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.


Enquiry Through Practice at Tate

I joined Tate Learning in 2010 as the Head of Learning Practice and Research.  One of my first tasks was to write a strategy for learning research, something that had not existed in the organisation until then.  In many ways this was liberating, as although research had been done in the departments at Tate Modern and Tate Britain for several years, there was no predetermined model or entrenched history to dictate the terms of the strategy. Instead the opportunity presented itself to devise a way forward for learning research that emerged from the practice itself.

The Strategic Framework for Learning Research I wrote outlined several aims, of which advancing knowledge was only one. Research was also identified as a means of making learning processes and practice more visible, instilling care and excellence across all areas of work and assisting the professional development of Tate Learning staff and others in the sector. Overall the ambition was to build a research culture within Learning and at the time of writing the Framework I looked particularly at models of practice as research and reflective practice within the arts and education, seeing these as a means of embedding critical rigour and developing new knowledge.

A central pillar of the Strategic Framework was the programme of ‘enquiry through practice’, which detailed how staff would frame a series of questions to inform their programmes and undertake to critically reflect on and articulate in some way the development of these initiatives in relation to the identified questions. The term ‘enquiry’ was used consciously in preference to ‘research,’ as the process was, certainly in its early iterations, deliberately relatively unstructured and organic. The intention was for staff to be largely responsible for how enquiry through practice was formulated, rather than imposing a strict model.

The Framework anticipated that the enquiry through practice strand would involve learning programmes that would not look radically different from the existing provision. In other words that the workshops, talks, interpretation resources, digital provision and longer-term projects would remain in place, but underlying these would be a changed approach. Certain key principles underpinned this shift. Teams would move away from outcome driven programming to a focus on more open-ended and reflexive investigations. In doing so they would reframe their relationships with artists and other professionals working on their programmes to enhance collaboration and exploration. They would locate participants as active co-investigators. And they would articulate and disseminate the new insights generated through this process to feed into the work of the department and, ideally, to inform the museum and arts education sector more widely.

So, how does enquiry through practice work? Firstly, questions are central alongside a willingness to explore and test ideas and knowledge, individually, as a team and in conjunction with participants in a programme and/or the visitors to the museum. One of the questions posed by the Young People’s Programme, for example, has been ‘how can we support young people aged 15 to 25 to programme for their peer group in the gallery?’ The activities the YPP team put in place are understood to be an investigation with young people of that question, informed by an understanding of the practical and theoretical context within which the team are working. In my interview with her for my current research, Rachel Noel, the Curator for the Young People’s Programme represented her process of research diagrammatically:


She described this process in the following terms – ‘You start with a question, or a query. Then you test it. Then you reflect on what’s happened. Then you analyse. Then there’s ‘test again’, and then there’s something like ‘go outwards’ or maybe it’s like, ‘explore’, ‘look for references’. Ultimately, you start broad, refine, refine, refine, explore everywhere, start broad, refine, refine, refine, look for references. You read, and you look at what else has been done, and you reflect on what you’ve done. So ultimately you come up with new ways of thinking about your original question or query.’

In my experience, enquiry through practice at Tate brings new understandings but always prompts further questions. Staff are constantly learning and re-inventing the practice, hence the outcomes of the research process – the events or activities – are never definitive. Rather they can be understood as Karin Knorr Cetina describes as ‘epistemic objects,’ in that they are defined by their incompleteness and by their ability to generate further questions. This is true of the programmes with young people and adults at Tate, which are characteristically open, rather than conclusive. Framed within the context of enquiry through practice, learning events and activities operate much like phenomena within an experimental process. They emerge through a questioning process, are explored, tested and analysed and provide provisional insights that inform the unfolding process of enquiry.

Looking back, I am conscious that the enquiry through practice that has taken shape in the Learning department since 2010 is a hybrid concoction of various approaches to knowledge generation. It borrows from formulations of reflective practice, most notably Donald Schon’s articulation of reflection in and on action, wherein practitioners naturally surface and interrogate problems they come across in their work . Similarly, in following a broadly cyclical process of doing, reviewing, learning and then applying that learning it resembles Kolb’s 1984 experiential model of learning . Yet I see the programme diverging from these formulations. Enquiry through practice seeks to contextualise practice theoretically and formalise the hitherto organic and essentially individual processes of questioning, problem posing, action, reflection and application that Learning curators employ. Important components of that formalisation are team members making explicit the questions underlying their programmes and committing to meet and share with others the experiences and knowledge they acquire through doing the programme. The collaborative activities of planning, revising and applying new insights sit at the heart of enquiry through practice, moving it beyond individual knowledge creation.

