Supporting practitioner-led research in the art museum – what can leaders do?

Recently I was contacted by a colleague from Australia, Sheona White, who has been reading the blog.  She posed a question to me concerning what it takes to lead and manage individuals and team(s) who are keen to undertake practitioner research in museum learning programmes. Sheona rightly pointed out that we tend not to discuss this a great deal and her question got me thinking about what my experience has been at Tate, what I have come across in my recent research and what can be learnt from both.  I have pulled five characteristics of leadership together here as a starting point for what I hope will be an ongoing discussion.  This list is not in order of priority – all these characteristics are equally important in my view.

  1. Modelling an explicit commitment to research

Leadership is vital to developing a vibrant research culture and supporting practitioners to undertake research.  In my experience team leaders need to model an enquiring perspective. Even if senior managers do not undertake research themselves they are crucial in creating a culture where speculation and reflexivity is encouraged and where change is welcome.  The exemplary leaders I have come across embody an approach that prioritises learning and encourages all staff to challenge themselves and their practice. They test their thinking explicitly and encourage their workforce to adopt this approach too.

2. Building a trusting culture where thoughtful risk taking is encouraged 

Leaders play a key role in enabling a culture of trust and risk where experimentation and ventures into the unknown are an ingrained element of practice.  In a trusting culture people are confident they will not be criticised if they query current ways of doing and thinking and they feel empowered to question and disagree with their colleagues. David Garvin and his co-authors (who have written on organisational learning) identify that such workspaces provide a supportive environment for productive change, because they manifest ‘psychological safety’. In a psychologically safe learning space everyone can express ideas openly.  However, a supportive environment for practitioner-led research in my view requires a further step. Here people need to feel able not only to question existing scenarios or correct existing problems, but also to test out their own original ideas.

Maintaining a psychologically safe space needs constant attention to everything. From more micro-level decisions on, for example, acknowledging challenging voices and opinions in meetings to more macro-level responses when, for instance, research or experimental programming does not yield the findings or experiences that were expected. If staff feel disempowered or silenced or if the focus is on ascribing blame or emphasising what went wrong, then trust evaporates and positive risk-taking disappears. Each time this happens the likelihood of staff embarking on fruitful enquiry is reduced. If, however, at difficult or disappointing moments, the emphasis is on what can be learnt, the space for innovative investigations grows. When a culture of genuine trust and risk is embedded it creates a positive upward spiral of new insights and greater understanding.

Summer School Tate Exchange 2017
Participants in a Tate Schools and Teachers Summer School. Copyright Tate Photography (Alex Wood)

3. Establishing clear and open communication

All those I interviewed for my research acknowledged the value but also the complexities and challenges of maintaining regular and transparent communication across an organisation. But I have observed that in organisations where practitioner researchers thrive, and research and reflection are nurtured, knowledge and information are shared openly. David Garvin and his colleagues also argue that knowledge that is shared in systematic and clearly defined ways, among individuals, groups, or whole organisations, is most effective in supporting organisational learning. They emphasise the importance of information and insights moving laterally and vertically, so that ‘essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it’.  One obvious way that leaders can contribute is by sharing information openly and establishing regular meetings and all-team catch ups where staff are encouraged to disseminate information and ideas, reflect together on what has happened and been learnt and collaborate on future plans.

4. Making time  

What my experience and research has told me is that without question the main factor that prevents practitioners doing research is their perceived lack of time. I have found that almost without exception people are keen to research, reflect and take time to learn, yet they can struggle to build this into their practice. Too often they are overwhelmed by the practical and administrative aspects of their roles, which are perceived to take priority. Practitioners want time to share problems and insights and consider ‘what if’ questions together as part of their working day. And they want their organisations to acknowledge the importance of the thinking that is required to do their work effectively, by not overloading them with tasks or programming.

It is the responsibility of leadership in the first instance not to overload staff with programming tasks that leave no time for more considered enquiry.  Associated with this is the need for leaders to make sure there are adequate resources to undertake the work the organisation wishes to do.  And finally leaders can play a key role in encouraging staff to take the time needed, by creating spaces for reflection and sanctioning formal research time away from the day to day routines.

