutral’ position assumed within ethical protocols that fails to take account of the complexities of power relations associated with race, gender, class and sexual orientation.  He points out that it is not enough to write a set of research ethics and assume that a good moral researcher will cause no harm to the researched.  In his view ethical research comes through a levelling out of the power imbalances inherent in the researcher – researched entanglement.

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In a previous blog I have referenced the work of Michel Foucault. His analysis of power and knowledge is helpful in understanding how dominant discourses define and legitimise certain knowledge whilst excluding other forms of knowing.  In research terms the action-researcher Peter Reason makes the connection between research, knowledge and power. He observes that; ‘one of the key questions about research is the political one; who owns the knowledge, and thus who can define the reality?’  For me Peter Reason’s statement sheds light on one of the fundamental causes of anxiety amongst research subjects, which is that in the majority of cases it is the researcher who owns the knowledge gained through a research process.  The researcher is the one who defines the reality and the research subject has to trust that this reality will not misrepresent or injure them.  And the greater the disparity in power between the researcher and research subject, the more profound that level of trust has to be and the greater the scope for anxiety.

But what if the relationship between researcher and research is radically reordered? Indigenous researchers including Linda Tuhiwai Smith whose work I have mentioned previously have long argued for ethical research practices that are based on principles of mutuality, care and respect.  Such practices acknowledge multiple knowledges, are highly reflexive and seek to bring about positive change.  They recognise the limitations of the positivist position that makes clear differentiation between the ‘expert’ researcher and the ‘nonexpert’ research participant.

There is much in these formulations of research that I see as useful and relevant to the art museum of today.  Adopting these as best we can would seem a productive way of reducing the anxiety felt by individuals within cultural institutions whilst opening up our practices to much needed and valuable scrutiny.

Writing a Research Strategy

A key responsibility in my new role as Head of Research at Tate is to work closely with colleagues to refresh our existing strategy for research across the organisation.  We are in the middle of this collaborative activity and I want to take a moment to reflect on aspects of this process as it is taking shape.

I see real value in having a strategy for a number of reasons, the most obvious one being that it will articulate a strategic direction and map out not only what we are aiming to do but also how and when we are going to go about it.  Crucially the strategy will also set out why we are prioritising certain strands of activity and ways of working.  In this way the document will manifest our values and provide clarity.  It will also make transparent the approaches we are likely to adopt, particularly in terms of how we will work with colleagues and collaborators internally and externally.

Incorporating these elements into a strategy is fairly fundamental as I have discovered.  Sitting waiting for a train the other day I idly typed ‘how to write a strategy’ into my phone.  Reading through the advice that immediately surfaced it became clear that key steps in the strategy-writing process include:

  • Outlining our vision, purpose and goals, as well as our responsibilities
  • Articulating what we want to change and how we want to grow
  • Evaluating our current position – what are our strengths and weaknesses, where are the opportunities and what might the possible blockers be
  • Establishing priorities and setting out the steps that will enable us to achieve what we are setting out to do and when
  • Identifying how we will know that we have achieved the changes

I am fortunate in that we already have a clearly identified vision for research that has been agreed by Directors within Tate.  The work we are doing now is focused on how we translate that vision into a set of strategic and realisable aims and objectives with an associated delivery plan.  It certainly involves reviewing with colleagues across the organisation how we have got to where we are now and where we want to be in five year’s time.  It requires taking on board the organisation’s priorities, seeing how these translate into the types of research we need to be doing.  It also invites productive speculation – what could we do that we have never done before?  What are the changes we need to introduce and how can we do this successfully?  Who should we be working with that we might not have engaged with prior to now?

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A further positive element of working on the strategy is that it is prompting in-depth thinking and dialogue with people across and beyond Tate.  This thinking and talking is already contributing to one the changes we are seeking to bring about – that of embedding research across the organisation.  At the same time this continuing input is refining and enhancing our original ideas.  Ultimately the strategy will be the product of many people’s ideas, which will mean it is more likely to be relevant and useful to the widest range of colleagues and collaborators.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes in her brilliant book ‘Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples‘ that ‘systemic change requires capability, leadership, support, time, courage, reflexivity, determination and compassion.’  I would agree with all of those and add that it also requires a plan.  Writing the research strategy is only a starting point.  We are mindful that we need to keep referring to and amending the strategy as we go, rather than writing it and then putting it on a shelf never to refer to it again. Our plan is to publish the research strategy on the Tate Research website once it is signed off, to keep it visible for us and others and to help us implement the changes it will outline.

Museum discourse

Some time ago I wrote in this blog on what I described as the four discourses of the art museum.  The four discourses represent in my view the at times competing agendas that the art museum negotiates today.  These discourses play a key role is shaping, amongst other things, how institutional resources and time are prioritised, what activities and knowledge are seen as more or less important and what messages the museum seeks to communicate.  And in the previous blog post to this one I drew attention to how philosopher Michel Foucault deploys the term ‘discourse’, highlighting how in his terms discourses are shaped by the relationship between knowledge and power.

