Arts and Humanities Research Council: a strategy for supporting and sustaining high quality research in the UK's museums, galleries, libraries and archives

Response from the Museums Association, March 2006
1.0 Introduction

1.1 The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 5,000 individual members and 600 institutional members.

These institutional members encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest government-funded national museums to small volunteer-run charitable trust museums.

Formed in 1889, it is a charity, receiving no regular government funding, which seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to society.

1.2 The MA welcomes AHRC's expanded interest in the museum sector. Our own policy agenda commits us to working to increase use of museum collections and "use" certainly includes being the subject of research. We see AHRC as a key partner in this work and we look forward to working closely with AHRC on the implementation of this strategy and other projects.

1.3 This response was informed by discussion at a meeting hosted by the MA for a small group of people interested in research and representing a range of different types of museum and subject areas.

Attendees were:
Antonia Byatt, Director, Women's Library
Susan Foister, Director of Collections, National Gallery
Oliver Green, London's Transport Museum
Richard de Peyer, Director, Macclesfield Silk Museum
Sandra Smith, Head of Conservation, V&A
Mick Stanley, Head of Collections, Learning and Access, Harewood House
Moira Stevenson, Manchester Art Gallery

1.4 This response begins with some reflections on broader issues around research in museums and galleries, highlights key priorities then deals with the questions raised in the consultation document.

2.0 Background

2.1 There has been no recent survey of the extent of research activity in museums. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that, outside university and national museums, research is currently given a low priority. This applies both to research by museum staff and to work to encourage use of the collections by outside researchers.

During the MA's Collections for the Future inquiry in 2004-5, respondents frequently described research as a "luxury" for museums. Some have commented that research has never had a lower profile in UK museums. Museums have a considerable amount of untapped research potential, but will need to be given development support if that potential is to be realised.

2.2 Capacity to take up funded research opportunities is limited in many museums. The AHRC may wish to talk to the National Gallery about its experience of offering grants, funded by the Pilgrim Trust, to museums as part of the National Inventory Research Project.

Take up was initially poor and it became clear that the research base in regional museums had largely fallen away and that many museums had few staff in-house to carry out research. The National Gallery decided that it would be appropriate to change the criteria for the grants to enable museums to appoint external researchers.

2.3 Another relevant case study is the Esmée Fairbairn's Regional Museums Initiative, which has supported exhibition projects including a research element. Those running the scheme found that initial research proposals were often rather weak, but that in many cases the research actually undertaken was interesting and accomplished.

The experience of this initiative suggested that museums do still have staff with the ability and skills needed to undertake worthwhile research, if they are supported and given the opportunities to do so. What is lacking is perhaps institutional capacity, rather than individual capacity: that is to say research simply does not figure in most museums' priorities and is not reflected in their structures and planning.

2.4 Museums are under increasing pressure to deliver on central and local government agendas. Undertaking research or supporting others' research does not figure in the various targets which non-national museums are working towards. (The situation is different in national museums.)

And although museums' potential to contribute to learning at all levels is increasingly recognised, in practice most pressure has been applied to increase museums' work with schoolchildren. Clearly, AHRC has to take account of this and to work with partners in the sector to raise the status of research if its strategy is to have an impact on the sector as a whole.

2.5 Renaissance in the Regions is the most significant investment in English regional museums in a generation. It has the potential to transform major regional museums and to give museums opportunities to expand their work into a range of new fields. However, research is currently very low on the hubs' list of priorities.

This is understandable, given that the programme has been under considerable pressure to deliver in other areas in its early days. However, it will be vital for AHRC to work closely with MLA to ensure that the regional museum hubs take research seriously in future and give a lead where appropriate to others in their regions.

2.6 MLA has directed some Renaissance funding towards supporting Subject Specialist Networks (SSNs). The creation of SSNs was a recommendation of the original Renaissance in the Regions report, and was endorsed by the MA in its Collections for the Future report.

The core idea is that a group of museums with collections in a particular subject area will work together, sharing information about their collections, pooling expertise, developing exhibitions and other resources jointly and, particularly, supporting museums with important collections in their field but without specialist staff. The SSNs are also, in different ways, drawing on the expertise of specialists from outside the museum sector, including academics.