5. Committing to honest evaluation

My experience and conversations have revealed that without ongoing evaluation, it is hard to know what is taking place or estimate the degree and nature of change brought about through an intervention. I know practitioners who shy away from evaluation, associating it with the tedious time-consuming ritual of handing out questionnaires at the end of event. It is true that evaluation which is not an integral part of the cycles of action research and practice as research can seem to be an irrelevance, undertaken to fulfil the requirements of a funder. Or evaluation is framed as an opportunity for advocacy; for the telling of a positive story without an in-depth and honest appraisal and presentation of a programme. But neither of these approaches help improve practice, hence the need for leaders to ensure that honest evaluation is at the heart of careful enquiry.

This list is by no means complete and no doubt there are a multitude of other actions leaders can take to support practitioner-led research.  At the same time these characteristics do not operate in isolation, but are interconnected and co-dependent.  Furthermore, in my experience leaders cannot bring about and maintain a practitioner-led research culture on their own, as it requires commitment on the part of each person within an organisation.  Nonetheless, effective leadership makes the task of embedding practitioner-led research considerably easier, especially if they enact these five characteristics.

Practice based research – revisiting some key questions

What are the types of knowledge produced through artistic research?  What are the fields of knowledge production in the art museum?  Is ‘knowledge’ an adequate term to describe what emerges from artistic enquiry or is there something beyond and outside of knowledge that needs to be accounted for?  These are some of the questions that were raised at an afternoon seminar at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania that I was part of last week.

The National Gallery of Art, Vilnius


The discussion that took place revisited some arguments that have been present within practice based research in art and design for some time, but also sparked, at least for me, some fresh thinking.  In particular I have been thinking pragmatically about the differences between practice based research in the university and museum context.  And I have been reflecting more abstractly on how we might negotiate existing definitions of knowledge in relation to artistic, but also museological practice based research.

In his presentation at the seminar, Professor Tom Corby, Associate Dean of Research at Central St Martins, University of the Arts London referenced Christopher Frayling’s influential 1994 conceptualisation of research in art and design.  In this text three categorisations of art and design research are described.  The first of these, Research into art and design covers historical, theoretical and aesthetic research.  The second, Research through art and design is the enquiry that happens through practice, that is through the doing of art making and which produces knowledge that is communicable in written forms that go beyond the artefact.  This might include action research where the findings are shared through a research journal, for example. The third category, Research for art and design is the process of questioning and discovery that culminates and is expressed solely in the art object. What emerges from this type of research does not find form in verbal or written communication necessarily.  Instead it is expressed, in the author’s words, in ‘visual, iconic or imaginistic communication.’

Since Christopher Frayling’s paper was published there has been a huge amount of debate around how Research for art and design sits within the academic structures of a university, which to my knowledge has not been resolved.  Instead research degrees in art and design conform more to the Research through art and design model in that there is a requirement for a written thesis to accompany the making of any art works.  Indeed Tom Corby ran through the quite specific requirements that are part of any PhD submission at Central St Martins in order for the new knowledge generated through the research to be made explicit to examiners and anyone else.   For some artists, including some present at the seminar in Vilnius, this formulation is problematic, in part because of the implicit framing of what constitutes new knowledge.

Put another way, how does an art and design PhD account for the new knowledge that cannot be expressed through words?  Does practice based research always have to be explained through writing, when in fact much of the value comes in the development of  experiential knowledge held by the practitioner or the ‘imaginistic’ knowledge held within the object?  How far do the frameworks of university-based research help or hinder artistic enquiry?  We grappled with each of these questions and more during the seminar.


I have drawn on Christopher Frayling’s framework in thinking about how practitioners undertake practice based research in the art museum.  Research on, Research through and Research for takes place in curatorial, collection care and education practice for example.  Yet what I have become aware of is that the museum is a relatively liberal space in which to do practice based research.  Rather than needing to conform to the formalised procedures and assessment criteria of the academy, the art museum can potentially test alternative understandings of practice based research and explore how various knowledges are manifest in the doing of programming for instance.  This is something we have been trying to do in Tate Learning with an overall focus on practice as research and specifically in the Practice as Research programme. We hope to do more of this the future.

At the same time I have become interested in how we can complicate existing definitions of knowledge.  In particular I am intrigued by the possibilities afforded by the idea of poetic knowledge as a way of understanding what emerges through practice and through engagement with art.  I am very early in my investigations but am taken by James S Taylor’s articulation of poetic knowledge as that which comes intuitively through the senses as opposed to that which is acquired through engagement with the intellect alone.  He uses the example of how we can know and trust in another’s love as one example of poetic knowledge. I am keen to explore how thinking about the poetic can broaden our understanding of what constitutes practice based research findings and will report on this further when I’ve done more reading, talking with others and thinking.