You might gather from this that the concept of discourse is important to me, both as a way of understanding how institutions operate and as a means of unpicking them so as to bring about change.  What I had not come across until recently, however, was the idea of ‘museum discourse’ as a way of framing and interrogating how museums communicate and what that can tell us about these organisations.

The concept of museum discourse stems directly from the field of discourse analysis, itself a field of linguistics that considers how written or spoken language is employed in a social context.  In very simple terms, researchers undertaking discourse analysis examine in close detail the language employed in a given scenario so as to understand from such things as grammar, syntax, style and frequency what the underlying meanings are.  So, much like corporate discourse incorporates the communications that a corporation makes with its public and shareholders, museum discourse is made visible through websites, press releases, interpretation texts, corporate plans, mission statements, annual reports and so on.


I learnt a great deal more about museum discourse at a seminar I attended recently at Turin University convened by Dr Federico Sabatini and Dr Cecelia Lazzeretti.  Over the course of a day I heard from researchers who had made detailed comparisons between museum websites dedicated to accessibility and to engaging very young children.  I heard about how the language of museum press releases has changed over the last 50 years and why, and I came to understand better how the branding of a museum can shape our perceptions of it in multiple ways.

I was particularly fascinated by the study undertaken by Professor Marina Bondi from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in part because one of her case studies was the Tate Kids website.  Professor Bondi examined how museum websites try to engage young children, looking in detail at the language employed on their pages directed at young children.  Many things have stayed with me from this talk, but one finding resonated especially.  In identifying the frequency of key words on the Tate Kids site, Professor Bondi identified that the words ‘she’ and ‘art’  occurred most regularly.   A simple finding perhaps, but what it revealed to me was the significance of museum discourse in manifesting institutional values – in this instance the organisations’ commitment to foregrounding women artists.  What I recognised in hearing this was the importance of researching the details of museum activity, as well as the bigger pictures.

Being mindful of how museums use specific words is ever more important at a time when language is increasingly recognised as political.  Studying how museums employ language through the lens of discourse analysis is an effective way of doing this.  Yet, as Dr Sabatini writes in the abstract for a recent paper, ‘Museum Discourse is under-researched, notably in terms of its positioning and dynamic meaning production.’  What I have come to realise is that, by paying attention to the granular details of language, museum discourse analysis can tell us a huge amount about how the museum’s values are made real in the world and what the implications are for practice in the future.

Knowledge and power – researching young children’s experience of the museum

The association between knowledge and power sits at the heart of much of my thinking around art museums.  Issues of who feels welcome in the museum, whose ideas and interpretations are valued and whose voices are heard most loudly are all entangled in, and shaped by how knowledge is constructed in relation to power.   Looking at this has helped me understand why museums can operate in exclusionary ways.  It has also informed my views on how research needs to acknowledge and ideally act to disrupt practices that reinforce entrenched prejudices around what constitutes valuable knowledge.

I have found the writings of the philosopher Michel Foucault to be hugely helpful in tackling this issue.  His argument that knowledge is intrinsically linked to power and is formed within the context of practices of power makes sense to me.  As does his recognition that dominant discourses define and legitimise certain knowledge whilst excluding other forms of knowing.

Take for example, LGBTQ+ representation in museums. Historically, stories and images of same-sex love and desire, have been largely excluded from heritage sites, museums and galleries across the world. Falling outside of dominant societal narratives, representations of gender diversity have themselves been marginalised.
And although over the last decade representations of diversity have increased, in museums there is still a way to go. Rachel Lennon, National Programmes Curator for the National Trust puts it clearly when she says, ‘the historic characters we meet on our day out still disproportionately reflect male, white, elite, straight, cisgender, non-disabled lives. This minority continues to dominate the understanding and presentation of all our history’. The museum or heritage site can be guilty of maintaining the dominance of the powerful by continuing to naturalise meanings that confirm the existing social and cultural order. This practice has far reaching implications, for, as Rachel goes on to say, ‘the exclusion of LGBTQ+ narratives from public history, from the mainstream of the cultural heritage sector, not only displaces the lives that have been omitted or misrepresented, it dislocates LGBTQ+ people from their shared past’.

What Rachel is saying so clearly is that, in their presentations of art, cultural institutions tend to reinforce the powerful. Those whose beliefs, values and identities are well represented within museums and galleries are further legitimised, whilst those whose cultural forms are excluded, themselves remain so.

This can too often be the case for young children, whose voices and knowledge can be undervalued or disregarded by museums.  I am therefore encouraged by the Lines of Enquiry research being undertaken at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge that is seeking to address this imbalance and foreground very young children’s experience in the art museum.