At the same time, the process is concerned with generating insights about the work through the doing of it, which aligns with conceptions of practice based and practice led research and with action research. However, the deliberately unstructured and self-determining quality of enquiry through practice means I would hesitate to equate it entirely with these more formalised constructions of research, at least in terms of how they are circumscribed within universities. It has, through the hard work of my colleagues in Learning, evolved to become its own practice as research methodology that is now embedded within the department.

Knowledge and autonomy, trust and responsibility – is this how museum professionals operate?

One of the ambitions for my research is to devise a framework for practitioner research in the art museum. To do this I have been looking into constructions of the ‘practitioner’ and the ‘professional’ and am trying to understand what characteristics are associated with these, particularly as they are often used interchangeably.

In many respects, the concept of the ‘practitioner’ is easy for me to grasp.  If we understand practice as Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead do – as ‘what we do’ – then practitioners are doers. They are those that operate in the complex and messy world of practice, developing ideas and knowledge from their experiences, as well as from theory, and using their expertise to resolve problems in action. As an art museum educator and researcher with a background in fine art, I see myself as a practitioner. In other words, as someone who has a certain amount of theoretical knowledge (some art history, some cultural, curatorial and pedagogic theory, some museology, some ideas around art making, for instance), coupled with the practical knowledge I have built up through working with materials, running programmes, collaborating with colleagues and the public, writing, speaking and so on. I draw on my theoretical and practical knowledge all the time and both are vital for me to do my work effectively.


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A gathering of art and education professionals at Tate Modern


But do I and others who work in museums qualify as professionals?  My default conception of the professional (apart, obviously, from the questionable 1970’s television crime-action drama) is of a doctor or lawyer, or possibly a teacher.  That is, someone with a clearly delineated occupation within a historically defined field.  I was not sure if the relatively new and more nebulous occupations of curator or museum educator, for example, qualify. However, indicators suggest that they do.  Nowadays organisations exist to represent the curator, with designated codes of conduct, which is one of the key features of a profession.  Whilst a strong case for considering the educator as a professional has been put forward by Helen Charman in her 2005 text.  Helen argues that the learning curator embodies the defining traits of the professional and enacts these in the museum context.  It is worth looking at these characteristics in detail as they illuminate how and why the professional acts within society.

The first of the characteristics is specialist knowledge, acquired through education and training, which enables the professional to address specific situations and problems and act in the public good. This specialist knowledge gives the professional a degree of freedom and autonomy to make their own judgements and act accordingly.  But with this autonomous status comes responsibility. Professionals can operate freely because of the trust that society invests in them to make good decisions and behave ethically and competently based on their expertise. It is these twinned characteristics – knowledge with autonomy, trust with responsibility – which inform how professionals work.  Which suggests that these traits must underpin the actions of those professionals, amongst others, who curate and facilitate programmes in museums.

These four characteristics resonate with my experience of working as an educator and researcher in the art museum and align with the reading I’ve done and conversations I have had with curators on their practice. It is the case that museum professionals have considerable expertise and work is a relatively autonomous way and are trusted to act ethically and conscientiously.  Educators in the UK, for instance, are not required to teach the national curriculum and curators are still largely in charge of designing their programmes.  Both take their responsibilities to artists, to a collection and to the public very seriously.

But museum professionals work in a complicated and challenging environment nowadays and the fragility of the relationship between knowledge, trust, responsibility and autonomy was brought home to me when I read a recent blog post by Courtney Johnson, the Director of the Dowse Museum in New Zealand.  In this post Courtney identifies four recent controversial situations in contemporary art galleries, where artists, activists and indigenous groups were moved to protest against decisions and actions the museums had taken.

I urge you to read the blog, so I won’t spell out the details here, but one observation that Courtney makes about trust and responsibility, has stuck with me. Having detailed the conflicting positions taken within the four case studies, Courtney questions the view often given that museums must retain their autonomy since they are ‘safe spaces for unsafe ideas’.  She argues that this self-serving argument shields the institution, allowing it to act in its own interests and not those of anyone who might be damaged by the showing of an ‘unsafe’ work.  It presumes a false insularity.  Instead, as Courtney says – ‘museums are still capable of doing violence – unknowingly, or thoughtlessly, or because we value the presentation of art and art history over the individuals, communities and cultures who may have been harmed in its making, and may continue to be harmed in its public display.’