Time to Listen

On Monday 15th October I attended the launch of the Tracking Arts Learning and Engagement (TALE) research findings at the House of Lords in London.  TALE is a collaborative project between the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Tate and the University of Nottingham that has been funded by Arts Council England (ACE).  Over the last three years we have been looking at young people’s experience of arts and cultural education in schools and how cultural organisations can support teachers and students to have a deep and rich engagement in arts activities.

The findings from this study could not be more important.  Over the three years the researchers at the University of Nottingham gathered 6,000 responses from students aged 11-18 and 63 teachers. The findings show the many ways in which arts and cultural learning in the classroom is valued by young people and the unique role paid played by arts teachers in nurturing students’ engagement in the arts. More than a third of the students said school is the only opportunity they have to engage in arts activities. I urge you to read the findings which can be found here in more detail.

Schools workshop Tate Modern copyright Samuel Cole.jpg
Schools Workshop at Tate Modern.  Copyright Tate (Samuel Cole)

One clear and consistent message comes from the thousands of students who took part: arts and cultural learning taps into their imagination, creative instincts and self-worth in ways that other lessons do not. Arts subjects are shown to significantly help young people develop their own opinions as rounded individuals ready to contribute to their community and the wider world. The research also highlights the positive impact that arts-rich schools have on fostering independent thinking and creativity, confidence, well-being and empathy.

However, the TALE research was carried out against a background of funding cuts and a rapid decline in the number of arts teachers and hours spent on arts subjects in state-funded schools in England. At the House of Lords event which was titled ‘Time to Listen’, Tate’s Director Maria Balshaw joined with Erica Whyman, RSC Deputy Artistic Director to call for five changes to ensure that arts and culture features in all young people’s education. These changes include ensuring that the arts have parity with other subjects at key stage 3 (when pupils are aged between 11 and 14) and the provision of an Arts and Culture Premium for all children in schools to make sure all students in primary and secondary schools are able to access arts and culture out of school.

The House of Lords event also saw the launch of the ‘Why Study Art’ film which has been produced by Tate that showcases key figures from the arts and business speaking about the critical importance of studying the arts.  It’s worth looking at this too to gain a sense of the many ways that engagement with art at school has played a vital role in these creative people’s development.

It has been a very rewarding process being involved in TALE.  From the initial meetings with Jacqui O’Hanlon at the RSC and the researchers at Nottingham (Professors Pat Thomson and Christine Hall) to plan and submit the bid to ACE, right through to the drafting of the document that summarises the findings and the organisation of the final event.  I have learnt a great deal about how collaborative research can be undertaken and the value of cultural organisations working with academic partners to explore issues that are relevant to both.  Most importantly this research has reaffirmed my view that research can be a vehicle to draw attention to key issues within and beyond the art museum.

On a slightly different but related note, Tate is inviting applications from international colleagues to take part in the third Tate Intensive programme.  This week long programme (7 – 12 July 2019) will be exploring the need for imaginative change within museums and galleries.  Do take a look at this too.


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 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.

Artistic practice and research in the art museum

Recently I have been revisiting my Phd. My doctoral research focused on the relationship between artistic ways of knowing and how this translates into specific forms of learning and teaching in the art museum.  I went about it by interviewing and observing five artist educators – Liz Ellis, Esther Sayers, Michele Fuirer, Lucy Wilson and Michaela Ross – who were working at that time (in the early 2000s) on the ‘Art into Life’ strand of community focused programming at Tate Modern.  In my interviews I asked these artists how they would define themselves as artists and what knowledge and experience they thought they possessed.  I then went on to explore with them how their understandings of themselves as ‘expert’ artists shaped the pedagogic exchanges they facilitated in the galleries at Tate Modern.

