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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  I am delighted to be writing what will be the first of a series of entries that looks at what it means to be a practitioner researcher in the art museum. I am planning to write about how research is undertaken in art museums today and by whom and explore 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. As a result, I want to worry away at questions relating to knowledge, expertise, rigour and authority and look at models of practice based research that are being employed in art schools, universities and schools to see how these can be applied in the art museum.  I also want to 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. My ambition is to come up with a framework for practitioner-led co-produced research that is relevant and useful in the art museum of the twenty-first century.

Let me start by giving some background.  For the last seven years I have worked as the Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate.  In my role I have been engaged alongside others in embedding research-led reflective practice within Tate’s Learning department, whilst researching and writing on what it means to be a gallery-based practitioner researcher.  I have learnt a great deal and benefitted from working with extraordinarily dynamic and thoughtful people within a creative and ambitious organisation, as well as with a wide range of brilliant colleagues from across the arts and academia.  I have experienced for myself how the museum is attempting to shift from being the exclusive holder and dispenser of expert knowledge to becoming a more discursive space where ideas are shared and generated with, as opposed to for, a more diverse public.  And what I have been trying to examine, in the spare moments and in-between spaces afforded by my job, is the role research can play in supporting these processes and practices.

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In April of this year I was fortunate to be awarded an AHRC Leadership Fellowship which has allowed me to take a ten-month sabbatical from Tate starting on October 2nd to focus exclusively on interrogating how museum professionals undertake research as practitioners with others.  During this period, I will be reading up, speaking with art museum practitioners, visiting a number of museums, researching in depth some key case studies and testing my ideas with colleagues.  By the end of the ten months I plan to have a workable framework that I hope will be useful to gallery professionals, researchers, students and others who are interested in art and the institutions that house and support it.  This blog is an essential element of my research.  I hope it will be a place where I can put forward ideas, test out some theories, report on the exciting practices I witness and gather feedback.

Although the title ‘Practitioner Research in the Art Museum’ is a little too wordy for my liking, 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’.  At the risk of sounding a bit cheesy, I am drawn to the idea that this blog will function as a means to transport ideas, as a place where ‘young’ and emerging thoughts can be communicated and carried forward.  I look forward to going on the journey and sharing the cargo.