Courtney’s observation that galleries may act ‘unknowingly or thoughtlessly’ and that their actions can be unethical, suggests a profound failing in terms of professional behaviour. And perhaps more critically, it implies that museums cannot be trusted to act in the public good.  Her words reveal one of the many dilemmas facing the twenty-first century art museum, that of how to open up a dialogue between the art on show and the world beyond the institution, rather than operating as a transmitter.  To accomplish this, I believe, the museum and the professionals within it need to maintain their specialist knowledge, but acknowledge the expertise of others and work less autonomously if they are to maintain the trust of their audiences.  This suggests that collaboration, the sharing of knowledge and an awareness of our own fallibility need to be added to the characteristics of the responsible museum professional.

I will be exploring these and other issues relevant to research in the art museum at two afternoon seminars at Tate Britain on April 26th and May 24th.  Places are very limited, but if you are interested in attending please email me on emily.pringle.ep@gmail.com.

Practice Research – Clarifying Terminology

One of my own confusions that I have been grappling with through this research period is what is meant by practice-based and practice-led research. My experience has been that these terms, which describe the generative and reciprocal relationship between research and practice, are different in subtle but significant ways. Yet they also seem to be used interchangeably at times. Being a bit of an obsessive when it comes to understanding terminology, I have been looking into how these terms are understood by others.
Within the field of creativity, Linda Candy’s differentiation is helpful. She describes practice-based research as ‘an original investigation undertaken in order to gain new knowledge partly by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice’, whereas practice-led research ‘is concerned with the nature of practice and leads to new knowledge that has operational significance for that practice’. In other words, practice-based research emphasises the practice itself as a mode of research, with the outcomes from practice, an exhibition, or performance for example, being legitimate research outcomes. Research that is practice-led, on the other hand, studies the practice itself and produces knowledge that informs the future development of that practice. In this way practice-led research resembles action research, in that it is a way of practitioners learning about and enhancing how something is done, through a focused study on it.
These two characteristics – that practice can be constructed as a form of research and that its purpose can be to bring about change – both appear relevant in the context of the art museum. Museum professionals in my experience are keen to locate their research as an integral part of their professional activity, seeing this a means by which to raise the profile of their programmes and activities and enhance and enrich their work. So, should we use both terms, or bring the two together, as in practice based/led research? To add further complexity, within Tate Learning we have been referring to our ongoing initiative with staff as ‘practice as research,’ in part to reinforce the equality of the relationship between the two activities. But does this term convey the various motivations, methods and outcomes associated with practice based/led research adequately?


Dr Esther Sayers

These and other questions were at the centre of a presentation given by Dr Esther Sayers to staff at Tate Modern this week as part of a Practice as Research Forum organised by Helena Hunter, with the help of Rita Evans and Beckie Leach-Macdonald. Over the course of two hours, Esther took us nimbly through different understandings of practice itself and of what she described as ‘practice research,’ as this is the term that Goldsmiths College, where Esther works, has adopted. She highlighted the value of knowledge derived from doing as well as conceptual thinking, particularly in relation to researching gallery learning. She drew attention to the risk of ‘explaining’ rather than ‘encountering’ practice and of theorising away from practice rather than theory emerging from and returning to practice. She introduced us to methodologies that can be employed within practice research and had us undertake our own mini collaborative sensory ethnographic study within the Turbine Hall. The experience was illuminating and valuable for those of us taking part.



Esther tasked my group with documenting the sounds we heard in the Turbine Hall over five minutes.  Other groups documented what they smelt or touched.

Esther also reinforced the importance of practice research being a space of uncertainty and discovery, where ideas can be explored and revised and where knowledge gained through an embodied engagement with stuff and people provides insights into what we do and how we operate in the world. This resonates with my own experience as a practitioner researcher who is learning all the time through the doing of my practice and my research. Yet my experience of the art museum also tallies with Esther’s cautionary note regarding the willingness of cultural organisations to live with unpredictability and ambiguity and acknowledge ‘not knowing’, all of which is necessary for practice research to thrive. Esther did not have a ready answer for this and neither do I, but she urged us to keep going and continue to implement practice research in all its various forms.