What emerged through this research is a construction of art practice as a continuous process of conceptual and practical enquiry, underpinned by questions and driven by these artists’ desire to understand their experiences and communicate these to others.  The five artists identified qualities necessary to carry out their art practice, namely looking, questioning and divergent thinking.  They also drew attention to the importance of playfulness and risk-taking as well as curiosity, imaginative responses, open-mindedness and the freedom to explore different ideas simultaneously.  I was reminded through speaking to them of the value of productive failure and of being able to feel comfortable not knowing something, to allow for new ideas to emerge.  Likewise my experience as an artist and educator resonated with their descriptions of maintaining spontaneity and intuition, yet needing to balance this with keeping a clear purpose and reflecting critically on progress at all times.

Alex schady
Artist Alex Schady working with pupils as part of the ‘Art in Action’ programme at Tate Modern in 2012

Looking back on this research, which I have written about elsewhere, I was struck by the relationship between this construction of art practice and the research processes in the art museum I have been examining more recently.  Much has been written on how art making can be understood as a form of research, so this is not new territory.  Graeme Sullivan, for example, has argued for how studio practice operates as an intellectual and imaginative enquiry that produces new knowledge.  And the ongoing debate within art schools on how artistic practice can be framed within academic research criteria centres on this relationship.  Yet what struck me was that in art museums, where we might assume the parallels between art practice and research would be manifest in the forms of enquiry being undertaken, there seems to be at best uncertainty about and worst resistance to practice-based research being done by artists and others.

One obvious response to this conundrum is to point out that historically art museum research has centred on the collection – on the products of art practice, rather than practice itself – to the greatest extent.  Hence this research has taken place within the discipline and using the methodologies of art history.   At the same time research has been undertaken less by artists and more, although not exclusively, by art historians.  Yet my recent research into art museum research revealed that professionals including conservators and learning curators are increasingly researching their own practice, drawing on their expertise as practitioners and artists in some cases.  I am interested, therefore in how the qualities identified by the artists in my PhD study shape the approach to research being done by these practitioners and whether this differs from researchers from other disciplines.

Although I cannot draw definitive conclusions, what I have noted is that pretty much all the museum-based researchers I spoke to identified the importance of questioning, exploration, clear goals and critical reflection.  Less frequently mentioned are notions of playfulness, imagination and not knowing.  The art historians I interviewed tended to be mindful of the need for evidence-based arguments in their research, which the artists made no reference to.  And whilst all were conscious of the need for their practice and research to be of high quality, I have a sense that the artists’ perception of what quality entails relied more on the integrity of their processes and outcomes judged on the artists’ own terms, rather than according to any external peer review process for example.

This is a very informal comparison, but it has been an interesting exercise.  I’d be keen to know the qualities other museum-based researchers see as important in undertaking their work and whether they align with those of the artists I interviewed.




Reflecting back on a year’s research

Next week on August 21st I return to my role as Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate.  My sabbatical, which started on September 1st last year has come to an end.  In the last few weeks I have been fully occupied in finishing the book – ‘Rethinking Research in the Art Museum’ – which is due to be published by Routledge next year, all being well.  The book brings together this year’s explorations to make a case for an expanded conception of research in the art museum and to argue for the museum as a whole to be research-led.  Perhaps inevitably, as this period of research and writing ends I have been reflecting back on the experience and trying to distil what I have learnt from it.

In the first instance I have come to understand the workings of the art museum more clearly.  Stepping back from the institution has allowed me to makes sense of the various agendas and at times conflicting pressures that are present at all times.  In particular I have identified what I refer to as the four discourses of the art museum, which determine at various times how an organisation defines itself and prioritises its time and resources.  I wrote about these in a previous blog here.  These agendas – collection care and expansion, financial sustainability, academia and democratic participation – each have implications for research and how it is conceived and undertaken.  Articulating them has helped make sense of why the current framing of research is confusing for many of the museum professionals I spoke to, who are often caught between the discourses, trying to satisfy the demands of all of them.

I have also learnt a great deal about the role of the museum professional.  Looking at the literature on what constitutes a professional has helped me to understand the relationship between the specialist knowledge a curator or museum educator has, for example, and how this affords them independence to make decisions about their work.  This independence reflects the trust that these individuals, as professionals, are given but comes with a responsibility to make wise decisions in the best interest of the greater good.  In particular I have come to realise how much the museum professional’s and the museum’s credibility depends on trust by the public.  And I now see how important it is that the museum is mindful of its responsibilities, not only to art and artists, but to all those affected by the decisions it makes.  I wrote about how trust can be compromised here.