Rebecca Osborne doing a live graphic recording of Dr Abi Hackett’s talk

In a seminar I attended on January 31st at the Fitzwilliam I heard from Professors Chris Pascal and Tony Bertram from the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) who are utilising research methodologies that privilege the voices of young people.  And I learnt from researcher Dr Abi Hackett how museums and those researching children’s experience within them need to acknowledge the shifting changeable nature of knowledge and buildings.  Abi argued against the separation of knowledge and place and instead advocated for more complex intertwined formulations that allow for an ‘unravelling’ of the customary order of knowledge.  She saw this as a way of destabilising conventional power/knowledge relationships.

Like myself, each of the researchers presenting at the seminar acknowledge the political nature of research and the importance of adopting an ethical position in relation to knowledge.  It was an inspiring day to hear others speak so eloquently about this.




Addressing Diversity

In the UK, as elsewhere, a great deal of energy and thought is being given to issues of diversity, inclusion and difference in museums.  Network activist organisations including Museum Detox are challenging major cultural institutions and museums to bring about greater representation for those who identify as black, Asian, Arabic or of dual heritage in their workforce and programmes.  The 2018 Museums Association Conference took as its theme ‘Dissent: inspiring hope, embracing change’ with papers and discussions focusing on the need for ‘decolonisation’ of museum collections and a revised approach to interpretation that acknowledges the troubling history of many museum objects.  I recently attended a two-day seminar at the V&A entitled ‘Practices of Engagement and Contested Heritage Collections: Past, Present and Future’ which was one in a series of events organised under the AHRC Care for the Future theme.  Over the two days we explored a range of topics from reaching out to under-represented communities to provenance research and the repatriation of museum objects.

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Historian Hannah Young presenting at Practices of Engagement and Contested Heritage Collections: Past, Present and Future at the V&A


And this is just a tiny sample of the work going on. Museum professionals are needing to consider the language employed, attitudes revealed and current systems in place that maintain discriminatory museum structures.  Words such as ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘difference’ are themselves under scrutiny, as is the language of ‘decolonisation’, with rich debate happening across the sector.

But what role can research as a practice play in this debate?  Or put another way, how can research support greater diversity within the art museum? As a white woman I am aware of how much I need to learn and am very tentative about writing on this topic or claiming any expertise.  However my involvement in one particular research initiative at Tate is revealing a great deal to me about how research can open up a space to address issues of diversity, inclusion, knowledge production and power.  Hence I thought it might be of value to share some thoughts on it here.

Inclusive Futures‘ is a year long pilot research programme led by Dr Karen Salt, the Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham and Tate’s first Futures Fellow.  The project is examining Tate’s systems, discourses and practices in relation to issues of diversity and inclusion, with the aim of enhancing Tate’s organizational learning and informing its practices and potentially those of the sector more widely.

Key to Inclusive Futures is its collaborative methodology. The project draws on Karen’s deep knowledge of the ways that discourses regarding difference influence narratives, decision-making and systems of governance.  And it is shaped by her broader interest in the ways global minority communities marshal their collective power and participate in local, national and international governance structures.  The project is therefore structured in two phases. The first part – ‘Ghost Projects’ – addresses historic projects and activities at Tate which have focused on race, power, equality and social justice, but which may have faded from the organisation’s collective memory.

We are in the middle of this first phase wherein we have invited all Tate colleagues to share their Ghost Projects so as to build an internal database of Tate’s collective past experience for future study. The second phase – ‘Futures Work’ –  will see Karen working closely with teams across Tate to understand how they are applying diversity and inclusion strategies, policies and processes in a practical way and the ways that Tate can draw on and value the knowledge embedded within all teams.

Already the project is surfacing rich material and generating multiple insights, not least into the wealth of activity staff have undertaken over many years (we have colleagues coming forward with initiatives from 20 years ago), that were often very significant but which were never integrated across the organisation.  We are hearing about how  individuals’ profound commitment to change resulted in them doing work beyond their actual roles.  And we are witnessing how Inclusive Futures is being seen as a safe space to talk about the opportunities, alongside the difficult and frustrating issues that staff have faced and are facing today.

I have a theory that it is in part because the project is framed as an exploratory and collaborative research initiative that colleagues are generously sharing their knowledge and experiences with such openness. Karen is not a consultant on this project, but a co-researcher working alongside staff to unearth and make sense of past activity. She has made it clear that she will not be coming up with a series of recommendations for Tate, but rather is working towards research findings based on what emerges through the process undertaken with staff. This research is not seeking to resolve a problem but rather to make visible past and present activity from which the organisation can learn. In doing so the project is aiming to generate new insights into diversity and inclusion practices in the art museum and model a practice of shared knowledge production that foregrounds the multiple forms of expertise present within the organisation. The process is as significant as the outcomes.