Rethinking Research in the Art Museum does not sound like a title to set pulses racing, but it is far more engaging than it might first appear.
It is about something quite specific – how research is perceived and practised in art museums. But it also addresses many challenges facing museums today – competing priorities, siloed working, internal hierarchies, poor audience engagement and lots more. The book explores what needs to change to overcome these challenges.
The author is Emily Pringle, the head of research at the Tate, who has worked with art museums as an artist, educator, programmer and researcher for more than 25 years. Two principles run through the book – the first, perhaps predictably, is that research, when it is done well, has huge benefits for museums, while the other is a belief in the ability of art to transform people’s ideas about themselves and the world around them.
The book was inspired by Pringle’s work with Tate’s learning department, which led her to become interested in why various types of research seemed to be valued differently, with collections-related investigations sitting at the top of the pile. For Pringle, these internal hierarchies sit uncomfortably with what an inclusive and discursive museum should be.
The first chapter introduces ideas about how knowledge is communicated and created and the impact that it has on audience engagement. Key to this are questions around power and authority and how they affect relationships with the public. Pringle acknowledges that progress has been made, but asks: “Why is it that the art museum remains welcoming to some, yet continues to be intimidating and irrelevant to a great many others?”
An exploration of various theories about why this is the case sees some arguing that museums are “undemocratic and excluding institutions” while others feel that they are “sharing knowledge and power to work towards a more equal and just society”. Pringle points out that the reality is that museum practice is continually evolving, although institutions can do far more to become inclusive.
“In all that they do and each decision they take – from their curatorial and interpretation strategies, budgetary priorities and education activities, to their marketing campaigns and pricing policies – museums need to embody their commitment to diversity and inclusivity if transformation is to be enacted,” she writes.
The second chapter explores research in more detail, looking at the impact
of the competing agendas that determine an organisation’s priorities. Subsequent chapters investigate how those working in museums undertake research. This is presented in the context of the competing agendas that staff have to balance, such as the needs of artists, the public and funders.
Pringle favours what she describes as the “practitioner researcher” model, which describes the qualities of an “enquiring, reflexive, ethical and collaborative museum professional” in the 21st century. One of the chapters uses this model to explore how people can frame their practice as a form of research, including a section on co-researching with community members.
The final chapter explores the key issue of what needs to change to encourage a broader and more inclusive approach to research. This is a call for research to be embedded across the museum, which will chime with other areas of work that often get sidelined and are not seen as core functions, such as learning, engagement and outreach. Ultimately, the book is about serving audiences better, and that can be no bad thing.