Why we need to rethink research in the art museum

In our latest blog Emily Pringle – AHRC Leadership Fellow and Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate – discusses the need for a deeper rethink of how museums undertake research.

how does real change happen

Most of us visiting an art museum do so for a mix of reasons. Perhaps we want to enjoy looking at the work of an artist we like, or we’re keen to learn more about how and why art works exist as they do.  Or we appreciate meeting our friends and sharing the experience of art together, with a cup of tea and a visit to the gallery shop.

It is unlikely that we spend a huge amount of time thinking about the processes, systems and structures that underlie the displays, exhibitions, interpretation and learning programmes that we encounter on our visits.  It’s even less likely that we would question how research fits into and operates within the museum. That is, unless you are as interested in this as I am.

My research comes out of my twenty odd years of working with and in art museums as an artist, educator and researcher and stems from a growing and equal fascination and frustration with research as it is done in art museums.

It also draws on my experiences as Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate of developing research within that museum.  I am questioning the traditional model of art museum research which is centred on the ‘expert’ curator or visiting academic developing knowledge around the art collection.  Instead I am examining how practitioners like myself can frame what they do – curate exhibitions, develop learning programmes, conserve artworks, for example – as a form of research that allows for greater collaboration and participation.

I am interested to see how art museum research can align with the ambitions of the twenty-first century cultural organisation to be more open, democratic and discursive.  And I am looking at how research can bring about change; to individuals, to the museum and potentially to society more widely.

At the heart of my work and research is a belief in the extraordinary capacity art can have to transform people’s ideas about themselves, about art itself and about the world.  This sits with a commitment to the unique position the art museum occupies in enabling, potentially, that transformation.

Everyone, in my view, should feel welcome in the museum and comfortable exploring art on their own terms.  However, research consistently demonstrates that in the UK at least, the greatest number of art museum visitors continue to be drawn from higher socio-economic groups that are predominantly white. This is despite sector-wide initiatives, including free entry, and committed and creative practitioners developing thoughtful programming that has engaged with those who have not visited a gallery previously.  All of which strongly suggests that art museums are welcoming to some, but by no means to everyone.

So how does research fit into this complex and contradictory scenario, where art museums acknowledge the need to change, and are in some cases actively remodelling their systems and structures to become more inclusive? Why should these institutions rethink how research is undertaken and reconsider who is a ‘researcher’ within their organisations?

The work of the philosopher Michel Foucault is illuminating, drawing our attention to the relationship between power and knowledge and the exclusionary processes that give rise to practices of power. For what is research if not a process of creating new knowledge? For me research is both at the heart of the dilemma art museums face in needing to be more inclusive and potentially a means by which to help resolve it.

If sanctioned knowledge production is only permitted by a select few whose expertise is endorsed, whilst others’ research practices are not recognised to the same degree, a culture of exclusivity is perpetuated.  However, if the museum supports a multiplicity of positions and processes and acknowledges the value of different ideas, a less hierarchical and more diverse culture is likely to be sustained.

My research is interrogating the viability of an expanded conception of art museum research.  I am interviewing museum and arts professionals and exploring the research practices at five case study organisations in the UK, Europe and North America, as well as reviewing the literature and talking to other museum professionals whenever I can.

In line with my ambition to model how practitioners can do research, my approach is exploratory, interdisciplinary and centred in my own practices of art making, dialogue, reflexivity and creative learning.  It is grounded in the values of Tate Learning, which I fully subscribe to; namely generosity, openness, trust and risk.

Along the way I am sharing and testing my ideas with colleagues and students through informal conversations, writing a blog and a book and facilitating a series of seminars at Tate and at two universities. My aim eventually is to develop a framework for this expanded conception of research that can be used by art museum professionals keen to rethink how they explore questions and create new knowledge for themselves and others.

And what have I learnt so far?  I’ve discovered that museum professionals (often within the same organisation) hold multiple and conflicting perceptions of research that are linked to the agendas being juggled by the twenty-first century art museum.  These competing agendas include the need to build and care for the collection, alongside the requirement to generate income, alongside the desire to produce scholarly research, alongside the already acknowledged need to be more inclusive.

Altogether they cause confusion, frustration and at times exhaustion amongst museum professionals trying to address all of them simultaneously.  Yet, I have also come across rich and thoughtful research being undertaken by these same professionals that demonstrates how rigorous and innovative enquiry can generate original ideas and bring about change.

At this moment in my research I can say that I have been encouraged by the enthusiastic reception given to my provisional findings and challenged to think again, and harder, about how to overcome the not inconsiderable challenges of implementing a revised model of research in the art museum.

Image ©Tate Photography

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