Practice research – what’s new?

I have been thinking about practice research a fair bit recently.  As the title of this site suggests, research, practice, and the relationship between the two are subjects of enduring interest to me and I have written in previous posts on practice research, here and here.  I was prompted to revisit this topic again partly because of recent conversations I have had with UK, European and US colleagues and partly because of a recent blog post from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which spells out their support for practice research.  The AHRC post in turn draws on a recently published report on practice research published by the Practice Research Advisory Group (PRAG UK).

I will not go into the details of the PRAG report or the AHRC post, both of which are available to read online, but I will flag a few things that stood out for me.  In the first instance, both texts provide definitions of practice research, although these slightly differ from one another.  Whereas in the PRAG report, practice research is characterized as ‘when practice is the significant method conveyed in a research output’, in the AHRC post practice research is defined as ‘any form of arts and humanities research that incorporates, reflects upon, or embodies practice as part of the research process or the research outputs’.   Whilst I welcome the broad reaching and inclusive framing adopted by the AHRC, to my mind the PRAG definition is the more useful in the museum context.  This is not least because the latter’s focus on practice as a legitimate research method helps foreground the rigorous modes of inquiry that museum practitioners undertake.  I also wonder what forms of research might fall outside the AHRC’s definition of practice research, given that both the PRAG report and the AHRC blog acknowledge that ‘all research involves some form of practice’?

I am nit-picking though and would stress again how much more positive it is to have a broad definition, rather than a narrow exclusionary understanding of practice research, given how difficult it is to pin down this slippery form of knowledge generation.  Other encouraging observations of relevance to museum-based researchers in these publications include the acknowledgement that practice research does not necessarily lend itself to text-based outputs (and can include artefacts, performances, and exhibitions) and that it often takes place in communities through collaboration. These, combined with the recognition in the PRAG report that practice research can offer ‘ways of knowing’ that are intuitive, tacit, embodied, imaginative, affective, and sensory, can only help validate the work of museum practitioner researchers engaged in collaborative explorations with internal and external colleagues.  

Participants in the ‘Get Art’ project at Chisenhale Gallery in the 1990s – a reminder that innovative and experimental gallery education projects have been happening for many years!

My recent conversations with museum colleagues have reinforced for me the extraordinarily rich and rigorous research that is currently being done within museums and how vital, yet fragile research as an activity is within these institutions.  Earlier in March I listened with interest to a presentation given by the museologist Francois Mairesse at an event convened by The Flemish Institution for Cultural Heritage (FARO) in Brussels. In his talk, Professor Mairesse reminded us that the 2022 ICOM definition privileges research as one of the foremost activities of the museum, but he questioned how much time and resource is actually allocated within museums to enable this research to be done.  Consequently, in his view most research in museums is undertaken by academics, whilst well-established hierarchies within academia in what constitutes ‘valid’ research mean that museum-based research tends to be neither adequately recognized, nor funded.  Professor Mairesse took a global perspective, and although his comments suggest that research is operating in challenging circumstances, he concluded by emphasizing how important museums are as sites of investigation into the complex problems facing the world today. 

Reflecting on this talk has reinforced in my mind the importance of investing in the research that IS being done by curators, conservators, learning curators and many others in museums, often against the odds.  In light of this, the AHRC’s public endorsement of practice research in all its different manifestations is all the more welcome. The AHRC have said that they ‘welcome further discussion on the next big idea which will help support existing practice communities to flourish and exciting new areas of research to emerge’. They point to their Where Next scheme as an open opportunity to submit ideas to them, which I would urge all practitioner researchers in UK museums to do!

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