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.

Research processes and cultures and the joy of drawing

What are our processes of research and how can a supportive research culture be nurtured in the art museum?  These were the questions posed during the half-day seminar I facilitated at Tate Britain on May 24th.  Following on from the event in April, this seminar was attended by many of the same colleagues, with some new faces.  Once again the afternoon comprised moments when I shared ideas emerging from my research, along with rich and stimulating discussion prompted by what I said and the tasks everyone took part in.  As with the first seminar, we addressed several issues, not all of which I will cover here.  Instead what I want to focus on is the value of drawing as a means of communicating ideas, since during the afternoon we explored and made explicit our thinking at times diagrammatically.

The first task each person undertook was to draw their research process.  In my interviews with museum professionals I have often asked them to do this and have found it reveals the complexity, but also the commonalities of research across different fields.  The same is true of the drawings completed by curators, academics, museum educators, policy makers and artists at the seminar. People highlighted the ‘troubling’ and/or interesting issue that generates the questions that prompt and underlie research.  They represented how these questions are explored through experimentation and testing, nearly always with others.  Collaboration, consultation and co-investigation in different forms is represented across the diagrams.

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The language of looking, reading, investigating and ‘getting underneath’ something crops up often, as does thinking, refining, evaluating and analysing.  Diagrams are frequently linear, but incorporate feedback loops and circular processes, indicating how knowledge and ideas return and inform the research process, but also shape and change practice.  Dissemination through different forms is present in the drawings, and in some there is a clear indication that research needs to bring about change in the world.

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Looking through the drawings I am struck by how individuals portray research as a creative and analytical process.  Pictures of seedlings and rivers appear alongside test tubes and graphs, for example.  At the same time, the images convey the intensity and the excitement of exploring questions and ideas with others and the ongoing nature of enquiry. ‘Repeat indefinitely’ is written at the bottom of the page on one, whilst someone else writes; ‘conclusion = OR IS IT? Can it be taken further?’

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To me, the diagrams communicate how vital research is and why museum professionals can gain so much from engaging with it.  There is an immediacy and humour in the drawings that is not always evident in text, yet they provide a clear and compelling record of each person’s ideas.  There is growing acceptance of visual methodologies within social research, with drawing seen as a practice that allows for knowledge production. ‘Visual products’ as Marilys Guillemin identifies in her study of how drawing can be used to explore how people understand illness conditions, illuminate how people  ‘make sense of their world’.

My own art practice is centred on drawing and in the latter half of the seminar I shared an image I have been working on.  ‘The Practitioner Researcher Tree’ attempts to encapsulate the elements needed to foster a culture of practitioner research in the art museum. It represents my sense of an ideal organisational culture.

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The Practitioner Researcher Tree

Underpinning the Practitioner Researcher Tree and providing the necessary support is leadership that is committed to research. These experts model curiosity and maintain a commitment to learning. Embedded at the base of the tree are an explicit set of values and ongoing evaluation. Together these provide clarity and evidence to inform careful and purposeful enquiry. At the core of the tree lie the intertwined principles of trust and risk. These sustain an environment where practitioners feel empowered to explore and test ideas.

This tree is expansive and open, with branches of different knowledge that co-exist non-hierarchically. These are connected throughout the whole and shared through continuous communication. Furthermore, the tree is enriched and shaped by the diverse expertise that it comes into contact with and brings about change through its own explorations. It is part of a wider community of knowledge. The tree, like all living entities, is continuously growing and transforming, but at a pace that is appropriate and sustainable. Finally, the tree requires nurturing so that it develops productively. It cannot be left unattended, but instead thrives on care and attention to its constituent parts.

The ‘Practitioner Researcher Tree is very much work in progress and I see this image as the first iteration. The process of considering the ideas and how best to communicate these visually is extremely rewarding.  It has helped me to think more laterally and tangentially, to explore connections and move away from a strict linear trajectory.

I received some helpful critical feedback at the seminar on how it might be improved.  At the same time the image prompted interesting discussion, not least on whether the analogy of the tree could be expanded further.  Could I represent the elements such as ‘diverse knowledge’ as the leaves that grow and then fall, replenishing the tree through this ongoing cycle?  Could I include a cross-section of the tree, to make the connection between time and the annual rings that reveal the tree’s age?  In this way the drawing seemed to offer open possibilities for interpretation and exploration.

