Research within Communities of Practice

In early November, I spent a day at the Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) in Knowle West, an estate in the south of Bristol, at the invitation of Dr Roz Stewart-Hall who is Head of Research and Evaluation there. KWMC describes itself as an arts centre and charity that supports individuals and communities to get the most out of digital technologies and the arts through providing relevant ways for people to get involved in community activism, education, employment, and local decision-making. The Centre was established in 1996 and now operates out of two sites in Knowle West – their headquarters, built using innovative straw bale construction techniques in 2007 and the Factory which is a workshop space offering design and making facilities. KWMC facilitates group activities, workshops, events and exhibitions in both sites. They host residencies and provide work experience and engage in long-term research-led programmes designed with local residents to address issues and provide solutions, for instance to the current housing crisis.

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In the hours I spent at KWMC I had the chance to see the buildings, interview staff, walk through Knowle West and see their work in action. I spent time in the office and the Factory and was taken to see the prototype house that has been built as part of the ‘We can make… homes’ project, which is led by KWMC in collaboration with designers and researchers from the University of the West of England. It was a very rich and thought-provoking day that I have been reflecting on since the visit. Here are some of my provisional thoughts.
In my conversations with staff and observations of the working practices at the Centre I was struck by the extent to which KWMC functions as a community of practice (CoP). The concept of the CoP was first introduced by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991 to explain how specific relationships between people, activities and the world determine how learning and knowledge generation take place through forms of situated practice. Within CoPs the focus on ‘community’ is essential, providing opportunities for individuals to develop sustained relationships and do things together, with a shared purpose. However, not all forms of work done jointly with others can be understood as a community of practice, since the latter requires that there is highly effective sharing of information, awareness of everyone’s roles and contributions, clearly defined identities and a store of knowledge built up over time that everyone can access and contribute to. When these are in place individuals within the community of practice can learn, communicate their knowledge and develop their practice.
What I witnessed at KWMC, which has been supported by further reading, suggests that these characteristics are to be found in the vision, working context, forms of organisation and types of social interaction at the Centre. For example, knowledge sharing is afforded through the open-plan layout of the offices, as well as through formal organisational structures, including twice-weekly ‘huddles’ where everyone in the organisation comes together to discuss current activity. Jess, the KWMC Learning Manager recognised that these meetings are ‘a chance to know what everyone else is doing’ and provide ‘the ability to respond to things as they are happening,’ in other words, they enable ideas and information to be shared and problems resolved.


The KWMC offices


Newcomers are introduced to the KWMC ethos and working practices through formal induction, but also through more informal processes of working alongside more experienced co-workers. Ongoing reflection and evaluation is built into their work in a process akin to action research to enable tacit learning to be made explicit, to be fed back into practice and disseminated to the wider community. Perhaps most significantly, throughout the organisation there is a tangible commitment to ongoing change and a sense shared by those that work there that how the organisation works is fundamental to why they exist – their commitment to shared learning and innovation are manifest in their systems and structures as well as their work with others.


