The life of objects starts long before they enter the museum and continues throughout their institutional journey. Once in the museum space, artefacts drift from crates to boxes, go out for an exhibition, and finally slip back to a comfy location until being extracted again from this period of rest. Days, months, and sometimes years may pass before Collection Researchers become the witnesses of their awakening. From the back-of-house, where objects arise and slowly unfold, we not only get to watch, both respectfully silent and impatient at the prospect of discovering their stories. We also assist and guide this new chapter of their social lives. Like the term curating – from curare, “to care” in Latin – indicates, this is how the first steps of the curatorial and research process begin: with care.
A couple of months ago, Research Associate Lucie Carreau and I started exploring the collection of dance clubs from the Solomon Islands held at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge. Mostly collected between the late 19th and the mid 20th century, these clubs showcase the Solomons’ extraordinary diversity of forms and styles. Some are small, some are large, some are heavy, some light, some are colourful and others are monochrome. Despite their great variety, both in terms of forms and of provenance, all dance clubs were stored together on vertical racks when the MAA’s storage was redeveloped in the 1980s.
After several weeks of background research, caring for these clubs and researching their trajectories begins, in this context, by detaching them from their racks. It is a rather physical task. Hands washed, gloves on and hair tied up, one of us gets on a ladder to undo their attachments. The other stretches her arms up to secure the piece and takes them down gently, one by one. While physically encountering the artefacts – feeling their weight, looking at their patterns, etc. – we make our way to the Bevan/working area, where we lay the clubs on tables covered with tissue paper. Aligned next to each other, they form a heterogeneous ensemble and remind us the very definition of a collection. And, precisely, their history as parts of various collections becomes a focus at this stage of the encounter.
We first measure the dance clubs and look for their one or many museum numbers, which are inscribed directly on them or on attached labels. Matching these numbers with catalogue records, Lucie Carreau is able to get a sense of where they came from and/or of who donated or collected them. Observing the pieces we hunt for any detail or mark that would allow us to piece together their trajectory. Getting increasingly acquainted with them Lucie writes a thorough description that she adds onto the database. This description provides as many leads as possible. As such it is an open door to further research and future encounters. In the meantime, I take the clubs to a provisional photo studio to pursue their examination through the camera lens. Although the photographs are taken in a systemic manner, to a certain extent they adapt to the artefacts’ multiple agencies and the stories they may convey. Mindful of their long journey in and from Oceania to the museum, I shift the clubs gently and let them guide the photographic process.
Back in the Bevan, Lucie and I get ready to complete this first caring phase. Having identified the clubs’ most fragile points, we craft new packagings and attachment systems for them when required. Finally, with their new wrappings and labels, we take them back to the storage and re-attach them onto their allocated racks. Nicely ordered and more comfortably stored, the dance clubs from the Solomon Islands can now rest again. Meanwhile, we won’t. The research has only begun.
Alice Christophe, February 2016.
The public conference ‘Museum as Method‘ which is taking place at CRASSH next week is the culmination of a longer investigation into what it means today to work with collections and to be a museum in a range of research contexts across the UK and the EU as well as in North America.
Generously hosted by the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and conceptually underpinned by its Director, Nick Thomas, a ‘Museum as Method’ working group has forged new collaborations and articulated emergent understandings of the complex evolving relations between research, material culture and museums in the current climate. That climate is intellectual, institutional, financial and political; and as we have seen over the past year, temperatures vary across both disciplines and nation-states.
Anyone who has worked with collections of material culture will know that the framework of the collection itself and the procedures and policies that envelop and instate it are as significant as its constituent parts. The intersections between the techno-logistical processes engendered by museum management and the disciplinary methodologies that enable the interrogation of material culture are as deeply entwined as is electron microscopy preparation with physics – method and subject are almost one.
Extend that to considerations of how a museum (or other) collection even came to be assembled – through which historically-bound acts of selection and acquisition, and with what relational intentions – and the waters get much deeper. The Museum – often even assembled through research activities – is not only a continuing locus for research, but also a subject of research itself. In the ‘material turn’ of the past 20 years, the invisible ‘container’ that is the museum or the collection structure, has come more sharply into focus, and with it, the very origins of collecting practice and the evolution of collections research.
These meta-issues have occasioned Thomas’s observation that collections and museums have a structure akin to archaeological sites, with inherent relational assemblages that require skill and training to understand and interrogate without inadvertently destroying evidence and crucial context. This is not curatorial navel-gazing: this is a proposition that methodologies of museum practice are as structurally and critically sound and significant as, say, textual analysis or actor network theory. Further, the museum/collections construction, and the methods that it requires, is also a kind of ‘gravitational lens’ that can prismatically shed light on cultural, social, technological and environmental issues far beyond its confines – in part because the collection itself comes from beyond those confines.
