Reshaping the Collectible – exemplifying the qualities of good art museum research

Now I am back at Tate I am finding out about the research projects that have taken shape in the year that I was away. One of which is ‘Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum’, a large-scale three-year study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which has just started, and which has been developed and is being led by Professor Pip Laurenson, Head of Collection Care Research. The focus of Reshaping the Collectible is what the project proposal refers to as ‘unruly’ artworks; those which might unfold over time and depend on re-engagement with the artist and with networks of others beyond the museum as well as technologies, materials and skills.

One such example is Tarek Atoui’s ‘The Reverse Collection 2014 – 16’ which requires the museum to connect with a current experimental music scene and work with musicians each time it is presented. The research is exploring how these artworks, that do not easily fit within conventional distinctions between the archive, the record and the artwork can exist and be cared for within the art museum. It is seeking to develop new collection management and conservation models to be able to achieve this.

joan_jonas_mirage_1976_3
Joan Jonas, Mirage 1976 performance at the Anthology Film Archives, New York, 1976. Photo: Babette Mangolte © 1976 Babette Mangolte

The project is fascinating to me on many levels. In the first instance the subject itself is key to understanding how the twenty-first century art museum is grappling with changing artistic practice and the implications of this for their collections. It is addressing interesting dilemmas such as, are there works of art that are fundamentally uncollectable? Where does the artwork ‘end’ and the audience’s engagement with it begin? And as one of the research questions articulates ‘what needs to shift in terms of process, policy and practice to accommodate works that continue to unfold in the museum?’
The project is equally interesting in terms of how it is going about addressing these questions and dilemmas. The project is structured around six case studies that continue to challenge current collection and conservation practices. With each case study there will be a detailed interrogation of all aspects of the work, from the different records that exist within the institution, to legal and copyright issues, to thinking about how the work might be represented when it is not on display. The intention is to bring interdisciplinary scholarship to the questions and to facilitate the co-production of knowledge through hosting visiting scholars, organising workshops and drawing on the expertise of practitioners within the museum from curatorial, conservation, collection management, records management, the archive and learning.  Researchers will also be working closely with the artists and their networks to imagine the future of their works.
There are two further reasons why in my view Reshaping the Collectible exemplifies good practice in art museum research. One of the project’s aims is to make the work of collection management and conservation management more transparent to the museum’s audiences. So, rather than conducting the research ‘behind closed doors’ the intention is, as the proposal states, ‘to take seriously the challenge to make the invisible visible, exposing the lives of artworks and their interactions with the museum to a general audience, and testing the appetite for and engagement with these narratives.’ This ambition to conduct research openly, testing ideas with a wider group is inspiring. Secondly the project is looking explicitly at how a research project of this kind changes practices and how this adds value for the public and the museum. It is building in an evaluative strand that will explore and enable reflection on how we design research projects and what is distinctive about undertaking research in the museum context. The interrogation of how the museum undertakes and communicates research is so important yet happens relatively rarely.
During my research I came across the work of Charles Glassick and his colleagues who undertook a survey of the criteria and standards employed to evaluate scholarship in American universities. What they found was that common to many was a focus on the process of scholarship, which translates to how the research was undertaken rather than what was examined. On this basis they went on to construct their own set of qualitative standards, which I have adapted slightly. These are detailed below and form a sequence of unfolding stages
1. Clear Goals – are the questions being asked important? Are the ambitions realistic and achievable, are the purposes of the work clear?
2. Adequate Preparation – has the researcher got the necessary skills, do they show an understanding of the existing work in the field both practical and theoretical? Have they got adequate resources to realise it?
3. Appropriate Methods – is the researcher using appropriate methods, are they modifying processes and methods appropriately as the work progresses
4. Significant Results – does the researcher achieve their aims? Does their work add to the field (of practice and/or theory), does the work open up additional areas for further exploration?
5. Effective Presentation – does the researcher present their work effectively? Do they communicate their work to the intended audiences? Do they communicate with clarity and integrity?
6. Reflective Critique – does the researcher critically evaluate their own work? Do they bring an appropriate breadth of evidence to that critique? Do they use evaluation to improve the quality of their work?
When I read the Reshaping the Collectible project proposal I did an informal assessment against these six criteria. In my view the project scores highly, at least in terms of considering each of these, even if it is too early to say whether it has, for example achieved significant results. There is much the museum can learn from this project and I am looking forward to following its progress and hopefully getting involved.
For more information on Reshaping the Collectible please go to their project page.

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