An example of a project evaluation

What also emerges very clearly is that the work that KWMC do is informed comprehensively and directly by a set of values that foreground the experience and expertise of the community members who take part in their projects. This has been formalised as ‘The Bristol Approach’ which, as the KWMC website describes, is ‘a way of working that aims to understand the issues people care about. Rather than ‘pushing’ technology or pre-determined ‘solutions’ onto people, The Bristol Approach focuses on supporting people to work together to ‘pull-in’ the knowledge, technology and resources needed to tackle a problem.’ The approach is realised in practice through projects that are framed, as Roz said, as ‘a research process starting with the issues that people from the local community think are important and need to be addressed.’ These research projects involve those from the community who have expertise in relation to the issue being investigated and who will be directly affected by the findings and outcomes of the process, staff from KWMC, artists and other professionals including academics who are interested in the topic and bring their expertise to tackle a particular problem.
In reading more about CoPs I was directed by my colleague Pip Laurenson to an article by Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts that digs deeper in the concept and comes up with a typology of CoPs, differentiating between four groups that they perceive have distinct properties. One of these groups they understand to be characterised by ‘epistemic/creative knowing’. These groups, unlike other CoPs, bring together ‘experts’ on a temporary basis to generate creativity and explore issues, motivated by a strong commitment to a unifying problem.
On reading this I became interested in thinking how The Bristol Approach can be allied to this model of epistemic CoPs. With each project KWMC ‘pulls-in’ individuals from the community and beyond to tackle issues raised by the community. Crucially, everyone involved in the project, from the young person, for example, to the academic is located as an ‘expert’ and KWMC go to considerable lengths in designing projects to try and ensure that a non-hierarchical structure exists where everyone’s contribution is valued equally. The Centre staff I interviewed recognise that this is not always possible and that academic partners can sometimes struggle with this formulation, in part as it invites them to research with rather than on others and to recognise forms of knowledge different from their own. However, in seeking to establish an open space where various individuals are invited in to explore ‘uncharted territory’ together, according to Amin and Roberts, KWMC is creating the conditions for new ideas that are relevant and applicable in a community context to thrive.
I have been inspired by this visit and prompted to consider how the characteristics of effective CoPs, and specifically epistemic/creative communities of practice can be fostered in the art museum. Focusing on systems and structures that promote non-hierarchical knowledge sharing and support innovatory thinking are uppermost in my mind.


Research, ‘impact’ and an interesting ethical issue

-My research is being funded through an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Early Career Leadership Fellowship. These opportunities, as the AHRC website outlines, are provided to enable researchers to ‘carry out individual research which has the potential to generate a transformative impact on their discipline’. The ambition for this scheme is that researchers and research findings make a contribution within their specific fields, but also ‘act as advocates for the value and benefits of arts and humanities research to publics beyond academia’.   Although I am not employed by a university, I was eligible to apply for this funding as Tate (where I work) is designated as an Independent Research Organisation, which means that the gallery is recognised by the AHRC as having the capacity to carry out research in-house, independent of a university.

The differences between my status as a practitioner researcher working in a cultural organisation and a university academic undertaking research were on my mind on Monday as I attended a conference organised by the AHRC for current Fellows. The day provided an opportunity for us all to meet each other, share details of our research and hear presentations from researchers on topics that included working with the media and how best to support research assistants. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of the range of topics the AHRC funds – from human-forest relations to Jazz on BBCTV – and in equal measures daunting and reassuring to compare with other researchers (all of whom are university-based) what we were doing, how we were going about it and what we hoped to get out of it.
In the afternoon, I listened to a engrossing presentation given by Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt, Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Architecture at the University of Kent who is temporarily based at the Houses of Parliament. He is embedded in the team who are restoring the historic Palace of Westminster researching the original Victorian ventilation system. Whilst providing riveting insights into the architecture of the building, the focus of Dr Schoenefeldt’s talk was on generating ‘impact’ from research. Impact is understood by the AHRC to be the way in which research influences and makes a difference to individuals and communities and adds value in the world. In the case of Dr Schoenefeldt’s research, impact has taken the form of journal articles, a book, articles in professional journals and seminars that are informing the fields of academia, architecture and conservation. Perhaps most significantly, his research is directly feeding into Parliamentary decision making on the restoration process itself. He mapped out in a slide what his leadership role is in different fields and how the various fields interact.


Dr Schoenefeldt also talked about the relationship between academic and professional contexts and how research can feed into ‘real life’ projects.  He outlined a nine stage thinking process to determine how we could identify the relationship between research and its wider application in our projects.


In a conversation with him and other Fellows following this talk some different views emerged of what constituted academic research and research undertaken in practice or vocational contexts. Dr Schoenefeldt recognised, as an architect, that practitioners are engaged in research all the time and saw his work as connecting to and intertwining with that research. Similarly Dr Sorcha O’Brien from the University of Kingston, whose research is looking at the influence of rural electrification on the lives of rural Irish housewives in the 1950s and 60s is working collaboratively with curators at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in in Castlebar, County Mayo on an exhibition.  She too was clear that she was combining her’s and the museum professionals’ research. In both of these cases it was not so much a question of ‘impact’ in the sense that research undertaken by an academic is done and dusted and then applied in a practice setting.  Their research appeared more as a joint sharing of knowledge over time toward a common goal.

