“One of the fundamental skills in any museum, whatever its size, is scholarship. [It] … is the bedrock of our profession and without it we cannot hope to deliver any of our predetermined objectives, whether at national or local level…. Without a sound foundation of knowledge about our collections and their contexts, there can be no improvements in public access and education, and the information made available about collections will be at best trivial and at worst unreliable.”
Barbara Woroncow, Presidential address, MA conference, Portsmouth, 1998, Museums Journal, November 1998
Museum collections do not exist purely for the consumption of curious visitors. Although the public are hugely important to the life of a museum, collections can also contribute invaluable information to research. Collections-based research can expand the limits of knowledge, re-appraise and revise existing knowledge, identify and investigate topics for exhibitions and provide depth and breadth to information about the collections.
This guide will outline the most important aspects of collections research, including:
- Advocating for the importance of research
- Devising a research policy to provide guidance and to ensure that research has a place in the way the museum is run
- Creating a research strategy within a museum’s long-term plan
- Bringing structure, planning and execution to that strategy
- Resources to carry out the plan
Why is research important?
Collection research is vitally important, yet it is often stymied when people do not understand its relevance. Museums need to be at the forefront of advocating the importance of research through making it visible and demonstrating its impact to funders, managers, sponsors and, most importantly, the public.
How research contributes to museums
- Research underpins every element of the museum, from acquiring and disposing objects to running educational activities.
- It contributes to developing temporary and permanent exhibitions.
- Collections care policies are shaped by research, as it develops our understanding of the appropriate materials for display, storage and treatment.
- Hidden histories can be uncovered, changing the way we interpret objects and increase our knowledge of collections.
- Research helps to maintain a museum’s vital reputation as a repository of reliable information and expertise, cementing the public’s trust in the institution.
- It keeps up with new developments and offers fresh insight into works, such as using DNA analysis to gain new information on ancient objects.
The risk of no research
- A museum could act unethically, as museums have an ethical obligation to undertake research and assist in the research of others. (MA Code of Ethics )
- The delivery of an exhibition or educational scheme could be compromised with incomplete or non-existent research.
- Knowledge and expertise could be lost.
- A museum’s reputation could be damaged, ultimately making it difficult to attract visitors and high calibre staff.
- There would be no increase in knowledge or development of interpretation of collections and subjects.
- Valuable objects could be disposed if research does not highlight its significance.
Research should be at the heart of everything a museum does. It is one of the fundamental, core activities of a museum.
As such, research should be incorporated into any wider strategies and policies devised by a museum. When looking to the future, ensure that research is a part of your plan. This can be appropriate to your museum’s size and needs, but it should nevertheless be a part of the museum’s existence.
Devising a thorough policy for research provides a framework and guidance for managing in-house and external researchers.
Wider museum policies
Every museum should have a series of established policies, on topics such as management, access and collecting, of which research is one part. Research policies should work in harmony with these other policies.
For instance, researchers may need to access the provenance and documentation relating to a museum object, as outlined and maintained according to an acquisitions policy. Education policies should be underpinned by research, pointing to potential topics for exhibitions. Freedom of information policies will need to take research into consideration, too, when deciding on protocol for releasing sensitive information.
Research aims in a museum
There are many possible aims to research in a museum, including:
- Providing a research base for external experts
- Increasing knowledge on a topic
- Enhancing the museum’s reputation as a source of dependable knowledge
- Encouraging research across multiple collections
- Attracting academic expertise
- Supporting the museum’s public services
Research and employment
Research is so fundamental to the existence of museums that it should be considered a part of the job when working for museums.
Incorporate research into job descriptions and development plans for all relevant positions, from curators to museum managers. Conservators, exhibitors and educators should have some form of research included in their roles. This will help develop expertise and develop a research profile.
The highest professional standards should be expected in research practice. The work of others must be acknowledged to avoid misrepresentation or accusations of plagiarism.
Time for research should be included in work programmes. Setting aside a day a week or multi-week research times contributes to the strength of a museum’s research portfolio.
Other policy considerations
- A museum’s research policies should define stakeholders, including staff, trustee and commercial researchers.
- Establish methods of acknowledging the contribution of volunteers to museum research.
- The policy should cover questions of Copyright, Intellectual Property and Publication Rights.
- Review your policy regularly to accommodate changes in the museum’s priorities.
Before developing a research strategy, carry out an audit of current activity. There may be more research already happening that you previously supposed. Research-based activities in your establishment could include regular enquiries, lectures and contributions to publications.
Analyse your museum's needs
All research starts with an understanding of a museum’s collections. Identify the types, strengths and sizes of the collections in the museum and assess which areas need research. Consider potential threats to research such as lack of time and personnel or shortage of resources.