2.7 A further round of funding for SSNs is planned for later this year and the MA hopes to work with MLA on developing the SSNs further. It is obvious that SSNs have the potential to be important partners for AHRC in attempting to improve the research culture in museums.

They are ideally placed to develop research strategies for particular subject areas and also to help museums develop links with academics and other external specialists. This will not be entirely straightforward: some SSNs are at a very early stage of development and lack capacity, but the MA would be keen to work with AHRC to develop an effective strategy for engaging with the SSNs.

2.8 Museums with Designated collections are often natural partners for universities, given that they have defined strengths in particular areas. There may be potential for them to help other museums in their fields establish partnerships with universities.

2.9 A slightly separate but important point is that museums have very much valued AHRC resource enhancement grants that have enabled them to improve their catalogues. Many collections are poorly catalogued and much more needs to be done to make collections accessible to researchers; and so the apparent uncertainty about the future of these grants is unhelpful.

3.0 Key priorities

3.1 This section highlights key points made in our detailed response to the questions below. The most important things AHRC can do to promote research in museums and galleries are as follows:

3.2 Encouraging a strategic approach to research. In ten years time, every UK museum should understand the importance of research and have a research strategy. AHRC has a key role to play in developing a culture within museums that values properly planned research work.

3.3 Extending the reach of funding beyond the national museums. Although it will be more of a challenge to ensure that non-national museums take up the opportunities on offer, it will be crucial for AHRC to undertake the development work with potential applicants to make this happen.

3.4 Maintaining the distinctiveness of museum-based research. Museums have distinct intellectual approaches to their subjects. It would be a mistake to encourage museums to adopt the same approaches as universities. AHRC should rather foster museums' distinctive approaches as a strength.

3.5 Funding museums independently. Although we understand there are constraints, in the longer term we would like to see AHRC able to fund museums (not just those with academic analogue status) independently and not only in partnership with universities. We encourage AHRC to work towards this.

4.0 Research Project Funding

4.1 Are the outlined two areas best delivered through time-limited project funding? What are the appropriate timescales for such research?

The consensus at the MA's meeting was that while project funding might be appropriate for exhibitions and displays, it is certainly not the appropriate model for funding for conservation and preservation, unless the timescale is much longer than the two years that seems to be proposed.

A key difficulty facing the conservation sector is that conservators in museums are under greatly increased pressure to prepare objects for loans and exhibitions. Much conservation work has been contracted out to freelancers who only work on time-limited projects. The result is that there is almost no capacity to take a longer term perspective on collections, enabling conservators to develop better understandings of the way materials develop and deteriorate over time.

The most helpful thing for AHRC to do would be to enable conservators to work with colleagues in universities to study collections in the longer term. Ten years was suggested as a reasonable time-frame.

It may be unrealistic to expect project funding to last as long as that but funding for projects needs to be directed in such a way that it encourages long-term relationships between museums and universities and enables long-term studies to be initiated.

4.2 Major exhibitions are often five or more years in the planning from the point they are programmed. But even before that, the potential for an exhibition or display has to be identified. The problem with some museum collections, particularly outside the national museums, is that they are so poorly understood that museums are not even in a position to apply for a grant to research them: they do not know how they might fruitfully be researched.

A constant refrain during the MA's Collections for the Future inquiry was that many museums simply did not understand the potential of what they had. There is a real danger that funding directed in this way will only reach the collections that represent the "known world" and will completely miss the unmapped regions, which may offer much richer potential.

4.3 It is clear that AHRC needs to develop some sort of supportive application process that encourages the establishment of partnerships and helps to develop the capacity of potential applicants. The SSNs could have a key role to play here.

4.4 There may be a need for AHRC to offer two-stage grants: a first stage which establishes partnerships with appropriate academic sources of expertise and explores and scopes out the collections, followed, if appropriate, by a second stage developing outcomes such as exhibitions. The current research workshops awards may function successfully as this kind of first stage.

4.5 Another alternative is that the first stage of an application to AHRC should involve preparing a simple statement of interest. AHRC could then offer support in preparing full bids to applicants with strong proposals.