Yet for other academics in this conversation, all of whom were keen to have their research make a difference in the world, working alongside practitioners or policy makers during the research process did not appear to be so straightforward.  For instance, one colleague talked about the challenge of even starting conversations with policy makers and that making the time that is needed to develop relationships and build trust is not always possible.

This last observation is not meant as a criticism of those researchers, but I mention it because the exchange prompted me to think that, as a practitioner researcher based in a cultural organisation, crossing the boundary between the academic and practice context is relatively easy. My work environment and close professional relationships align towards practice and uppermost in my mind is for this research to shape museum policy and activity. Also, not working in a university means currently I am not accountable to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions and which determines the allocation of university research funding.  The REF is based on an accountability system determined in part by the quantity and quality of scholarly publications and other research and although impact is also assessed, academic colleagues I have spoken to have acknowledged that they feel they need to prioritise academic research outputs that can be counted towards the REF, as this has a significant bearing on their career progression. My professional development, in contrast, is predicated primarily on how my research and activity directly improves practice as well as how it is received in academic circles.  Our motivations, therefore, are slightly different.

However, the embedded position of the practitioner-researcher brings issues with it that university-based colleagues might not have to negotiate. In a conversation on the day of the seminar with an academic colleague, I mentioned that my place of work – Tate – was one of the case studies for my research. Her response, said with a smile, was ‘will you still have a job at the end of it?’ This question, albeit light-hearted, raised the key issue of how I maintain a sufficient critical distance and detached position to be able to report on my findings openly and honestly. It reinforced the need for me to consider at all times the ethical implications of a research project that involves close colleagues and to be mindful constantly of my own position as a researcher attempting to make sense of and interpret mine and others’ experiences, situations and phenomena from within the practice itself.

I am giving considerable thought to these issues and am finding reassurance in the fact that I am locating my case studies within a wider theoretical context.  I am also researching with and not on my fellow practitioners, with whom I can discuss these concerns as the research progresses, as well as testing my findings with my academic mentor and other critical friends who are generously helping and advising me on the way.  Later on in the project I will interrogate provisional findings with a wider group of university and museum-based colleagues to test ideas and gather feedback.  By being as conscientious, open and transparent as I can, sharing, testing and reviewing, I hope to draw on the best of both worlds – the immersed condition of the practitioner, balanced by the scholarly rigour of the academic researcher.

Reflections on ‘Learning About Culture’

On Tuesday I attended the launch of the Learning About Culture Programme at the RSA.  This new initiative is described in its prospectus as a ‘two-and-a-half year investigation into the role that cultural learning plays in improving educational outcomes for children.’  The Programme has two aims – to build a stronger evidence base for cultural learning and to improve the use of evidence in cultural learning.  At the launch event which was extremely well attended, from my observation, by representatives from cultural organisations, funders, academic institutions and government departments, we heard from the project partners (the RSA and the Education Endowment Fund (EEF)), from London Bubble who run Speech Bubbles, one of the cultural learning projects taking part and from Project Oracle who are involved in the evaluation.  We also had the opportunity to discuss and respond to the Programme via round table discussions.

Since Tuesday I have been wondering why, even though there is a great deal about this Programme that is constructive and will make a valuable contribution to the sector, it makes me uneasy.  In part to understand my own response, I have put some thoughts down here.