I have spent time interrogating my experience of implementing practice as research with colleagues at Tate and been able to gain a clearer sense of the value of this work, but also how much more can be done.  I wrote about some of my experiences here. Interviewing Tate colleagues reminded me of the importance of making time for thoughtful reflection, but also how difficult this can be when the pressures of programming are ever increasing.  Yet I remain inspired and hopeful. I have seen how practice as research embeds questioning, analysis, contextualisation and the sharing of findings into practice and the benefits this brings to people and programmes.

One of the delights of this research has been spending time at other organisations learning from their good practice.  My visits to Trapholt in Denmark, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Harvard Art Museums in Boston and the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol have revealed the potential for more inclusive, co-operative and action-oriented research.  I have witnessed how practitioner researchers in art museums and community arts centres can work in collaboration with academics, community members and visitors to the museum in a research relationship.  From this I have been able to picture what a thriving practitioner-led research culture in the art museum looks like.

My own visual representation resembles an organic and shifting, but purposeful constellation, where individual practitioner-researchers are involved in their own circular processes of questioning, exploring, analysing and creating new insights, within an overarching progression of ongoing learning. My visualisation sees knowledge coming in and going out from the organisation, in part through co-research with academics and non-academics. I see it as a transparent, non-hierarchical and dynamic yet reflexive culture, where practitioners are in dialogue with each other and others. Here they are testing ideas and exploring with care the relevant issues that can inform their work. And they are generating original knowledge that goes out into the world. It is organic in the sense of flexing and adapting as new learning emerges, and it is purposeful because it operates with a clear understanding of its values, aims and ambitions.

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I have seen this culture in action in different organisations and marvelled at the positive difference it makes to how people work and the quality of the knowledge and activity that is enabled within it.

My own research has been practice-based, in that it has been emergent, exploratory, interdisciplinary and situated in my own experience.  It has been centred in my own practices of art making, dialogue, reflexivity and creative learning.  And at the risk of becoming overly self-referential, undertaking this research has illuminated to me how research that originates in and acknowledges the experience and perspective of the researcher operates.  Yet within this I have come to recognise the absolute necessity of sharing and testing findings with colleagues throughout the research.  That more than anything has been the pleasure of this sabbatical; the opportunity to develop ideas and discuss and refine them with knowledgeable and generous colleagues.  More than anything I have come to see the value of dialogue in any process of enquiry.

Although my sabbatical has ended I fully intend to continue writing this blog, which I have found to be a fantastic vehicle for trying out and communicating ideas.  From now on, however, it will be written from the perspective of a practitioner researcher in the art museum, rather than observing it.

The model of the Practitioner Researcher – reflections and perspectives from Italy

What role does research and learning occupy in art museums in Italy?  Are the ideas I have been developing regarding the practitioner researcher relevant in a non-UK context? These were some of the questions in my mind at the start of July when I spent two days working with postgraduate students from the MA in Museum Education at the University of Roma Tre in Rome.  I was there at the invitation of Antonella Poce, Associate Professor in the Department of Education. It was a rich and illuminating experience talking with students who included art historians, anthropologists, geologists and archaeologists.  Each brought their experience of working in various roles – as educators, archivists and senior managers in museums across Italy, as well as tour guides at the main tourist sites including the Colosseum.  All were thoughtful and committed practitioners interested in changing how museums and cultural sites develop knowledge and engage with their audiences.


Over the two days we explored current constructions of research. I was reassured to hear that, as with colleagues in the UK, these cultural professionals see research not so much in terms of specific disciplines.  Rather they understood research to be a process characterised by questioning, experimentation, critical thinking, reflection and the creation of new insights that go out into the world.  Reflecting on their own experience, the students acknowledged that a competent researcher needs to be curious, flexible, passionate, patient and brave.  They were confident in describing their own modes of enquiry within their practice. Yet when I introduced the model of the practitioner researcher that I have developed, they hesitated, as other museum professionals have when I presented the model to them. I find this uncertainty about the model extremely interesting and helpful in highlighting the need for change in museums.