This feedback and the conversations throughout the two seminars have demonstrated to me the importance of testing ideas with colleagues and the considerable contribution those attending have made to my thinking.  Drawing and dialogue, I am learning, are extremely helpful to my own research process.

Continue reading “Research processes and cultures and the joy of drawing”

Collaborating with Universities

I have been spending time reviewing what the interviews I did reveal about research collaborations between arts organisations and universities. And I have been reflecting on my own experience of partnership working.  A fair bit has been written on the challenges of interdisciplinary collaborative research between academics and ‘publics’. However, I am keen to draw together common characteristics of successful collaborations and explore what needs to be in place for it to be productive for all those involved.  How can everyone be positively challenged, grow their knowledge and achieve their respective aims?

My experience of collaborating with university colleagues has been positive.  I have worked with generous, thoughtful, creative researchers on research projects small and large.  These academics have brought their varied disciplinary knowledge and methodological approaches to problems of common interest.  Coming from the fields of business, education, psychology, philosophy and art practice (to name a few), they have tested my thinking and helped inform my and other colleagues’ practice.  They have introduced new theories and concepts of research rigour that have undoubtedly strengthened the work of Tate Learning and developed our thinking.

Similar stories emerge from the interviews. Colleagues spoke of academic partnerships enabling them to imagine alternatives and think differently and to re-evaluate their own narrow disciplinary focus.  This suggests that dynamic research can be achieved by bringing diverse expertise together. Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts describe this type of collaboration as an ‘epistemic/highly creative’ community of practice. In these scenarios, ‘experts’ come together to ‘unleash creative energy around specific exploratory projects.’ Epistemic communities thrive on difference and allow for new insights to emerge from the juxtaposition of potentially contrasting knowledge.


Summer School, Exchange Space, Level 5, Switch House, Tate Modern. 27.07.2016
Teachers participating in a Schools and Teachers Summer School, 2017
Photography © Tate 2017 Seraphina Neville


So what can be done to foster a positive epistemic community that unites arts professionals, academics and in some cases collaborators from a community?  According to my interviewees, a number of key elements need to be in place.  I will spend time on three of these which surfaced most insistently.

The first is openness to new and divergent ideas and ways of being. This encompasses what David Garvin and his colleagues describe as an ‘appreciation of differences.’ Being open to exploring with others means accommodating diverse questions and approaches and respecting a variety of perspectives. With openness comes a non-hierarchical sense of the contribution made by the various expertise present in any collaboration. As Roz Stewart-Hall from the Knowle West Media Centre pointed out to me, successful research collaborations involve ‘an exchange based on equal value being attributed to different experiences and different knowledge’.

Intertwined with openness is effective communication.  Several of those I interviewed spoke of the need for ‘translation’ between the worlds of academia and practice. They were mindful of the sensitivities of working with university colleagues whose ambitions for research might not align with their own.  I have written of the different agendas and pressures faced by academics and practitioners in a previous blog and know of the challenges of developing research that fulfils the needs of both.  However, my experience and that of the interviewees indicates that honesty, coupled with explicit recognition and agreement on what each party wants from the research at the start of a project contributes to a functional collaboration.

Openness and communication requires, and also builds, the trust amongst collaborators that their collective effort will result in something of greater value than any one individual’s efforts. Interviewees’ described how the differences between participants need to be outweighed by the perceived collective benefits if collaborative research is to succeed.  So, all those involved need to trust in a process that is creative and unexpected, but is likely to involve improvisation, compromise and circularity.   Kate Pahl and Keri Facer talk about collaborators needing to commit to research processes that ‘are enmeshed, entangled and complex, and are associated with divergent outcomes as well as sometimes-difficult experiences and contrasting clusters of ideas’. This resonates with my experience.

As with any collective effort,  collaboration with university colleagues requires time and additional commitment, which busy arts professionals may not feel they can spare.  This situation is improved immeasurably if practitioners are resourced appropriately in research collaborations with universities and recognised as equal partners. What is needed, I believe, is more conversation between the domains of practice and academia to allow for fruitful collaborations to grow.

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.

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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