Tate Schools picture
Schools Programme Tate Modern, Copyright Tate Photography

As I say there are many positives with Learning About Culture.  The Programme acknowledges that there is a decline in the hours spent learning arts subjects in schools and makes a valid and persuasive argument for more evaluation of arts interventions.  Much is rightly made of the importance of cultural organisations having a theory of change in place about how their activities might lead to change, and a strong case is put forward for these organisations recognising that evaluation and reflective practice can and should focus on improving practice rather than justifying what has taken place for an external funder. They are mindful of the need for more training for cultural practitioners in using evaluation and will be conducting research on the use of evidence in cultural learning. As such the Programme is allied to existing studies including the recent AHRC Cultural Value Project that argue for further research to account for the human experience of art and culture, as well as restating thorny issues that have been around for some time.  Francois Matarasso, for example, outlined a clear case for robust evaluation of arts programmes in the 1990s, using language and arguments that in some respects are similar to that found in the Learning About Culture document.

However where Matarasso and the Learning About Culture programme differ is in the key issue of value, for as he says in the 1996 Defining Values: Evaluating Arts Programmes report; ‘The important, and essentially political, question about evaluation is which value system is used to provide benchmarks against which work will be measured – in other words, who defines value.’  It is in relation to the value system underpinning the Learning About Culture programme that my uneasiness, as a someone working and researching in the arts, surfaces.  The Programme makes it very clear that, in order to make the case for the arts in schools, what is needed is ‘evidence of the additional progress that cultural learning enables children to make.’  This progress is to be assessed primarily in terms of academic achievement and secondarily in terms of ‘non-cognitive skills – a set of attitudes, behaviours, and strategies thought to underpin success in school and at work, such as motivation, perseverance and self-control’.  The main methodology adopted to provide evidence of the impact of cultural interventions in schools is large scale randomised control trials, although there will also be ‘deep-dive’ and follow-up research in schools using a range of methods.

The Programme argues that the focus on providing evidence of the impact on attainment is necessary because first this will help persuade schools of the value of the arts, and second because too often cultural organisations assert that their work makes a positive contribution to attainment without sufficiently ‘robust evidence for the impact on attainment in literacy and numeracy and limited rigorous research into impact on ‘non-cognitive’ skill development or attainment within specialist subject study.’ This is definitely where my uneasiness starts to build into full-scale worry.  There is not space here to restate the arguments made elsewhere on the importance of valuing arts activities on their own terms (although I find the observation in the Cultural Value Project report that we are interested in studying whether music improves ability in maths, but not whether studying maths improves ability in music sums up the issue around subject hierarchies pretty neatly).

Instead I want to reflect on what constitutes robust evidence, comparing the Learning About Culture Programme’s understanding with mine as a practitioner researcher and what this tells us about values.  The Programme has developed a typology of evidence-gathering methods, with each level providing progressively more reliable evidence for impact.  Level 1 includes anecdotal quotes and personal observations rising up through three further levels to end with Level 5 which includes comparison groups or control trials, which are ‘the highest standard’.  In Learning About Culture, therefore, rigour and robustness are intrinsically linked to notions of objectivity and the scientific method.  Underlying this is the belief that it is possible to control the conditions and variables of an art intervention sufficiently to be able to confidently assert causation – i.e. that nothing apart from the intervention under scrutiny is responsible for the measurable change. The knowledge that has value here is that of the independent and objective evaluator who having conducted the tests to determine if progress has been made, defines success.

For those working in collaborative, qualitative and arts and practice-based research scenarios, different value-systems prevail.  Rigour is linked more closely to ideas of research authenticity, applicability and replicability – do the methods and findings ring true to those who have direct experience of the intervention and are they helpful in demonstrating how work might improve in contexts other than the specific one in which the research took place. ‘Objectivity’ is questioned and instead ‘expert knowledge’ and ‘everyday perceptions,’ as Keri Facer and Kate Pahl state, inform the findings and build the evidence base.  Within the arts specifically there is recognition that the practice is complex, not always linear and at times contradictory. Concepts such as joy or irreverence, frustration and being oneself are not measureable, yet can potentially be communicated through a narrative, enacted through a performance or made explicit in a film. These research outputs constitute powerful evidence of change that can be used by practitioners to support reflection on their practice and improve their work.


