Museums have been centres of research from their earliest incarnations as private collections in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Aligned with Enlightenment ideals of scholarship and learning engendering a rational, ‘civilised’ world, object-centred research informed the development of the natural sciences. Simultaneously art museums were seen as places where researchers could work together for the good of mankind. The research and classification of objects within museums thus helped define different bodies of knowledge, construct national identities, and differentiate ‘taste’. However, from the start, museums have also juggled other agendas: to reflect the wealth and status of their owners (be they individuals or nation states), to educate and improve the populace, and to benefit the needs of industry, thereby supporting the economy. So, what has changed in 400 years? This presentation considers the enduring legacy of and renewed interest in object-centred inquiry within the museum, whilst also arguing that the role of research in today’s collecting institutions needs to shift and broaden in recognition of the multiple agendas and challenges facing twenty-first century museums. The case will be made for a model of museum-based research that supports inter-disciplinary, collaborative and practice-based research, employing participatory methodologies that embrace perspectives and expertise from beyond the academy and museum sectors. Such approaches would allow narratives and histories to be challenged and ways of knowing expanded.
Emily Pringle is a researcher and consultant with extensive experience working with museums and cultural institutions. Former Head of Research at Tate, Co-Chair of the Independent Research Organisation Consortium, Emily is currently Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham and a Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Emily has managed large-scale research programmes, developed research strategies and implemented organisational change. Her book Rethinking Research in the Art Museum (Routledge, 2019) argued for a radical shift in museum practice, to embrace co-produced and practitioner-led research.