What I realised at the end of the session is that rather than spend forever fretting about the different terms, what is vital is to recognise the important contribution that practice, coupled with research, can make to our understanding of our work and how it sits in wider theoretical and doing contexts. The more I read and speak to people and involve myself in various institutions, the more I can see how practice as research, to stick with the Tate term, affords a means to deepen our knowledge and enhance the activities and experience of the museum.


Trying to define ‘research’ – ha, ha.

As my project is centrally concerned with the concept and practice of research it makes sense to try and establish a working definition of research for application in the art museum.  To help this process I ask everyone I interview and people I have more informal conversations with what they understand by the term ‘research’. This is a fascinating and extremely revealing process, although far from straightforward.

I have found that multiple and subtlety different constructions of research are held by those working in the art museum. The way people think and write about and do research is determined by, amongst other things, their values, disciplinary specialty, academic training and personal motivations. It is informed by how they construct the world, what knowledge they think is significant, the importance they place on notions of objectivity, even their sense of what it means to be human. And how people understand research determines the methods they adopt and the procedures they see as being rigorous.  It shapes the judgements of quality they bring to bear on the research questions, processes and outcomes and affects who, including themselves, they consider qualified to undertake research.

In a multi-dimensional and cross-disciplinary environment such as a museum it is not surprising that various formulations of research co-exist.  But in my mind this makes it all the more important to try and establish a shared understanding, or at least to surface the differences.  What emerges through my conversations is that the question of what constitutes research is rarely if ever discussed, let alone agreed.  As a result in my experience several, if not misconceptions, then at least contradictory perceptions of research exist in the minds of those working in museums and others beyond the institution.


One of the Study Centres at the Harvard Art Museum where students, academics and members of the public can research and learn by working directly with works from the Museum’s collection.

For example, different views exist amongst those I have spoken to regarding the purpose of research in the art museum. The majority working within museums identify research as informing their practice and policies, but some argue that research, by definition, needs to contribute new knowledge to an academic field. Still others see research as a site for critical conversations and a mechanism to address pressing social and political issues. Similarly, there are individuals who see research as being a central responsibility of the museum, vital in discharging the core institutional functions of preserving the collection and supporting scholarship, learning and participation. Yet others locate academic research as a niche activity; rarefied, exclusive and in extreme cases, irrelevant to the twenty-first century arts organisation. The descriptions of research I’ve heard range from the broad and abstract to the detailed and discipline-specific, suggesting that for some it can be an inclusive and democratic process, whilst for others it is necessarily selective and specialist.

This confusion perhaps accounts for why several of the museum professionals I interviewed struggle to see themselves as researchers, despite in several cases being actively engaged in rigorous processes of enquiry. Research for many is perceived as an activity undertaken by a select few, not something they feel qualified or enabled (because of the demands of their role) to do. For some the barriers are time and resources, but for others it is the concept of ‘research’ and how it is structured that is opaque and intimidating.


I am keen to find ways to bridge the gap between people’s perceptions of research as an exclusive and excluding activity and their own enquiry-based and reflective practices.  For that reason I have identified three common characteristics of research that surface in almost all the responses I’ve been given:

  1. The importance of questions – Questioning is central to all research practices in the museum. Research is premised on the asking of questions and the need to address or answer them. Often, but not always, these questions are located in practice; they emerge from practice and the knowledge that comes from the process of enquiry feeds back into practice.
  2. The process of enquiry – Questioning is accompanied by a structured process of enquiry. This may involve an intentional shift into a formal mode of investigation as well as a conscious progression from synthesizing existing ideas to the active generation of new knowledge. At the same time research that is practice-based is often seen to be a cyclical form of enquiry – a procedure that involves questioning, interrogating and thinking deeply on how and why actions are significant. It involves learning in and about practice and acting on that learning.
  3. The generation of new knowledge – Research involves generating new knowledge that goes out into the world. This new knowledge is made public through practice, through exhibitions and programmes and/or can take the form of more conventionally recognised academic research outputs including text based peer reviewed outputs.

I see these three characteristics as a starting point from which to build a shared understanding of research for the art museum.   They are far from conclusive and more work needs to be done around, for example, the issues of research quality and purpose, but I am hoping that they provide a basis for framing the variety of research activities that take place in art museums in a non-hierarchical and inclusive way.

As ever I would be very interested to hear people’s thoughts, so please leave a comment or get in touch with me at emily.pringle.ep@gmail.com


Curatorial Research

Over the last few months I have interviewed, amongst others, five people who are either actively involved in curating in an art museum or have been at some point in their career. My aim with all my interviews is to gain a clearer understanding of how museum professionals understand research, both conceptually and practically. Through these particular conversations I hoped to find out what the term ‘research’ means to different curators and hear about how and why they have done research in the context of the museum. It has been important for me to get a sense of whether their experience of curatorial research aligned with my perceptions and what I have read about it.

