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.