4.6 AHRC may also want to consider the use of peer review of collections, whereby a group of experts drawn from universities, museums and other relevant fields undertake quick broad-brush surveys of poorly understood collections.

Such surveys might only take a few days or weeks and their purpose would be to identify collections that are worth further detailed research. The MA has made an application to a charitable trust for funding for a project that includes a pilot programme of peer reviews of this kind and would be keen to discuss the idea further with AHRC.

4.7 Are there more urgent areas for research that would benefit from such funding?

One such area is the development and enhancement of digital, collections-based resources. A strategic approach is much needed here. Although a great deal of funding has been directed towards the digitisation of collections in recent years, the resulting resources are often of disappointing quality. Two main reasons for this can be identified.

One is that such projects often have not been driven by the needs of audiences, but have tended to reproduce the kind of information museums prepare for their own internal catalogues. The other is that digitisation projects are rarely backed up by original research into the collections. An AHRC programme supporting research leading to high quality digitisation projects, closely tied to the needs and interests of audiences, could be very beneficial.

4.8 Are there other areas where the potential has not been achieved due to lack of funding?

As noted above, the problem is not always one of funding but more of internal capacity and priority.

For this reason, AHRC must work closely with partners such as MLA, the regional museum hubs and the SSNs. There is a need for development work with potential funding recipients. Calls for applications will only scratch the surface of the potential.

4.9 What are the priorities for conservation and preservation?

AHRC would obviously need to undertake much more extensive consultation with conservators before launching a research programme for this area.

However, the priorities can be summarised as:
· Studying deterioration, especially of modern materials
· Developing greater understanding of collections through examination of their materials; for example, the analysis of pigments, the identification of historical materials
· Developing new object treatments
· Developing a new, sustainable approach to the museum environment; that is, one that does not rely on setting unrealistically strict parameters for environmental conditions, but that takes a more flexible and sophisticated approach.

4.10 How can AHRC provide opportunities to enable museums and galleries to lead and manage their own research projects?

Leading research projects is a specialist skill and one which few people who work in museums have had chance to develop, especially outside the national museums and a few exceptionally well-resourced regional museums. Mentoring from colleagues in national museums and universities could help museum professionals develop these skills.

5.0 Partnerships

5.1 How can the AHRC work with other organisations to help develop and strengthen links between museums and the HE sector?

It appears that many museums are missing out on the benefits collaboration has to offer because they simply do not know how to go about developing links. There is a need for one or more organisations to act as a broker, bringing together potential partners.

For many non-national museums, the appropriate partners are likely to be local, and so the regional museum hub or regional MLA could take on this role with AHRC support. Museums with Designated collections and SSNs could help to broker relationships between museums with collections in a particular area of specialism and appropriate universities, again with AHRC support.

5.2 At the MA's consultation meeting, the point was made that appropriate university partners will not always be those with the closest fit in terms of academic subject. For example, a social studies department might bring new perspectives to the collections of a history museum. Museums need to be encouraged to think laterally in this way.

5.3 How would a scheme designed for collaborative research projects be beneficial to both parties?

What are the benefits of collaborations between museums and galleries and universities? Such collaborations offer new and richer understandings of subjects and of collections by offering fresh perspectives. They have the potential to bring the outcomes of research to broader audiences. They could also enhance collections development: more research into collections could inform more active collecting where it is currently quite passive.

5.4 Can you provide examples of successful collaborations?

There was a feeling at the consultation meeting we hosted that the most successful relationships were often not those tied to a particular research project but rather those based on longer term collaboration.

For example, the Harewood House Trust part funds a chair at the University of Leeds (the Harewood Professor of fine art). For a modest investment of £5,000 a year, the Trust has benefited from sustained research into its collections, including the publication of four catalogues over ten years.

The Harewood House Trust is also part of a consortium of seven historic houses in Yorkshire which work with a fellow in landscape architecture at the University of York. With again modest funding from the Harewood House Trust, outcomes have included a series of exhibitions in all seven partner houses.

5.5 The University of York and the National Railway Museum jointly established the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History over ten years ago. The Institute has advanced research in its subject area by pooling the resources of both institutions.

5.6 In terms of projects, the Dorset Coast Digital Archive is a partnership between the University of Bournemouth and a number of museums and libraries in Dorset. Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, the Archive makes the resources of all institutions available online for researchers.