My model of the practitioner researcher draws on Charles McClintock’s construction of the Scholar Practitioner.  It outlines the qualities of the enquiring, ethical and collaborative professional that I see are essential for the twenty-first century art museum.  I introduce it by suggesting that people read it as if it described the key elements of a person description for a job.  So, the key qualities of the practitioner researcher are as follows:

  • Motivated by curiosity and ongoing questioning
  • Committed to developing their knowledge of practice (know how) and understanding of theory (know what)
  • Elicits and engages in reflection and the assessment of changes brought about by their work
  • Engages in collaboration and active knowledge exchange with practitioners and others – artists, academics, community members, museum visitors
  • Disseminates their knowledge and make their expertise visible to others in ways that are useful
  • Works with boldness, integrity, generosity and care

What I discovered in conversation with these students, as with other colleagues in the UK and elsewhere, is that their reservations do not stem from any fundamental problems with this model.  Instead the issue is that it represents an ideal that is hard to realise in the reality of their workplaces.  Pressures of time, limited resources, poor communication and institutional politics and priorities conspire against professionals being able to work in this way.  What I heard from the Italian museum professionals is that they value these qualities extremely highly and recognise this as best practice but see the current culture of museums and cultural centres as all too often acting in opposition to them.  These are common frustrations shared by curators and museum educators in several different countries that I have spoken to since embarking on this research.

At the same time, the suggestions put forward by the students of how to bring about change also resonate with those of practitioners elsewhere.  These included the need for effective and strategic leadership that recognises the value of research and reflective practice.  Likewise the importance of openness and a willingness on the part of the museum to learn and develop.  The dismantling of unhelpful hierarchies that privilege certain forms of expertise over others and the huge difference that good internal and external communication can make was talked about.  And as ever, the challenge of negotiating busy programming schedules with making time for thoughtful analysis was touched on.

In my mind, the model of the practitioner researcher is a means by which to help achieve these changes.  If museums committed to embedding these qualities in the job descriptions of those they employ it would formalise and communicate not only what they expect employees to do, but also how they go about doing it.  It would signal the values and priorities of the institution, opening up and legitimising research-led reflective and collaborative practice. And it would go some way to support practitioners’ desire to undertake more inclusive and expansive modes of knowledge production.

My conversations with my Italian colleagues gave me much to reflect on.  Not least, they have strengthened my view that, rather than being seen as an ideal, the model of the practitioner researcher needs to be seen as a non-negotiable element of a thriving research culture within museums.




How can we determine the ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’ of research?

As I get closer to the end of my fellowship and the writing up of my research I have become preoccupied with whether it is any good. Running through my mind are a series of questions: is the investigation thorough and the argument logical? Has the methodology been appropriate, given the questions I am asking? Am I generating new insights that make a useful contribution to the field? Needless to say, I am keen to produce research of high quality and have been paying attention to how others define this, comparing their ideas with my own sense of what constitutes valuable work.

I have written in a previous blog on the concept of ‘care’ in relation to qualitative and arts-based research and how this makes more sense to me than notions of ‘rigour’ derived from scientific research. I have the same unease with the concept and language of ‘validity’ and ‘reliability,’ both of which are frequently invoked alongside rigour to suggest that qualitative research is or isn’t of high quality and worth believing. Yet often I am unclear what validity or reliability criteria are being applied and not sure if these are appropriate for my own or others’ qualitative, practice-based studies. I have, therefore, been reading up and will briefly outline what I have gleaned in relation to these terms in the hope that it will bring some clarity.

Validity, I have discovered, refers to the credibility of any research. In other words, are the research methods and findings authentic and useful. There are two aspects of validity, internal and external, that are brought into play within the scientific paradigm. Internal validity refers to the procedures or methods used in the research and the extent to which they are appropriate to address the research question. In the case of quantitative research, for instance, will they measure what they need to measure. So, for example, in a study of the relationship between an arts intervention and children’s attainment in schools, any research setting out to test and measure this would need to employ methods that could reveal the strength of the causal relationship between the two variables. That is, between the art project and the children’s attainment.

External validity refers to the extent to which the results from any research can be generalised to situations beyond the study itself. In the case of the quantitative children’s attainment research, external validity would be granted by whether the findings could be confidently applied, say, to a different school with different students. Again, within the scientific paradigm, reliability concerns the repeatability of findings. So, with the arts and children’s attainment research, the more times this study is implemented and produces the same results, the greater the reliability of the findings.

