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Welcome to PRAM

Welcome to 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 is undertaken 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 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 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, 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 functions 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 my role 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 is due to be published by Routledge in 2019.  The experience challenged and broadened my thinking about my own practice and art museum research in its entirety.

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

In August 2018 I returned to Tate and am curious to keep exploring what it means to be a museum-based practitioner researcher from within the organisation. In my current role I work alongside others to develop research projects and embed research-led reflective practice in Tate’s Learning department, whilst continuing to research and write.  I learn a great deal and benefit from working with extraordinarily dynamic and thoughtful people across different departments and disciplines in a creative and ambitious organisation. And I connect with a wide range of brilliant colleagues from across the arts and academia.  I can witness at first hand how the museum is attempting to shift from being the exclusive holder and dispenser of expert knowledge to becoming a more discursive space.  Yet I am aware of the challenges the institution faces in sharing and generating ideas with, as opposed to for, a more diverse public.  I will bring all of this experience 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 phase of my professional journey I look forward to sharing more of the cargo.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Supporting practitioner-led research in the art museum – what can leaders do?

Recently I was contacted by a colleague from Australia, Sheona White, who has been reading the blog.  She posed a question to me concerning what it takes to lead and manage individuals and team(s) who are keen to undertake practitioner research in museum learning programmes. Sheona rightly pointed out that we tend not to discuss this a great deal and her question got me thinking about what my experience has been at Tate, what I have come across in my recent research and what can be learnt from both.  I have pulled five characteristics of leadership together here as a starting point for what I hope will be an ongoing discussion.  This list is not in order of priority – all these characteristics are equally important in my view.

  1. Modelling an explicit commitment to research

Leadership is vital to developing a vibrant research culture and supporting practitioners to undertake research.  In my experience team leaders need to model an enquiring perspective. Even if senior managers do not undertake research themselves they are crucial in creating a culture where speculation and reflexivity is encouraged and where change is welcome.  The exemplary leaders I have come across embody an approach that prioritises learning and encourages all staff to challenge themselves and their practice. They test their thinking explicitly and encourage their workforce to adopt this approach too.

2. Building a trusting culture where thoughtful risk taking is encouraged 

Leaders play a key role in enabling a culture of trust and risk where experimentation and ventures into the unknown are an ingrained element of practice.  In a trusting culture people are confident they will not be criticised if they query current ways of doing and thinking and they feel empowered to question and disagree with their colleagues. David Garvin and his co-authors (who have written on organisational learning) identify that such workspaces provide a supportive environment for productive change, because they manifest ‘psychological safety’. In a psychologically safe learning space everyone can express ideas openly.  However, a supportive environment for practitioner-led research in my view requires a further step. Here people need to feel able not only to question existing scenarios or correct existing problems, but also to test out their own original ideas.

Maintaining a psychologically safe space needs constant attention to everything. From more micro-level decisions on, for example, acknowledging challenging voices and opinions in meetings to more macro-level responses when, for instance, research or experimental programming does not yield the findings or experiences that were expected. If staff feel disempowered or silenced or if the focus is on ascribing blame or emphasising what went wrong, then trust evaporates and positive risk-taking disappears. Each time this happens the likelihood of staff embarking on fruitful enquiry is reduced. If, however, at difficult or disappointing moments, the emphasis is on what can be learnt, the space for innovative investigations grows. When a culture of genuine trust and risk is embedded it creates a positive upward spiral of new insights and greater understanding.

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Participants in a Tate Schools and Teachers Summer School. Copyright Tate Photography (Alex Wood)

3. Establishing clear and open communication

All those I interviewed for my research acknowledged the value but also the complexities and challenges of maintaining regular and transparent communication across an organisation. But I have observed that in organisations where practitioner researchers thrive, and research and reflection are nurtured, knowledge and information are shared openly. David Garvin and his colleagues also argue that knowledge that is shared in systematic and clearly defined ways, among individuals, groups, or whole organisations, is most effective in supporting organisational learning. They emphasise the importance of information and insights moving laterally and vertically, so that ‘essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it’.  One obvious way that leaders can contribute is by sharing information openly and establishing regular meetings and all-team catch ups where staff are encouraged to disseminate information and ideas, reflect together on what has happened and been learnt and collaborate on future plans.

4. Making time  

What my experience and research has told me is that without question the main factor that prevents practitioners doing research is their perceived lack of time. I have found that almost without exception people are keen to research, reflect and take time to learn, yet they can struggle to build this into their practice. Too often they are overwhelmed by the practical and administrative aspects of their roles, which are perceived to take priority. Practitioners want time to share problems and insights and consider ‘what if’ questions together as part of their working day. And they want their organisations to acknowledge the importance of the thinking that is required to do their work effectively, by not overloading them with tasks or programming.

It is the responsibility of leadership in the first instance not to overload staff with programming tasks that leave no time for more considered enquiry.  Associated with this is the need for leaders to make sure there are adequate resources to undertake the work the organisation wishes to do.  And finally leaders can play a key role in encouraging staff to take the time needed, by creating spaces for reflection and sanctioning formal research time away from the day to day routines.

