Over the last few months I have interviewed, amongst others, five people who are either actively involved in curating in an art museum or have been at some point in their career. My aim with all my interviews is to gain a clearer understanding of how museum professionals understand research, both conceptually and practically. Through these particular conversations I hoped to find out what the term ‘research’ means to different curators and hear about how and why they have done research in the context of the museum. It has been important for me to get a sense of whether their experience of curatorial research aligned with my perceptions and what I have read about it.
In truth I have only come across a limited number of texts that address curatorial or indeed other research activities in art museums, except for the extensive literature on audience research. I have explored ‘the curatorial’ and the relationship between this expanded conception of curating and activities that constitute research, for example as articulated in Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson’s edited text. However, my sense has been that the experience of the museum curator whose responsibilities include the collection as well as temporary exhibitions differs from that of the peripatetic freelance individual who variously acts as auteur, editor and agent provocateur as they travel the world realising different exhibition projects. And it is this latter model of the curator as researcher that features more comprehensively in the Curating Research book.
However, I have come across two texts that paint very different pictures of the state of curatorial research in museums.
In James Cuno’s 1993-94 Director’s Report from the Harvard Art Museum the image communicated is of generously funded and well supported scholar curators devoting time and energy to researching exhibitions, publishing in journals and catalogues, supporting acquisitions, devising and presenting lectures and mentoring curatorial interns, who are themselves carrying out research to inform the museum’s exhibitions and publications. All told the sense is that, as an unashamedly academic art museum that is part of a university, research is recognised as vital in fulfilling the institution’s remit and is resourced accordingly.
In contrast, Robert Anderson’s 2005 article ‘To thrive or survive? The state and status of research in museums’ portrays a rather gloomier scenario. Focusing on UK museums, Anderson argues that a combination of competing pressures on curators, lack of time and financial support and negative perceptions of the scholar more broadly has led to a deprioritising of curatorial research. Instead curators are caught up in fundraising and administration, leaving them little time to research or write and present in conferences alongside their academic peers.
So, which of these portrayals is more accurate in today’s art museum? The answer, based on my interviews and experience is both and neither. The curators I spoke to did lament the lack of time they had for research and writing in particular, and acknowledged the absence of financial support and inconsistent institutional backing for research across the organisations they work in. Yet at the same time each one described to me research they had done and were doing to broaden the collection, catalogue acquisitions or realise an exhibition. They spoke in detail about the questions or issues that prompt their investigations and the methods they employ, not only to synthesize existing thinking, but to create original knowledge. They talked about how this knowledge is shared through exhibitions, catalogues, talks and wider education programmes and how it contributes to their own professional development and to the intellectual growth of others within and beyond the museum. I came away from each conversation enlightened and amazed by the richness and variety of curatorial research that is being done.
The interviewees’ thoughts on who curatorial research is for were especially interesting to me. Cuno and Anderson imply that curatorial scholarship is a largely solitary exercise conducted primarily for the academic community. However, these curators focused more on the importance of sharing their knowledge with the wider public. And they described how they acknowledged and at times incorporated the needs and expertise of others, including visitors, in their work. They mentioned collaborations with museum colleagues and projects involving co-curation with young people. Even though they voiced frustrations about their packed schedules, I did not get a sense they wanted to hide themselves away to do research for a small and select audience. Instead they wanted longer time and increased resources to be able to explore art and ideas more deeply for and even with a broad range of people, within and beyond the museum.
I have come away from these interviews with a sense of how curatorial research can and does work in the twenty-first century art museum. For me it is not a question of whether curatorial research should be supported – that is essential – but more that the model of the lone curator scholar detached from the art museum’s responsibility to operate inclusively and share and generate knowledge collaboratively needs to be questioned and rethought.