Why is art museum research confusing and confused and what can we do about it?

Last week I facilitated the first of two seminars at Tate Britain to share some of my provisional findings with colleagues from museums, arts organisations, universities and beyond. Waiting for people to arrive I had what one of the attendees kindly described as ‘party nerves’, but my experience of the seminar was wholly positive. I was gratified by the generosity and enthusiasm of those taking part and the sense that what I outlined resonated for the people attending. But I also had my ideas challenged and expanded in fruitful directions. We covered a fair bit in the afternoon, but I thought I’d share one of the ideas I presented which seemed to spark the most debate and interest – why research in art museums appears to be confused and confusing and what we can do to change this.
I have written in a previous blog about how multiple and conflicting perceptions of research are held by museum professionals (often within the same organisation) and others working with and writing about museums. This puzzling picture of art museum research is inextricably linked in my mind to the at times competing discourses circling the twenty-first century art museum. I have brought these discourses together under four headings, starting with the oldest and moving through to agendas that have surfaced especially strongly in the last thirty years:

1. The discourse of collection care and expansion – the art museum’s primary responsibility is the growth and care of its collections
2. The discourse of academia – the museum operates as a quasi-university contributing knowledge to various academic fields including art history, museology, visitor studies, pedagogy
3. The discourse of financial sustainability – the art museum needs to generate income through providing exhibitions and activities that will attract the maximum number of visitors
4. The discourse of democratic participation and civic responsibility – the museum needs to act as a change agent and become more inclusive and participatory, reaching out to diverse audiences and embracing forms of knowledge co-production.
Hovering around these four discourses is the fact that artists’ practices are changing and are often framed as research within the university and art school context, but also increasingly within the art museum.

What I have found is that each of these discourses translates to a construction of research. For example, with the first discourse, research in understood to be a priority of the scholar curator whose expertise is required to build and look after the collection. However, the discourse of financial sustainability requires that the same curator devote their energy to researching and realising exhibitions. At the same time the discourse of academia assumes that museum professionals across the organisation will pursue scholarly investigations that resemble and inform academic research. Meanwhile the discourse of democratic participation and civic responsibility locates learning curators (and curators too in smaller organisations) as engaging in collaborative and more practice-based research processes with audiences. This is alongside the museum commissioning more audience research which in theory informs ongoing programming.

Knowledge helps but isnt everything slide
None of these constructions are problematic in and of themselves. The difficulty is that they are all present within the art museum simultaneously, rubbing up against each other, at times reinforcing hierarchies of knowledge, at other times challenging established modes of scholarly enquiry. They are also not made explicit, which causes confusion, frustration and exhaustion amongst museum professionals who are juggling multiple agendas. Consequently, some feel unable to do the ‘recognised’ or sanctioned forms of research that are linked to the discourses of academia or traditional collection care scholarship because of limited time and resources. Yet at the same time there is a perception that more practice based and exhibitions oriented research is not legitimised as ‘research’ within the organisation or the academy, despite the time and care invested and the new knowledge that emerges through it. And because museums find change troublesome, this multifaceted, opaque yet hierarchical understanding of research persists, despite being dysfunctional in many ways.child in red in front of artwork
What is needed instead is what I described in the seminar as an ‘expanded conception’ of research, one that acknowledges and makes explicit the various modes of thoughtful and careful enquiry that take place across the art museum non-hierarchically. This expanded conception recognises that museum professionals are keen to explore questions and develop knowledge that enhances their work and their disciplinary fields in the broadest sense. It supports practice-based and collaborative action research alongside studies geared toward academia. And it acknowledges that the audiences for art museum research go beyond the academic community to include peers, artists and, importantly, the public. The expanded conception celebrates the fact that the art museum is not a university, hence is relatively free to determine for itself what constitutes research activity, comparatively unencumbered by the latter’s assessment and legislative regimes. Yet it prioritises research as an activity that can and needs to be undertaken by museum professionals and therefore requires adequate support.
Feedback during the seminar indicated that these ideas rang true to the experiences of those in the room. There was broad acceptance of the value of the expanded conception, coupled with pragmatic acknowledgement of the significant challenges in implementing it. I came away enthused, whilst recognising that clearly there is more thinking to be done.


4 thoughts on “Why is art museum research confusing and confused and what can we do about it?”

  1. Lots of agreement with your four types, for sure. However, one additional type of research that I believe to be dear to the heart of Tate is to what extent the museum is a site of learning for the larger community. We all know that museums are places of looking, listening, and drawing in information, media, sources, and artists rarely introduced into the school day or work place. Why then not address as an area of research the extent and type of learning that goes on in museums for young and old? Take a walk through a good museum book store, such as that at Tate Modern, for example, and note the number of topics there relevant for the learning of visitors who are not artists or, in many cases,not intently interested in a particular exhibition. Books on nature, walking, sketching, etc. plus good works of fiction regarding works of art or artists have their place on the shelves of art museums. So much learning goes on, and researchers have yet to tackle ways to understand how much, when, and how, and, perhaps most important, where that learning spreads itself once visitors leave the museum.


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