Tate Exchange Event, Tate Modern
Tate Exchange Event, Tate Modern, Copyright Tate Photography

So I am keen to see how the Cultural Learning Programme develops. I welcome their acknowledgement that ‘cultural learning practitioners may also have distinctive strengths when it comes to monitoring, evaluation and learning’ and support their ambition to work with the sector ‘using a broad range of evaluation approaches’. With this in mind I hope that the Programme recognises that RCTs are but one method for assessing and evidencing the changes that cultural programmes can bring about.  In my mind the Programme will achieve something truly extraordinary if it can communicate not only the value of cultural learning, but also the importance of evidencing it in rich and complex ways that resonate for practitioners, educators and policy makers.

Mapping the Literature

In an attempt to identify the literature I need to engage with for my research into practitioner research in the art museum I have been working on a mind-map.  My intention was to put down in a visual form the various relevant fields of activity/literature, with associated sub-fields and then identify any connections between these fields.  The plan was then to map onto this diagram the key texts associated with each field.  However, this second stage may need to be rethought as the first time I tried doing the original map I ran out of space on the paper.  The second version became so complex it was unreadable.  Below is a photograph of the third version.


What strikes me first about this mind-map is the number of elements and its connectivity.  I have identified nine ‘fields’ – research, evaluation, museology, conservation, gallery education, curation, art history, art practice and learning that I think are essential to understanding how knowledge is generated and therefore how research is constructed in the art museum. Associated with these are a further 47 ‘sub-fields’, although it is very important to note that the descriptor ‘sub’ in no way means lesser.  Rather a sub-field constitutes a vital and relevant body of practice and/or theory that informs or may be an integral part of one or more of the ‘main’ fields.  The connecting lines are my attempt to show how the different fields link together and draw on one another. For example the sub-field ‘socially engaged art’ is here linked to art practice, gallery education, museology and curatorial practice as the ideas and practices that can be grouped under socially engaged practice have an important part to play in each of these fields. I have also highlighted three other domains – ethics, praxis and organisational change, which underpin the entire enterprise, shaping my approach to the literature and to my research focus.


To state the obvious, these fields, domains and connections are ones that I have chosen, based on my existing knowledge and experience.  The map is partial in both senses of the word in that it is formed by my subjectivity and is incomplete. No doubt another researcher would draw up a different list and construct alternative connections, but it is a place to start and I will be adapting it as I go along.  I am anticipating that some fields will not prove to be as relevant as I imagine, whilst others not yet identified will surface as I continue my reading. I would also warmly welcome any ideas or suggestions for additions or amendments.

What the map also highlights for me is the cross-disciplinary nature of this research.  To understand how museum professionals undertake research for themselves and with and for others, and to construct a framework for practitioner research in the art museum (both of which are central to this project), I will need to look at literature from fields ranging from art history to participatory action research, from critical pedagogy to connoisseurship.  This is necessary as the art museum itself  is a multi-faceted space where different ideas collide, ‘a space for discursive thinking… a public place, publicly responsible for stimulating critical thinking in and through art’ as Grizelda Pollock and  Joyce Zemans describe in their book ‘Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement’.

This cross-disciplinarity resonates also with my experience as an artist and a gallery educator. When operating in both of these professions my relationship to theory was eclectic. Rather than working within strict disciplinary boundaries I would draw ideas from various artists and fields to inspire and develop my practice according to what would be most useful and productive.  In this respect I was not unusual.  In an article I read recently, Henk Bergdorff, the Professor of Research in the Arts at the University of the Arts in The Hague, identifies that a ‘wide array of conceptual frameworks, theoretical perspectives and research strategies are employed’ in artistic research.  He lists art history, theatre and dance studies, architectural theory, semiotics, pragmatism and sociology as some of the conceptual frameworks, whilst research strategies include iconography, ethnomethodology and actor-network theory .  Similarly, one of the defining characteristics of gallery education is the absence of a discipline-spanning all encompassing theory.  Instead practitioners utilise and reference skills and knowledge from art history, pedagogy, philosophy, critical theory and art practice according to need, a professional trait that Helen Charman has written eloquently about here.

