Nicola Pickering, author of the upcoming The Museum Curator's Guide, reflects on the importance of collections research in museums and its potential impacts on the museum's role in society, as well as the excitement of the detective work involved in collections research...
My first book, The Museum Curator’s Guide, will soon be published by Lund Humphries. The excitement for me has been building, especially as the launch date has been delayed as a result of Covid-19. The measures to reduce the spread of the virus have also of course impacted on museums, libraries and archives across the world, and they were necessarily closed for many months. In the UK, some of these organisations and facilities are now opening their doors again, albeit with new distancing measures and cleaning/hygiene procedures in place. In the last few weeks I have been able to visit the gardens of several historic buildings and to access the collections of two archives in person. This ability to resume my research has been a welcome relief, reignited my love of historical sources, and reminded me of the detective work involved in the work of a researcher. Over the last few months large gaps have been left in my research as a result of the inability to view original documents and examine sources for the first time or with new research questions. I can now gradually fill these gaps as more archives open up and this material becomes accessible once more. The relief I feel at being able to continue these projects and carry out quality research got me thinking about the value of research to museums, a subject I feel passionate about. I address this topic as the “final thought” in my book, and have included an extract below.
The value of museum objects and research
Museums can provide unique experiences, different to those of other entertainment providers: namely, real encounters with authentic historical objects. We must continue to unlock the value of objects in museum collections and ensure we are preserving them for a purpose: museum objects can contribute to intellectual stimulation and social learning, inspire curiosity and self-reflection, and facilitate contemplative, aesthetic or emotional experiences. Indeed, the founding principles of many museums of the 18th and 19th centuries included the wish to collect together and examine objects: it is my view that this activity can continue to be of great benefit to today’s museums.
Primary research, scholarly activity and academic partnerships
Whilst embracing changes in technology and audience expectations, attention and resources must also be directed to ensuring and maintaining experiential authenticity and accuracy in the museum. This requires a continued commitment to research.[i] The change in the position and duties of the curator from the early days of museums to today has impacted on this area of museum practice. The New Museology movement of the late-20th century added to this debate and in the last 40 years emphasis has been placed on audience-focussed and user generated content, which has undoubtedly enriched museums and widened participation. In certain cases, this has also, however, shifted focus away from caring for and studying collections and resulted in the elimination of subject-specific staff and a suspicion of primary research, scholarly activity and academic partnerships, or assumptions that such activity can only bring limited (and not cost-effective) benefits. The challenges that museums face in securing and maintaining public funding add to these difficulties. Some museums no longer regard primary and object-based research as key to their core function or reduce the priority of this activity in the work of the organisation. In some museums, management staff can be hesitant to support projects that include the requirement for more academically-focussed research, because of their concern that such activity can be of a long duration and produce few tangible or low-impact outcomes. In other museums, staff may not feel they have the skills and experience to engage in this perceived scholarly activity.
Accuracy, authenticity and trustworthiness
Frequently, the place of the expert curator and curatorial expertise within the museum is unclear, and the value of research in the quality of the visitor experience is not recognised.[ii] There is a major risk that the loss of expertise surrounding primary research into collections and in partnership working with academic institutions will compromise the accuracy, authenticity and trustworthiness of a museum.[iii] There is a further danger that collection objects may be considered of lesser value in performing the museum’s functions, and be replaced with purely interactive, participatory and technological media. A more extreme outcome is that museums may find themselves producing and promoting low-quality products resulting from limited and superficial content development.
The benefits of research
A museum is not a university or research centre but can produce research outputs that will support its public engagement activities and add to the value of the objects in its collections. Research conducted by museum staff and the public using collections can lead to the generation of new knowledge and material, original and creative interpretation, and a wide range of other outputs. Some museums were founded so that objects could be used in teaching or reference (natural history, archaeological or art collections perhaps most commonly): the pedagogical value of objects is proven, and collections-based and enquiry-based approaches to teaching can be strengthened by research activity.[iv] Research can also broaden the appeal of museum objects to wider audiences by uncovering new information and stories of relevance to the lives of more diverse people or visitors previously unrepresented in mainstream history. Uncovering new information can also help museums to acknowledge and explore the often controversial and contested histories of the objects they care for.
So what now?
Every museum has something unique in their collections, and research is always possible, yet the attitude of different institutions to the role and value of research can vary considerably. Curatorial research must be at the heart of the museum, not carried out in isolation, but integrated with the museum’s public outputs and its long-term development. Research should not be seen as a luxury addition to the activity of the museum, but instead part of its core work, informing (and being informed by) the plans and priorities of the museum for which it is conducted. A commitment to creating opportunities for research in a wide range of disciplines can only enhance the museum’s strength as a relevant and active institution. Managing an active research programme, supporting staff research plans, and providing staff with time and resources to continue their research activities and develop their expertise are vital to this.
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Notes for the text:
[i] S. J. Knell, ‘The shape of things to come: Museums in the technological landscape’, Museum and Society, 1(3).
[ii] G. Black, The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement, London, Routledge, 2012, p.65; C. Lang, J. Reeve and V. Woollard (eds), The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the 21st Century, London, Routledge, 2016.
[iii] See N. MacGregor in Culture, Media and Sport Committee (2016), Oral evidence: Countries of Culture, HC 864, Questions 127-185 [online], available at: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/culture-media-and-sport-committee/countries-of-culture/oral/32902.html [accessed 10 May 2018].
[iv]H. Chatterjee, Object-Based Learning in Higher Education: The pedagogical power of museums, University Museums and Collections Journal, 3, 179-181; R. Duhs, Learning from university museums and collections in Higher Education: University College London (UCL). University Museums and Collections Journal. 3, 183-186; H. Chatterjee, Staying Essential: Articulating the Value of Object Based Learning, University Museums and Collections Journal, 2, 121-125.
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