But are these scientific criteria always relevant in the art museum? Take the question of reliability as determined by reproducibility. With my research, the aim has not been to undertake a quantitative study that could be repeatable by a different researcher. I am seeking to unearth and understand how specific people perceive and enact research practices and identify the implications of these perceptions for the sector. I am concerned with internal validity, although I would not use this term, in the sense that I have employed methods best suited to explore my question. But external validity poses more difficulties, since I am not concerned with the extent to which my results are generalisable. So, is my research ‘unreliable’ or should different criteria of trustworthiness be applied here?

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The academics Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln draw together alternative validity criteria, all of which are potentially relevant to the museum research context. The first of which is transparency. Because I am not testing a hypothesis (as with the arts and young people’s attainment study mentioned above), the validity or believability of my research needs to come through the clarity of my enquiry process – I must make explicit what I’ve done – and the credibility of the findings in relation to that process. High quality research is that which provides convincing evidence and a systematic logical argument to support the findings. In some ways it can be seen to resemble, as my colleague Christopher Griffin pointed out, ‘a GCSE maths question’ in that a researcher needs to show ‘their working out.’

Reflexivity is also important. To avoid the criticism that my research is merely a collection of anecdotes and personal impressions I need to recognise my situation, acknowledge my subjectivity and make explicit my values. So, in my study, validity will be established and quality ensured, not via my objectivity, but through my reflecting explicitly on what takes place and my responses to it.

Going still further Denzin and Lincoln argue that any social-justice oriented approach to research should be evaluated according to its emancipatory potential. Here validity should be judged in terms of emotionality and caring, personal accountability and the representation of the experience of oppressed people. These are clearly some way from any scientific criteria of reliability, yet they resonate with my experience of art museum practice and my research, which aspires to some degree to address issues of emancipation and representation.

For these reasons it is these criteria of quality, rather than the understandings of validity and reliability drawn from scientific research, that I am bringing to my own study.


The Physicality of Research

What does the ‘physicality of research’ mean? How can materials disrupt, change or unite the role of theory in relation to practice? And what is gained or lost through research that positions a material engagement at its centre? These are three of the questions posed at an all-day seminar I co-facilitated at Tate Modern on June 7th.  The event was devised and led in collaboration with artist and researcher Kimberley Foster, artist and Tate Learning Research Assistant Curator Helena Hunter and artist and Tate Learning Research Administrator Rita Evans, with assistance from Beckie Leach-Macdonald, artist and Learning Research Convenor.

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We invited everyone to bring something that weighed 500g, related to their research or not.  People arrived with objects ranging from bread dough to antique spoons, cous cous to wool.  These were displayed and their significance discussed.

The seminar looked specifically at materiality, or more simply at stuff, and the relationship between this and research. Our aim was for the form and content of the day to embody the values and ideas that we were exploring.  So we exchanged objects we had brought, we made things, we drew, we talked and we listened.  Together we interrogated how physical objects and material processes operate in the creation of new insights and knowledge. And we thought about stuff and ideas – not just as one (stuff) that manifests or develops the other (ideas), but as messy, disruptive but also essentially productive partners in the research enterprise.

We used metaphor and analogy to explore how research develops.  Specifically, Kimberley and her partner Karl Foster took the metaphor of the jug as a mind and each button as a thought, filling and emptying and demonstrating the negotiation between control and disorder that is necessary in any generative epistemological process.

20180607_142307 (2)Meanwhile I invited everyone to map their research processes as animals, food or architecture via the game of ‘Consequences.’ I watched as people embraced the to and fro of research, the giving and accepting of ideas as they passed their drawings across to each other.

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Later in the day Rita took us through a creative process prompted by a quote from Brian Massumi that talked of ‘wriggle room’ and reaching beyond. We read, spoke, enacted the words, drew and finally made a three dimensional object.  We experienced the translations that take place between word and thought and thought and materials.

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To enable reflection on the day’s activities at the end of the afternoon, Helena invited us to first lie and think and then represent our thoughts using everyday materials.  To explore documentation as a mode of production and invite materials to speak for us.

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Looking back on the day almost a week later, I am struck by the possibilities offered by thinking about research materially.  How my ideas and preconceptions were disrupted by encountering objects and stuff that at times rendered me speechless.  Others spoke of the articulacy of materials and how objects behave actively, determining meaning and dislodging or undoing established ways of thinking.  There was talk of being productively silenced and also mobilised by materials.