5.7 The Museum of London and London Metropolitan University are working together with a number of community organisations on the Refugee Communities History Project, to record the experiences of refugees coming to London since 1951.

5.8 The Department of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University has worked on a cataloguing project encompassing six collections of textile pattern books in archives and museums in the North West. The project was originally supported by the Pilgrim Trust and then by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Outcomes included both a book and enhanced catalogues at each of the partner museums and archives. The cataloguing has also served to open up areas for potential further research for each of the collections involved.

5.9 What are the obstacles to such collaborations and how might these be addressed?

To ensure a scheme is beneficial, one real challenge is to resolve the different expectations museums and universities have in terms of outcomes. This partly comes from the pressures imposed by their respective funding regimes.

Museums' performance management regimes tend to value visitor numbers above everything else. Universities' performance management mechanisms may not recognise outcomes that are of value to museums and their visitors. Governing bodies and funders of both universities and museums will need to shift their ground in this respect.

5.10 A further difficulty is of course one of approach. Research in museums is primarily object-based and this is often not valued by the academic community. It would be regrettable if closer working between universities and museums homogenised research approaches. Museums need to be encouraged to retain their distinct intellectual approach.

5.11 Finally, it was felt by some of the museum professionals consulted in preparing this response that there was a fundamental misunderstanding among some academics about museums' role in the creation and transfer of knowledge.

The academic community rightly sees museums as having the potential to disseminate research to a wider audience. But museums are not just about knowledge transfer; they are also - or should be - places where knowledge is developed. Museums must be more than a shop window for research; they must be factories as well.

5.12 The Pilgrim Trust and the Leverhulme Trust both have significant experience of funding collaborative projects and AHRC would gain important insight from consulting them.

5.13 Are there any particular subject areas that would benefit from such support?

We do not feel we have the breadth of expertise to single out particular subject areas in this way.

However, it would certainly be possible for AHRC to seek to involve museums in taking forward the themes it identifies for its strategic funding initiatives.

5.14 Should the AHRC focus on support for collaborative projects or the development and sustenance of effective partnerships?

We consider it more appropriate for AHRC to focus on developing and sustaining effective partnerships. There are other sources of project funding, and long-term partnerships are likely to deliver the most benefits to museums and their users. As we outlined earlier, there is a real need for brokering and commissioning if the full potential of partnerships is to be realised.

There is a danger that a straightforward call for applications for collaborative projects will only reach the small minority of museums that are already well-networked and that are already making relatively effective use of their collections.

5.15 Such partnerships must of course propose clear outcomes for their work.

5.16 How can the AHRC encourage smaller/local government funded museums and galleries to develop their research strategy in order for them to collaborate successfully with the HE sector?

Many museums of this kind do not yet have a research strategy. AHRC needs to work with partners including MLA to ensure that a research strategy is seen as an essential for every museum, as part of an overall collections development strategy.

It is currently the requirement of the MLA Accreditation scheme that museums must, as a minimum, have an acquisition and disposal policy. The ideal must be for them to have a full collections development strategy in place, covering acquisition and disposal but also setting out how they aim to make better use of their assets, including by research.

5.17 It is possible to draw a parallel here with museum education. Fifteen or twenty years ago, few museums had education policies. The profile of museum education has steadily increased through a combination of political pressure and museums' own enthusiasm and now it is seen as essential for museums to take a strategic approach to education provision. AHRC could give a clear lead that increased the profile of museum research in the same way.

5.18 AHRC could also offer practical support, for example through training workshops and mentoring to museums aiming to develop research strategies. Such strategies should not be developed in isolation, but in partnership with SSNs, regional museum hubs and the museums with Designated collections: individual museums' strategies should be situated both in a regional and a subject specialist context.

As a first step, AHRC might pilot a training workshop for museums developing research strategies for the first time, perhaps organised in partnership with an SSN.

5.19 AHRC may need to adopt different approaches in dealing with independent and local authority museums. The larger independent museums tend to be more narrowly focussed on a particular subject area than local authority museums, which typically have very broad collections.

