A gold mask from Colombia: the British Museum has opened the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin America Research. Image (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Museums and galleries focusing more on research

Rob Sharp , Issue 119/02, 01.02.2019
The British Museum has opened a Latin America research centre, while collaborations with universities are rising. By Rob Sharp 
The sector’s commitment to investing more in research has been reaffirmed by the British Museum unveiling a research centre focused on Latin America. 

The Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin America Research opened last month and aims to strengthen collaboration between research communities in Latin America and the UK.  

The Independent Research Organisations Consortium is a group of heritage organisations that are eligible to apply to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for research funds. Members include the British Museum, National Gallery, Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), Science Museum Group and Tate.  

JD Hill, the research manager at the British Museum, says: “The past 10 or 12 years have seen a resurgence of museums and galleries seeing themselves as places that do research.”  

Research projects at the museum include the co-production of collections knowledge, collecting in East Africa and Renaissance decorative arts.  

“There has been an incentive for national galleries and museums to become independent research organisations as a route to fund further research,” says Hill. 

“That’s had an impact across the sector, from small organisations to big ones. It’s encouraged a number of museums and galleries to invest more time in research and in collaborations with universities.”  

At Tate, the nature of the research it carries out has been changing as the organisation’s relationship with audiences changes. 

“The priority has shifted more toward engagement with diverse audiences and recognition of the museum as a civic space,” says Emily Pringle, the head of learning practice and research at Tate.
  
“This is aligned with the need for institutions to acknowledge their contested histories and their place as co-generators of expertise working alongside their audiences,” she says. “Research can offer a means by which to explore, with others, the museum’s function, its collections and its relationship with its audiences. 

“But this requires a shift beyond the understanding of the scholar curator as the only museum professional legitimised to undertake research,” Pringle continues. “It means acknowledging and supporting the wealth of research being undertaken by professionals across the organisation, including curatorial, conservation, learning and marketing, often working in collaboration with others, such as academics, artists and the public.” 

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has had a research department since the 1980s. It grew from an academic partnership with the Royal College of Art, with which it co-teaches postgraduate programmes in the history of design. 
  
Joanna Norman, the director of the V&A Research Institute, says: “It grew organically and has developed the interface between the V&A and university relationships more broadly. It’s a hub that liaises with academic partners on behalf of colleagues in the museum, and acts as a point of contact.”  

Norman says the Research Institute has grown in importance with the increasing emphasis on impact in universities. This can be seen through the Research Excellence Framework, used since 2014 to assess universities’ research impact. 

“There’s an increasing desire from academics to work with museum partners, and there’s an increasing understanding from within the museum of the possibility for collaboration and the mutual benefit it can produce,” says Norman. 

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