5. Committing to honest evaluation

My experience and conversations have revealed that without ongoing evaluation, it is hard to know what is taking place or estimate the degree and nature of change brought about through an intervention. I know practitioners who shy away from evaluation, associating it with the tedious time-consuming ritual of handing out questionnaires at the end of event. It is true that evaluation which is not an integral part of the cycles of action research and practice as research can seem to be an irrelevance, undertaken to fulfil the requirements of a funder. Or evaluation is framed as an opportunity for advocacy; for the telling of a positive story without an in-depth and honest appraisal and presentation of a programme. But neither of these approaches help improve practice, hence the need for leaders to ensure that honest evaluation is at the heart of careful enquiry.

This list is by no means complete and no doubt there are a multitude of other actions leaders can take to support practitioner-led research.  At the same time these characteristics do not operate in isolation, but are interconnected and co-dependent.  Furthermore, in my experience leaders cannot bring about and maintain a practitioner-led research culture on their own, as it requires commitment on the part of each person within an organisation.  Nonetheless, effective leadership makes the task of embedding practitioner-led research considerably easier, especially if they enact these five characteristics.

Practice based research – revisiting some key questions

What are the types of knowledge produced through artistic research?  What are the fields of knowledge production in the art museum?  Is ‘knowledge’ an adequate term to describe what emerges from artistic enquiry or is there something beyond and outside of knowledge that needs to be accounted for?  These are some of the questions that were raised at an afternoon seminar at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania that I was part of last week.

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The National Gallery of Art, Vilnius

 

The discussion that took place revisited some arguments that have been present within practice based research in art and design for some time, but also sparked, at least for me, some fresh thinking.  In particular I have been thinking pragmatically about the differences between practice based research in the university and museum context.  And I have been reflecting more abstractly on how we might negotiate existing definitions of knowledge in relation to artistic, but also museological practice based research.

In his presentation at the seminar, Professor Tom Corby, Associate Dean of Research at Central St Martins, University of the Arts London referenced Christopher Frayling’s influential 1994 conceptualisation of research in art and design.  In this text three categorisations of art and design research are described.  The first of these, Research into art and design covers historical, theoretical and aesthetic research.  The second, Research through art and design is the enquiry that happens through practice, that is through the doing of art making and which produces knowledge that is communicable in written forms that go beyond the artefact.  This might include action research where the findings are shared through a research journal, for example. The third category, Research for art and design is the process of questioning and discovery that culminates and is expressed solely in the art object. What emerges from this type of research does not find form in verbal or written communication necessarily.  Instead it is expressed, in the author’s words, in ‘visual, iconic or imaginistic communication.’

Since Christopher Frayling’s paper was published there has been a huge amount of debate around how Research for art and design sits within the academic structures of a university, which to my knowledge has not been resolved.  Instead research degrees in art and design conform more to the Research through art and design model in that there is a requirement for a written thesis to accompany the making of any art works.  Indeed Tom Corby ran through the quite specific requirements that are part of any PhD submission at Central St Martins in order for the new knowledge generated through the research to be made explicit to examiners and anyone else.   For some artists, including some present at the seminar in Vilnius, this formulation is problematic, in part because of the implicit framing of what constitutes new knowledge.

Put another way, how does an art and design PhD account for the new knowledge that cannot be expressed through words?  Does practice based research always have to be explained through writing, when in fact much of the value comes in the development of  experiential knowledge held by the practitioner or the ‘imaginistic’ knowledge held within the object?  How far do the frameworks of university-based research help or hinder artistic enquiry?  We grappled with each of these questions and more during the seminar.

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I have drawn on Christopher Frayling’s framework in thinking about how practitioners undertake practice based research in the art museum.  Research on, Research through and Research for takes place in curatorial, collection care and education practice for example.  Yet what I have become aware of is that the museum is a relatively liberal space in which to do practice based research.  Rather than needing to conform to the formalised procedures and assessment criteria of the academy, the art museum can potentially test alternative understandings of practice based research and explore how various knowledges are manifest in the doing of programming for instance.  This is something we have been trying to do in Tate Learning with an overall focus on practice as research and specifically in the Practice as Research programme. We hope to do more of this the future.

At the same time I have become interested in how we can complicate existing definitions of knowledge.  In particular I am intrigued by the possibilities afforded by the idea of poetic knowledge as a way of understanding what emerges through practice and through engagement with art.  I am very early in my investigations but am taken by James S Taylor’s articulation of poetic knowledge as that which comes intuitively through the senses as opposed to that which is acquired through engagement with the intellect alone.  He uses the example of how we can know and trust in another’s love as one example of poetic knowledge. I am keen to explore how thinking about the poetic can broaden our understanding of what constitutes practice based research findings and will report on this further when I’ve done more reading, talking with others and thinking.