What then of those of us whose training and research interests enable us to work in these interdisciplinary, inter-institutional, international contexts? Where do we come from, what formations have we undergone, what skills and methods have we acquired and do we deploy? Where do we practice and what understanding of that practice exists in the cognate and even primary disciplines in which our work is rooted? In what institutional structures are we embedded and how is our research enabled, referenced, evaluated and incorporated into other knowledge-producing structures? What is the case to be made for better integrating our ‘museum as method’ into these wider research cultures – cultures from which a goodly proportion of our training has emerged?
For the museum as a structure has been produced by recognised disciplines, many of which continue to be connected with its collection-based practices – natural history, archaeology, anthropology, art history and more. To look at the museum as an instrument and a laboratory is to identify a set of methodologies: what exactly are they and how do they function, what – when well supported – are they now producing as new forms of knowledge?
These are the questions that were addressed over the three meetings in Cambridge held in 2014-2015. Over the period of a year, those meetings involved research colleagues from UK national and university museums and collections, as well as invited researchers from Museum Fünf Kontinente (Munich), Bard Graduate Centre (New York), Musée du Quai Branly (Paris), Volkerkunde Museum (Zurich), Research Centre for Material Culture (Leiden), Zentrale Kustodie of Universität Göttingen (Göttingen), Museum Gustavianum (Uppsala), Moesgaard Museum (Aarhus), and more.
One of the most significant outcomes of our meetings to date has been the realisation that may of us are involved in the creation of ‘object laboratories’ for research and teaching, whether that takes the form of the design of research-focused processes (the ‘museum as method’) or involves the construction of built infrastructures to enable a maximum of both access and security. In Berlin, the Humboldt University collections are re-purposing a disused veterinary anatomical theatre as an object laboratory, and in Göttingen, the University has created a high-functioning Zentrale Kustodie office that is revolutionising the way that collections interact across the disciplines. This vertical integration of teaching, research, and collections is a major shared focus. Clearly it is time for all university museums to have developed research strategies – something forged in close collaboration with academic colleagues, and designed to enable collaboration beyond a service paradigm.
Another outcome has been the realisation that different institutions, nations and cultures understand museum research very differently.
For German colleagues, where museums never ceased to be fully fledged research institutions, the idea that the UK state research councils have only recently accorded a handful of state museums and collections the status of Independent Research Organisations is perplexing. The vagaries of a dual funding system that separates, in the UK, support for university infrastructures such as museums from support for the research projects taking place within those same collections, does not make much sense to Europe – rather like dividing the train operating companies from the management of the rails on which they run. Equally, the idea that a state research assessment exercise such as the UK REF might not consider museum research as a major contribution to knowledge, nor include cataloguing – with all the primary research that it entails – as a research outcome, seems anathema to the French: a waste of value. That a museum might have to pay for the privilege of supporting three years of a doctoral student research project, yet see no income from the student tuition, as has been the case with the past decade of AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards, was met with disbelief.
Being able to share the local specificities of the conditions in which we work, and to begin to imagine ways in which our research and our strategies for bettering both it and its profile, was not only a valuable exercise but also a springboard for developing highly effective future collaborations based on deeper understandings.
Along the way, a number of case studies were presented in relation to operationalising ‘the museum as method’ and ventilating its attendant issues. Of the number that stood out for me in terms of demonstrating the methodological value of museum research, I will mention two. The first was Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Treasured Possessions’; a hit exhibition that originated as a student project and fully integrated teaching, learning, research and impact. Another was the highly successful reinterpretation of the University of Zurich Ethnographic Museum, which realigned both collections and staff in relation to the concept of ‘skill’ – producing among others an exhibition about international drinking cultures from milk to palmwine. It is significant that they are both University museums – embedded in and contributing to research cultures in their wider institutional and disciplinary contexts.
Extraordinarily, several other international meetings took place in the same period, popping up without direct links to the Cambridge meetings, and originating in a similar desire to articulate the extended value of museum and collections based research, and to explore its relationship to wider disciplines and to teaching cultures. At the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, Director David Gaimster held an international meeting of University museum researchers in May 2015, and Giovanna Vitelli of the Ashmolean Museum’s University Engagement Programme led ‘Thinking With Objects: University Museum Collections in Teaching and Research’ in June of the same year.
Clearly, the ‘museum as method’ is a concept that holds significance internationally and across disciplines. Indeed, perhaps the strength of the museum and its method is that it is often the arena most able to embrace interdisciplinary practices. The case is now being made, through these meetings and others all across Europe, for the interdisciplinary research potential of museums, and university museums in particular. It will only be fully realised when the leadership of museum researchers working within them is met with adequate infrastructure and resource.
Dr Martha Fleming
Programme Director, Centre for Collections Based Research, University of Reading