In truth I have only come across a limited number of texts that address curatorial or indeed other research activities in art museums, except for the extensive literature on audience research. I have explored ‘the curatorial’ and the relationship between this expanded conception of curating and activities that constitute research, for example as articulated in Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson’s edited text. However, my sense has been that the experience of the museum curator whose responsibilities include the collection as well as temporary exhibitions differs from that of the peripatetic freelance individual who variously acts as auteur, editor and agent provocateur as they travel the world realising different exhibition projects. And it is this latter model of the curator as researcher that features more comprehensively in the Curating Research book.

However, I have come across two texts that paint very different pictures of the state of curatorial research in museums.

james Cuno
James Cuno

In James Cuno’s 1993-94 Director’s Report from the Harvard Art Museum the image communicated is of generously funded and well supported scholar curators devoting time and energy to researching exhibitions, publishing in journals and catalogues, supporting acquisitions, devising and presenting lectures and mentoring curatorial interns, who are themselves carrying out research to inform the museum’s exhibitions and publications. All told the sense is that, as an unashamedly academic art museum that is part of a university, research is recognised as vital in fulfilling the institution’s remit and is resourced accordingly.

In contrast, Robert Anderson’s 2005 article ‘To thrive or survive? The state and status of research in museums’ portrays a rather gloomier scenario. Focusing on UK museums, Anderson argues that a combination of competing pressures on curators, lack of time and financial support and negative perceptions of the scholar more broadly has led to a deprioritising of curatorial research. Instead curators are caught up in fundraising and administration, leaving them little time to research or write and present in conferences alongside their academic peers.

lone scholar
Is this an accurate image of today’s scholarly curator?

So, which of these portrayals is more accurate in today’s art museum? The answer, based on my interviews and experience is both and neither. The curators I spoke to did lament the lack of time they had for research and writing in particular, and acknowledged the absence of financial support and inconsistent institutional backing for research across the organisations they work in. Yet at the same time each one described to me research they had done and were doing to broaden the collection, catalogue acquisitions or realise an exhibition. They spoke in detail about the questions or issues that prompt their investigations and the methods they employ, not only to synthesize existing thinking, but to create original knowledge. They talked about how this knowledge is shared through exhibitions, catalogues, talks and wider education programmes and how it contributes to their own professional development and to the intellectual growth of others within and beyond the museum. I came away from each conversation enlightened and amazed by the richness and variety of curatorial research that is being done.


The interviewees’ thoughts on who curatorial research is for were especially interesting to me. Cuno and Anderson imply that curatorial scholarship is a largely solitary exercise conducted primarily for the academic community. However, these curators focused more on the importance of sharing their knowledge with the wider public. And they described how they acknowledged and at times incorporated the needs and expertise of others, including visitors, in their work. They mentioned collaborations with museum colleagues and projects involving co-curation with young people. Even though they voiced frustrations about their packed schedules, I did not get a sense they wanted to hide themselves away to do research for a small and select audience. Instead they wanted longer time and increased resources to be able to explore art and ideas more deeply for and even with a broad range of people, within and beyond the museum.

I have come away from these interviews with a sense of how curatorial research can and does work in the twenty-first century art museum. For me it is not a question of whether curatorial research should be supported – that is essential – but more that the model of the lone curator scholar detached from the art museum’s responsibility to operate inclusively and share and generate knowledge collaboratively needs to be questioned and rethought.


Making Space for Reflection on Participative Practice

How do we make space for participative practice and action research in our work in museums?  This was the first question posed at a one day seminar held at the University of Leeds on January 19th that I attended.  The event, which brought together about 30 museum professionals, researchers and students, was organised by Kayte McSweeney from the British Museum, Helen Mears from Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and Julia Ankenbrand, a collaborative doctoral partnership student based between Leeds University and the British Museum. The day in Leeds was the third of four events being organised as part of a wider research project that is funded by the British Museum – ‘Making Meaning in Museums – Making Space for Participative Practice’ – which is exploring how museum participation can be located within the context of participatory and action research. Given my interest in museum research, you can imagine how enthusiastic I was, not only to hear about this project, but also to take part in the discussions on the day.

