Museum as Method: Laboratories and Experiments in the Humanities and their Histories

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

Comments are closed.