To work out your museum's needs, use a SWOT analysis, which means thoroughly assessing your museum's:
Look for opportunities to research parts of the collection that link to:
- An upcoming exhibition
- Potential partnerships
- Commemorative dates
Identify needed and existing resources
The most important resource in conducting thorough collections resource is staff time. This will need to be set aside from the staff rotas for welcoming visitors and answering enquiries. Other essential resources are people, space, access to information and funding.
Your museum will already contain many resources for research, including extensive collections, a library, resource room and reference books. Ensure you have a good system of documentation and collections management. Work with the local universities and national libraries on joint research projects.
Universally available resources can be found on the internet. Search for archives, national records and external expertise.
Collections research doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Staff and staff time are the main resources required.
However, the strategy should address the issue of research funding, and consider what is needed. This could include travel and subsistence expenses, photocopying and photography costs or reproduction fees.
Sources of funding should be considered, such as including research time in project grant applications. Consider charging fees for research undertaken for outside researchers.
Any strategy for collections research in a museum should have a plan for reviewing the research incorporated into it. Set a date for evaluating your research strategy and be proactive in assessing its successes and failures.
To evaluate research outputs, consider using:
- Peer reviews
- Public feedback
- Press coverage
- Website traffic
- New visitors in the museum
Structuring a research project
Devise a comprehensive plan for how research will be carried out over a period of time. Each research project should have clearly defined aims and outcomes. Timetables and strategies for resources help to the overall smoothness of conducting a project.
Define your project
The most important aspect of a research project is defining it from the outset.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) framework for academic research provides a useful model for museum collections research. Identify a series of research questions or problems that will be tackled in the course of the research.
Outline the research context, explaining why it is important to answer these questions. Discuss whether any other research been done in this area and what contribution the research will make. State what methods you will use to research and answer the questions and outline your reasons for choosing them.
The five Ws
Structure your project using these five key questions:
- What? Make it clear what will be researched.
- Why? Decide what the purpose and output is.
- Who? Aim for a target audience.
- Where? Establish key sources of information.
- When? Work to deadlines and devise a realistic timescale.
Define your objectives
Research could have several different objectives, which could include:
- Making additions to collections
- Improving documentation
- Enhancing the conservation and care of objects
- Addressing enquiries related to the collections
- Provision of information not related to the collection
- Devising new exhibitions and permanent displays
Discuss practical outcomes to the research, including talks and lectures, a journal article or a chapter in a book.
Think creatively about potential outcomes, which could include:
- Talks and lectures
- Educational activities
- Journal articles, book chapters or work in other publications
- Improving the museum website
- An online database
- Exhibition catalogues or text
- A committee report
- A museum newsletter
- Condition surveys
- Educational resource materials
- Answering enquiries and assisting the research of others
- Collaborations and partnership projects
Once you have identified the intended outcome you can decide on the type of research required.
The first place to start with information for your research project is within the museum itself. Your collections should have entry records, object files and provenance information.
Beyond your museum's collections, you can find information in:
- Online literature
- Archival evidence such as wills, court recordings, inventories and more
- Old photographs and other images
- Oral history
- Other museums
- Local experts, academics and donors
- Specialist subject networks
- Local or university libraries, which come with electronic resources
Include research funding as a line in all project budgets and funding applications. Consider applying to Museums Galleries Scotland Investment Programme for your Collections Research.
For larger projects, it might be necessary to investigate AHRC funding for museums or to discuss collaborative doctoral projects with a university.
Other research considerations
One of the biggest requirements for research is time, which is more difficult in smaller museums with limited staff. Prioritise research in your scheduling and timetabling. Set aside and protect uninterrupted time for research projects, even if it is only two hours a week.
Ensure that you have reviewing procedures in place for your research. Analyse what new knowledge you have gained. Practical considerations such as deadlines and problems should also be assessed.
Build in advocacy for research within your projects. Let the public and funders know how your research is impacting and improving your museums. Use a blog to document the progress of your project and update the museum’s website with developments.
Many museums now have their policies and strategies available on their websites. Read how different museums incorporate research to see how central it is to their mission.
For policy, read the Bolton Council Museum and Archives Research Policy. For strategy, visit the National Museum Wales website.
Collections Link offers insight into Copyright and Publication Rights.
Visit the Museums Galleries Scotland funding page for information on collections research grants.
- A strategy for supporting and sustaining high quality research in the UK’s Museums, Galleries, Libraries and Archives (Arts and Humanities Research Council)
- Collections for the Future (Museums Association, 2005)
- Museum Practice 36 (Museums Association, winter 2006)
- Making Collections Effective (Museums Association, 2007)
- A National Collections Development Strategy for Scotland's Museums (Museums Galleries Scotland, October 2006)