Trying to define ‘research’ – ha, ha.

As my project is centrally concerned with the concept and practice of research it makes sense to try and establish a working definition of research for application in the art museum.  To help this process I ask everyone I interview and people I have more informal conversations with what they understand by the term ‘research’. This is a fascinating and extremely revealing process, although far from straightforward.

I have found that multiple and subtlety different constructions of research are held by those working in the art museum. The way people think and write about and do research is determined by, amongst other things, their values, disciplinary specialty, academic training and personal motivations. It is informed by how they construct the world, what knowledge they think is significant, the importance they place on notions of objectivity, even their sense of what it means to be human. And how people understand research determines the methods they adopt and the procedures they see as being rigorous.  It shapes the judgements of quality they bring to bear on the research questions, processes and outcomes and affects who, including themselves, they consider qualified to undertake research.

In a multi-dimensional and cross-disciplinary environment such as a museum it is not surprising that various formulations of research co-exist.  But in my mind this makes it all the more important to try and establish a shared understanding, or at least to surface the differences.  What emerges through my conversations is that the question of what constitutes research is rarely if ever discussed, let alone agreed.  As a result in my experience several, if not misconceptions, then at least contradictory perceptions of research exist in the minds of those working in museums and others beyond the institution.


One of the Study Centres at the Harvard Art Museum where students, academics and members of the public can research and learn by working directly with works from the Museum’s collection.

For example, different views exist amongst those I have spoken to regarding the purpose of research in the art museum. The majority working within museums identify research as informing their practice and policies, but some argue that research, by definition, needs to contribute new knowledge to an academic field. Still others see research as a site for critical conversations and a mechanism to address pressing social and political issues. Similarly, there are individuals who see research as being a central responsibility of the museum, vital in discharging the core institutional functions of preserving the collection and supporting scholarship, learning and participation. Yet others locate academic research as a niche activity; rarefied, exclusive and in extreme cases, irrelevant to the twenty-first century arts organisation. The descriptions of research I’ve heard range from the broad and abstract to the detailed and discipline-specific, suggesting that for some it can be an inclusive and democratic process, whilst for others it is necessarily selective and specialist.

This confusion perhaps accounts for why several of the museum professionals I interviewed struggle to see themselves as researchers, despite in several cases being actively engaged in rigorous processes of enquiry. Research for many is perceived as an activity undertaken by a select few, not something they feel qualified or enabled (because of the demands of their role) to do. For some the barriers are time and resources, but for others it is the concept of ‘research’ and how it is structured that is opaque and intimidating.


I am keen to find ways to bridge the gap between people’s perceptions of research as an exclusive and excluding activity and their own enquiry-based and reflective practices.  For that reason I have identified three common characteristics of research that surface in almost all the responses I’ve been given:

  1. The importance of questions – Questioning is central to all research practices in the museum. Research is premised on the asking of questions and the need to address or answer them. Often, but not always, these questions are located in practice; they emerge from practice and the knowledge that comes from the process of enquiry feeds back into practice.
  2. The process of enquiry – Questioning is accompanied by a structured process of enquiry. This may involve an intentional shift into a formal mode of investigation as well as a conscious progression from synthesizing existing ideas to the active generation of new knowledge. At the same time research that is practice-based is often seen to be a cyclical form of enquiry – a procedure that involves questioning, interrogating and thinking deeply on how and why actions are significant. It involves learning in and about practice and acting on that learning.
  3. The generation of new knowledge – Research involves generating new knowledge that goes out into the world. This new knowledge is made public through practice, through exhibitions and programmes and/or can take the form of more conventionally recognised academic research outputs including text based peer reviewed outputs.

I see these three characteristics as a starting point from which to build a shared understanding of research for the art museum.   They are far from conclusive and more work needs to be done around, for example, the issues of research quality and purpose, but I am hoping that they provide a basis for framing the variety of research activities that take place in art museums in a non-hierarchical and inclusive way.

As ever I would be very interested to hear people’s thoughts, so please leave a comment or get in touch with me at


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