The Museum as Method

In the lead up to the March conference The Museum as Method: Collections, Research, Universities, jointly hosted by UCM and CRASSH, Neil Curtis, Head of Museum at the University of Aberdeen and part of the Pacific Ethnography Project,  provides a summative blog post on the first workshop which led to the conference and was hosted by Pacific Presences at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA):

Following an initial meeting in November as part of the Pacific Presences project, the first of a series of workshops on ‘The Museum as Method’ was held on 8 and 9 June 2015. With a specific focus on university museums, these workshops were considering issues including methodologies of material culture; the collection as laboratory; and the exhibition as experiment, with the intention of re-conceptualising how we approach research in museums.

We now all know that museum collections are not just assemblages of individual things, but are instead the physical manifestations of relationships among people and objects. Likewise, as well as being records of many aspects of the world, the histories of the collections are themselves revealing of particular and influential ways of understanding the world. However (as the workshop publicity said), despite the growth of material culture studies over the past generation, museum methodologies continue to be those of the disciplines that created the collections. I was particularly interested by the focus on whether university museums can make a specific contribution to this endeavour.

The first meeting was structured to consider four work main issues: ‘Methodologies of Material Culture’; ‘Collections as research resources’; ‘What University Museums Do In and For Universities’; and ‘What Research Does in and For National Museums’, with a final discussion. Unlike many so-called workshops, each session had two or three short presentations followed by a genuine, thoughtful and wider-ranging discussion chaired by Nick Thomas whose insights ensured that discussion stayed relevant but was also able to drift into fruitful areas that had not been pre-determined.

The first session was held in the midst of the first floor of MAA, giving a useful reminder of things as we considered the links between disciplines and collections and how assemblages of things and the connections with people. John Robb (Archaeology, University of Cambridge) highlighted the biography of data, showing how previous research affects later research, so arguing that researchers needed to leave traces of their work; also noting that the creation of assemblages for curation reflected the ways that they were conceptualised at the time and so how they affected subsequent research. Josh Nall (Whipple Museum for the History of Science) showed how irrelevant collections had been to much research in the history of science, but how a focus on objects offered more scope for studies that focused on histories of practice. He also described how the Whipple have been developing specific collection-led research projects for postgraduates and how this teaching/research-led work was now leading collecting was leading the museum’s collecting. The final contribution before discussion, from Paul Basu (SOAS), emphasised the ability of material objects to offer ways of studying the non-material, using as a personal example a cup that had survived the 1943 Hamburg firestorm. He argued that objects could be seen as assemblages of relational affordances, recognising how the ability to understand this was affected by the survival or not of associated stories. One of the issues to emerge in the discussion was the tension between the importance of research focusing on the material thing-ness, and emphasising the intangible relationships and meanings. How can a combination of both be made possible?

The second day included three similar sessions and a concluding discussion, held in the McDonald Institute, overseen by a portrait of Colin Renfrew. The first session developed that of the previous day, thinking about how collections could act as research resources. Wayne Modest (National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands) and Martha Fleming (University of Reading) spoke from their perspectives of running research centres that train PhD students to use collections. The difference between academic studies of material culture and museum practice was highlighted by Wayne, which led to discussion about the effects of digitisation and whether this was changing the nature of collections research. How was the encounter with objects changed by digital resources – both digital surrogates of objects and the availability of associated documentation and links with other online sources? Martha drew attention to the Research Information network report that showed the importance of making as much information as possible available, even if not filtered and corrected, and also the opportunities of new interdisciplinary research. How could museums provide the most appropriate support and training to enable such research?

Following some issues that had been touched upon in the previous session, the following two sessions considered, with great honesty, the institutional structures (and strictures) of university and national museums. There were presentations by Lucilla Burn (Fitzwilliam Museum), Mungo Campbell (Hunterian Museum), Lissant Bolton (British Museum) and Julian Clement (Musee du Quai Branly), which combined to give rich insights into the workings of such institutions. While contrasts between national and university museums could be obvious, at the same time practice (particularly for those, such as the British Museum, that are recognised as Independent Research Organisations), meant that there were many more similarities. Alongside a discussion about the role and declining number of academic curators, with their specific commitment to research focusing on material objects, Lucilla, Mungo and Lissant drew attention to the status of such staff who were not fully considered to be academic staff. Such research provided the foundation for exhibitions and publication, as well as to basic knowledge of the collections and so to documentation. While this was sometimes on topics led by the nature of the collections and that had its focus in material objects, it could also be on topics that were not considered fashionable in academia. This meant that the status of museum-based research – and so of academic curators – had sometimes been diminished. In some cases, such as at the Musee du Quai Branly, specific historic circumstances had enabled particular institutions to have a specific research profile that belied wider institutional expectations, while in other cases, such as the Hunterian, recent opportunities were offering new opportunities for museums to demonstrate their wider institutional importance.

The primary question addressed in the final discussion was to consider the scope for strengthening university museum-based research and how it could engage effectively with both universities and public museums. However, Ivan Gaskell (Bard Graduate Center) and Nick Thomas raised more fundamental challenges that drew from the discussions that had considered the nature of material, specific institutional cultures, and the tension between theoretical and tangible research culture. Had we already failed to show the specific value of collections-based research to the wider community and were our methodologies derivative of other disciplines rather than speaking to the specific opportunities that collections offered?

Neil Curtis

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