Culture Wars: Veiled truths
Museums should research their collections, not their visitors, argues Claire Fox
Lifting the Veil, a new report on research and scholarship in museums commissioned by the Museums and Galleries Commission, contains the statement that research is 'an identifying mark of being a museum rather than some sort of theme park or entertainment centre'. For those concerned that museums are indeed trying to imitate theme parks, it should come as some relief that according to the report, research activity has increased over the past 10 years.
But a closer reading of the statistics reveals that research is on the increase, not because scholarship is in abundance, but because today there is 'a wider definition of what constitutes research'. The term is now used in relation to activities from customer surveys to answering visitor queries. This seems to be less a commitment to scholarship than a pernicious game of wordplay. So when it comes to research, Lifting the Veil's authors, Ann V Gunn and RGW Prescott - who in general have written an excellent, thorough and insightful study - fudge the question of definition. Using the usual phrases so familiar in every Department for Culture, Media and Sports circular, they call for a 'diversity of activities' to be classed as research and for a definition that is 'inclusive rather than exclusive'. But as one respondent notes, if research is 'any further investigation into a problem' then 'research is thriving in museums'. On that definition it is thriving in the primary school classroom and the bookies as well.
The focus of research that is conducted by museums has shifted, away from collections and towards exhibitions. Sixty-two percent of responding museums undertake research for exhibitions, compared to 54 percent for collections catalogues. The report's authors chide anybody who suggests 'that exhibition output for the public is necessarily of a lower academic standard than the collections-based output of the past'; and it does seem reasonable to point out that there is 'a substantial research input required to mount a successful exhibition'. But when the priority is wooing an audience, content can too easily be sacrificed. After all, what makes a successful exhibition? One curator explains that 'visitor numbers are the main indicator of the success of an exhibition, and these will give no clue as to the quality of information provided. Newspaper and journal reviews do not often evaluate the intellectual content of the exhibitions'. Another respondent states that 'research is costly if it fails to fulfil its objective - an academically well-researched exhibition will not necessarily bring in the visitors'.
This heightened concern with getting the visitors in, sometimes prioritised above the content of the collection they come to see, features strongly in the reasons for the decline in 'object-based research' and the increase in a more service-orientated research with greater attention to visitors (40 percent of responding museums have staff undertaking research into delivery of service). People like you and me are now the subject of PhD theses, scholarly papers and endless statistical reports. Should we be flattered? Hardly. Not only have the frequency of our visits, our needs and responses been spuriously dressed up as research; we are also implicitly blamed for the anti-scholarship atmosphere in the museum world. This view of the visitor has a corrosive impact on what we go to see. If scholarship dries up in our name, we will be left with a static, heritage-like view of objects. One curator explains: 'It is as if once an object or collection has been researched there is nothing more to be said. It is not understood that research is ongoing, dynamic, cumulative, and constantly changing....New facts come to light and can change the way an object is seen, or provide new ways of interpreting it.'
Does research in museums matter to the visitor? When we look on in awe we are rarely aware of whether research into the object has happened or is happening. But what we want from a museum is the ability to ask new questions, think new ideas, see something of the past, and increase our knowledge. Read the accompanying case studies to Lifting the Veil, which range from research into sixteenth-century scientific artefacts to a project which led to the discovery of a Veronese at the V&A, and you'd be amazed what you don't know. Go to a visitor-centred research museum and you may never find out.
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000