So although independent museums often have very limited resources, their focus may make them appropriate partners for higher education institutions. In the local authority sector, Glasgow Museums have given a higher priority to research than perhaps any other local museum service in the UK, ensuring that research is fully embedded in curatorial practice. Their experience might prove a useful case study.

6.0 People

6.1 Are there identifiable areas of skills shortage, where the flow of graduates from UK postgraduate programmes is not currently meeting the needs of museums and galleries? How might the AHRC address these needs?

We are not yet in a position to answer this question, but work is in progress that will at least offer some pointers. Cultural and Creative Skills, the newly established Sector Skills Council covering museums and galleries, will be undertaking work in this area and AHRC should liaise with them. In conservation, Icon has done work to map the needs in terms of training and skills.

6.2 Maurice Davies is currently undertaking research with the University of East Anglia as a visiting fellow into entry into the museum profession; his conclusions will be very pertinent to this question. Initial findings highlight the fact that there are essentially two separate post-graduate routes into the museum profession.

Most entrants take a vocational course, and have no opportunity to develop specialist knowledge in an academic context. Others pursue an academic specialism but then have no vocational training. There must be scope for new approaches that give entrants more fully rounded experience.

6.3 Is there a need for staff in museums and galleries to devote more time to research; if so, how can the AHRC provide funding opportunities to facilitate this?

One essential is that research grants must include funding for backfilling posts. Beyond that, a lack of capacity is again the key issue. Secondments and exchanges offer valuable opportunities both to increase the capacity of institutions and to develop individuals. The Sharing Museum Skills Millennium Awards (SMSMA) are often cited as a great success in terms of the opportunities they offered for individuals to develop skills and broaden their perspective, as well as in bringing new blood into institutions.

A programme of research secondments, drawing from the experience of the SMSMA scheme, could be very beneficial. The MA helped to run SMSMA and could offer more detail on this suggestion.

6.4 The exchanges between the V&A and the University of Sussex are also seen as a success and something that might be emulated by other museum/university partnerships.

One of the barriers to more effective joint working by museums and universities is that museums and universities apply different research methodologies and often have fundamentally different understandings of the nature of a subject. Exchanges of this kind help individuals to be able to work across these boundaries.

6.5 Are there other research-related training and development needs and how might the AHRC help to address these?

In discussions about taking forward Collections for the Future, the MA has identified some possible approaches to addressing research-related training and development needs. We include very brief notes about these here and should be happy to discuss any of these outline ideas further, and to work with AHRC in developing appropriate programmes.

6.6 At entry level. As noted above, entrants into the museum profession are either generalists with vocational qualifications or specialists with no vocational training. There would be value in a scheme that enabled generalists to develop specialist skills and vice versa in the first few years of their careers.

6.7 At mid-career level. We would like to see a scheme that enabled museum professionals with 15-20 years experience to refresh their specialist expertise, with the aim of expanding the pool of people able to undertake research in a museum context. If people are working in roles that are dominated by the demands of management, their specialist knowledge is likely to be out of date.

It would be possible to fund a pilot programme that enabled people to take a year out to refresh their specialist knowledge. Some of that year would be spent working with a university department, both researching and teaching, and some with other museums.

6.8 At retirement. Too many experienced curators take their knowledge with them when they retire. A key priority for resource enhancement funding would be a scheme to ensure that such knowledge was properly harnessed.

7.0 Impact and evaluation

7.1 How can AHRC help museums and galleries share information on audience experience?

It will be crucial for AHRC to work closely with MLA in this respect, since they have recently placed much emphasis on measuring and assessing audiences' experience.

7.2 Are there any existing examples of research assessment carried out within museums and galleries?

None that we know of.

7.3 What mechanisms do museums and galleries currently use to ensure that their research is of the highest quality?

There are currently few formal mechanisms in place. Peer review is felt to be problematic for museums, partly because of the difficulty of identifying peers in very specialist fields. AHRC will need to work with museums to develop appropriate mechanisms.

In particular, AHRC must take account of the distinctive nature of museum research, which is object-based and does not necessarily mirror the conventions of university-based research.

For more information or comment, please contact:

Helen Wilkinson, Policy Officer, Museums Association, 24 Calvin Street, London E1 6NW
020 7426 6950