I was aware on the day and believe this more strongly having experienced the seminar that there is nowhere more appropriate to think about research and materiality than an art museum, packed full of objects that are themselves packed full of ideas.   I talked then about how the museum of the 21st century is not only preoccupied with the preservation and building of the collection – in other words the material objects in and of themselves – but is necessarily concerned with processes of knowledge production that inform and emerge from those objects. Exhibitions research, pre-acquisition research, conservation studies, learning, art historical research, audience engagement and outreach. We could even expand this list to include marketing and public relations. Each of these processes engage in some way with the materiality that sits at the heart of the organisation.

So in my mind, the more we can understand about not only what objects and materials are, but also what they do and how they function epistemologically, arguably the more explicit and transparent the museum can become. This seminar did not provide me with definitive conclusions or explanations.  Rather it revealed the value of letting go and allowing ideas and new insights to emerge through engagement with matter and in discussion with others.  It reminded me how important people and stuff are in shaping how I think.

Careful Research

Last Friday I had the pleasure of listening to the anthropologist Tim Ingold give a keynote presentation at the Art, Materiality and Representation conference organised by the British Museum and SOAS. Over the course of an hour, he spoke eloquently about the connections between art and anthropology and the responsibility both have to supporting a sustainable future.  He drew attention to how each are processes of enquiry that are speculative and necessarily incomplete. Both in his view need an ‘inquisitive approach’, one that is ‘modestly experimental.’ But they must also be critical, in the sense of seeking change.  Art and anthropology, he argued, need to recognise difference, embracing a variety of approaches so as to explore the essential question ‘how are we to live?’

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One topic that Tim Ingold touched on resonated particularly strongly for me.  This was his argument that artistic and anthropological research that follows ‘the evolution of ideas from the inside’ relies neither on the testing of an hypothesis nor on conjecture and refutation to build theory, but on care and attention.   He identified how ‘curiosity’ and ‘care’ derive from the same Latin root – curiosus – to make the point that research thrives on enquiry, but requires tending and looking after.

I have long been interested in the idea of care and the need to be careful (that is, full of care rather than cautious) in practice and research.  In an essay on the Tanks Programme at Tate Modern I draw on Anthony Huberman’s concept of institutional caring, alongside Paulo Friere’s articulation of love to argue for collaborative programming that manifests the emotional and intellectual commitment needed to do work of quality.  In my mind, undertaking work with care involves doing exactly what the English Oxford Dictionary definition of the word describes, namely working with serious attention and consideration because of the concern and interest you have for something.

More recently I have become interested in the possibility of substituting ‘careful’ for ‘rigorous’ in relation to research and using ‘care’ as apposed to ‘rigour’ to describe research programmes and initiatives that are trustworthy, transparent, coherent and credible.  In part this comes because of the disquiet and frustration many of the arts practitioners I interviewed expressed with the language of rigour and their concerns regarding the negative application of validity criteria derived from scientific research to  arts and education based studies. These practitioners don’t in any way think that their research should be exempt from tests of quality or reliability. But these judgements need to be appropriate to the questions being asked, the methodologies adopted and the aims for the research itself.  ‘Rigour’, as with all terms of appraisal, is loaded with baggage, not all of it helpful in the context of art museum research. So I am trying out ‘care’ to see how it works.

Prior to listening to Tim Ingold I had spent the day convening a session at the conference under the heading ‘Curating with an Anthropological Approach.’  In addition to my own paper, eight other presenters explored how contemporary curatorial and artistic practices address the ethics and practicalities of presenting art from beyond the West in western contexts and how artists and others can disrupt the museum in productive ways.  We heard speakers from Italy, Latvia, Poland the USA and the UK. And we learnt how performance, activism, conservation, curatorial, education and artistic practices are being explored and questioned as professionals and audiences become more aware of the sensitivities of working with indigenous artefacts and of representing diverse communities.

Listening to each paper I was aware of the care that the presenters evidenced by the quality of their talks. The content was rich and fascinating, we had helpful images to look at and each talk prompted interesting further thoughts and questions.  Everyone had planned their presentation so they kept to their allotted time.  This last point might seem a minor one, but to me it is a crucial indicator of care.  According to Tim Ingold, a further characteristic shared between art and anthropology is generosity, in the sense that practitioners in both fields need to pay attention and receive ‘with good grace’ what is offered to us by others.  Thus research is a process of giving and accepting, of speaking and listening and making-room for everyone.