The seminar began with introductions from Kayte, Helen and Julia and an acknowledgment that the fourth member of the research team, Helen Graham from Leeds University, was sadly unable to attend.  The speakers set out the ambitions for the day – for us to reflect on how we can understand the multiple ways of generating knowledge within the museum and share practical ways of using participatory and action research to enhance the work we do in collaboration with audiences. We were reminded of the quote from the psychologist Kurt Lewin that ‘research that produces nothing but books will not suffice’ and tasked with remaining positive.

And so to the first question – how do we create space for reflection and research?  Working in small groups we tackled the challenge of carving out intellectual, emotional and physical space to be able to question, examine and reflect on our work with and within museums.  My table included two museum professionals, two PhD students (both of whom had worked in or with museums), a colleague whose area of expertise was audience research and myself.  Our experiences and viewpoints were similar in many ways.  For instance we agreed that the ways in which programmes and activities are framed determines whether there is space for experimentation.  The fixed outcomes that can be built into community engagement projects constrain opportunities for organic development and divergence.  Similarly, excessive workloads inhibit the possibility of stepping back and reflecting.  However we focused on positives and recognised that embedding research and a culture of openness and trust into organisational strategies, structures and systems is not only possible but vital for a reflective and experimental space to exist.


When the different smaller groups came together to share and categorize our post-it notes the ideas of how to create space for reflection and research coalesced around some key themes.  Some felt there was a need to challenge and disrupt organisational hierarchies and introduce new systems, both practical and conceptual.  These ranged from including research in everyone’s job titles to realigning internal perceptions of curatorial and pedagogic expertise.  Alongside this there was recognition that disruption needed to be accompanied by the embedding of a culture of learning and reflection across an organisation – it was not enough for change to be instigated, it also needed to be sustained. At the same time there was a sense that the museum needed to commit to sharing power and authority if communities were genuinely to be involved in action research processes. I was encouraged by these observations as they resonate with my own experiences in museums but also with the emergent findings from my research.


Action research as a methodology that can address issues of social justice and bring about change was the focus of the next session.  Julia provided us with a useful one page summary and gave us a whistle-stop tour through the key principles of action research, touching on the importance of recognising  how different forms of knowledge – from propositional or theoretical (or as I like to think of it ‘know what’) to practical (‘know how’) knowledge – are revealed through conversation.  She drew our attention to the importance seeing ongoing change happening through everyday actions and allowing participants’ narratives to guide any action research project.  Julia recommended the Sage Handbook of Action Research, a text that I would also point people to if they are interested in finding out more.

After lunch we were invited to join one of three tables to explore either ‘the different ways of knowing’, ‘community engagement as research’ or ‘action research for change’.  I opted for the first one, curious to find out about others’ perceptions of knowledge. I was rewarded with a wide-ranging conversation that touched on how we can establish parity between practitioner and propositional knowledge and the importance of recognising the multi-dimensional knowledge bases that co-exist within the museum.  I was introduced to the concept of a ‘folksonomy‘, by which the knowledge of those beyond the museum can act to enhance or challenge an official taxonomy of objects and heard about the Cardiff Story Museum where people’s stories as revealed through their objects chart the city’s history.  These optimistic tales of opening up the museum to diverse knowledges were inspiring. Nonetheless, the conversation reminded me that I need to be alert to the relationship between knowledge and power and mindful of how the museum can privilege certain narratives.

The feedback from the other two tables indicated that their discussions had been equally rich.  I was struck particularly by questions that emerged from one conversation that focused on the importance of differentiating between community engagement and research and between a ‘researcher’ and an ‘engager’.  Did research impose a different and perhaps more distant relationship between a project co-ordinator who designated herself as a ‘researcher’ and a community group? What were the ethical implications of involving individuals in a research project and was there a danger of exploitation?  What would be our motivations for framing engagement as research and who would benefit the most from this?  There was general consensus that locating ourselves as researchers brought particular responsibilities, not least in terms of the ways we documented any process of action research and how we shared ownership of the knowledge generated through a collaborative enquiry.

I have only put down the bare bones of what we covered during the seminar here, but I hope it gives a sense of the key issues that were discussed and the depth of thinking that people brought to the tasks.  I came away brim-full of ideas and very aware of the appetite amongst museum professionals and researchers for further debate and greater commitment towards research in museums.  Kayte, Helen, Helen and Julia are organising the final seminar in this series in Glasgow in late February/Early March.  I would urge you to look out for it and attend if you can.