By adopting a boundary-free approach it would seem that I am allied to a broader trend towards cross or trans-disciplinary research that is being championed not only in the arts, but also in the social sciences, medicine and public policy. However I am mindful of the danger of cherry-picking literature from a variety of fields to fit my ideas. I was reminded by a colleague recently that selecting an idea from a discipline beyond one’s area of expertise runs the risk of divorcing it from its critical context and failing to locate it within the history and trajectory of the field.  It is vital, as Pat Thomson notes here when reading literatures to understand the key debates, trends and connections and locate any new research within its theoretical and practical context.  Pat provides some helpful suggestions to assist with this, including ‘scoping’, ‘mapping’ and ‘focusing in’, a process that I have begun with the mind-map.


So my next step is to go back to the mind-map and start digging deeper into the literature associated with the fields and sub-fields, identifying the essential texts and key debates, strengthening or troubling the connections and finding out where my research fits in. This is an exciting but potentially overwhelming prospect and I will have to avoid the temptation to keep reading for ever and move systematically but fairly swiftly to the focusing in stage.  I see more mind-maps to come.


Welcome to PRAM

Welcome to PRAM – the Practitioner Research in the Art Museum blog – that explores what it means to be a practitioner researcher in the art museum.  It looks at how research is undertaken in art museums today and by whom and explores how we might expand on current models to re-shape and broaden our understandings.  My background is in gallery education and research and I have a longstanding interest in widening access to art through supporting visitors and curators to engage in processes of shared enquiry.  I see value in framing the gallery as a space for research-led practice where museum professionals can operate as practitioner researchers, working with audiences and colleagues to co-produce new knowledge.

In this blog I worry away at questions relating to knowledge, expertise, rigour and authority and look at models of collaborative and practice based research being employed in art schools, universities and schools to see how these can be applied in the art museum.  I ground my ideas by learning at first hand from art institutions that are developing innovative cross-disciplinary and collaborative research-led practice, both in the UK and internationally. And I draw attention to writers and thinkers whose ideas are helpful and relevant in reconceptualising how research functions in art museums currently.

This blog began life as part of an AHRC funded fellowship I undertook from September 2017 to July 2018 to research and develop a framework for practitioner-led co-produced research for the art museum of the twenty-first century.  This fellowship allowed me to step away from my role as Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate to read, research and write.  I visited museums and art organisations, interviewed and spoke with colleagues in the UK and internationally, facilitated seminars and talks and wrote this blog and a book – ‘Rethinking Research in the Art Museum’ – that is due to be published by Routledge in 2019.  The experience challenged and broadened my thinking about my own practice and art museum research in its entirety.

Participants at ‘The Physicality of Research’ seminar at Tate in June 2018

In August 2018 I returned to Tate and am curious to keep exploring what it means to be a museum-based practitioner researcher from within the organisation. In my current role I work alongside others to develop research projects and embed research-led reflective practice in Tate’s Learning department, whilst continuing to research and write.  I learn a great deal and benefit from working with extraordinarily dynamic and thoughtful people across different departments and disciplines in a creative and ambitious organisation. And I connect with a wide range of brilliant colleagues from across the arts and academia.  I can witness at first hand how the museum is attempting to shift from being the exclusive holder and dispenser of expert knowledge to becoming a more discursive space.  Yet I am aware of the challenges the institution faces in sharing and generating ideas with, as opposed to for, a more diverse public.  I will bring all of this experience to my writing in this blog going forward.  And I hope to include the voices of fellow practitioner researchers as guest contributors.

As I wrote when I began the blog, the title ‘Practitioner Research in the Art Museum’ is a little too wordy for my liking.  However the acronym PRAM is very appealing. As well as the familiar definition of a carriage for young children, the Oxford English Dictionary also describes a pram as a ‘flat-bottomed boat for shipping cargo’.  I still think, even though it is a bit cheesy, that this blog functions as a means to transport ideas, as a place where ‘young’ and emerging thoughts can be communicated and carried forward.  As I enter the next phase of my professional journey I look forward to sharing more of the cargo.