In a report by the Research Information Network, the findings stressed the importance of museums in supporting research. They also expressed that "sustaining these levels of support is becoming increasingly difficult as curators face increasing demands on their time." It is essential, however, that museums regularly receive and facilitate researchers, who provide valuable contributions to museums.
Researchers are museum guests as much as any other group of visitors and it is part of a museum's public responsibility to facilitate their research. The problems posed by lack of time and space can be offset by a positive attitude.
Writing a research charter
Researchers come in many different guises, from a school child doing a project to a scholar writing a monograph, but they all have similar basic requirements. They need to know what is in the collections and any information you have about them. Contact details, visiting hours and prior notice are also important to researchers and these can be incorporated into a research charter.
A research charter should open with the offer of help to any potential researchers, then list what is available. Charters should include details of response times and information on how much notice is required. Create online databases that detail the records of a museum so that researchers have a first point of contact before reaching the museum.
List what is available in your museum for researchers, which could include:
- A print or resource room
- A library
- Online collections database
- Dedicated research space
- Fact sheets and FAQs for common enquiries
- Staff names and contact details, including titles and areas of expertise
- Appointment booking
- Research services offered and any fees charged
- Photography and photocopying
Some items in your collection, often the most famous pieces, will attract more research attention than others. For the most popular collections, it is worth preparing a set of answers and fact sheets in advance to facilitate casual researchers and free up staff time. Brochures with FAQs, links to finding out more and online information can be incredibly useful first stops for anyone undergoing research on well-known objects.
Creating a research space
Ideally every museum should be able to provide a clean, well-lit and secure area for the purpose of collections research, with access to object information from object files and computerised databases. If objects have to be examined in the storage areas, you need to make arrangements for objects to be moved to a clean, uncluttered space with a table, chair and good lighting.
For small museums this isn't always possible and you might find that the only space in the building is at the end of the curator's desk. However, a welcoming attitude and a few changes can be a big help for researchers.
Ideas for research spaces
- Create a library-style space by gathering all of the museum's reference books, journals and catalogues into one place.
- Prepare documents before researchers arrive, bringing them to research space on a trolley or cart for carrying boxes and objects. A cart also allows items to be swiftly wheeled back into storage.
- Ensure that there is a good light source and access to a power source for laptops.
- Provide a selection of research equipment, which could include gloves, magnifying glasses, measuring tapes and callipers, padded supports, pencils and a torch.
- If you do not have a dedicated research table, use a non-slip cover or mat for the table when it is used for research purposes.
- Set up a public research area in a gallery, using photocopies, scans and microfilms of museum objects. This way people can easily browse through historic documents such as news clippings without wearing away the originals.
Researchers working with collections should be supervised at all times, both for the safety of museum objects and the protection of the researcher.
Always take a note of the name and address of the researcher, as well as the nature and purpose of his project. This will help you in gathering statistics about collections use. Note that some of these precautions may make access to collections more difficult in museums with fewer staff members.
Provide the following guidelines, available on the museum's website, for any research visit:
- Information about supervision arrangement and the accessibility of materials.
- Identification and contact details required for the project.
- Building behaviour guidelines such as no eating and drinking or using mobile phones.
- Information on where to leave coats and bags, and a warning that bags will be checked if appropriate.
- Rules about the handling of objects and the use of gloves, if appropriate - safe handling techniques should be demonstrated by staff.
- Only pencils are to be used, and objects are not to be marked or written on by the researcher.
- Permissions regarding cameras and laptops.
- Rules about photography and photocopying.
Research agreements and fees
External researchers enter into an agreement with a museum whenever they are conducting their project. Think carefully about the terms of your agreement with researchers and establish in advance whether you will require any fees or not. Depending on the size of your establishment and the needs of the project, you may ask visitors to sign a research agreement.
Considerations for research agreements
- The name and contact details of the researcher
- The type of identification required
- The nature and purpose of research
- Copyright on objects, often not owned by the museum, and Intellectual Property Rights and Publication Rights
- Use of data
- Feedback of research findings to the museum including mechanisms for updating catalogue information and copies of articles
- Guidelines and agreements for analytical research including requests for destructive research, research on human remains and other sensitive collections
- Provision of photographs and digital images for publication
- Forms of reproduction permission, Publication Rights waiver
- Any fees
Some museums with a very large volume of enquiries charge fees to undertake research on behalf of members of the public. Sometimes, the first hour of research is free. After that, establish clear rates and what will be charged.
Not all museums need to charge fees, but for some it can be advantageous. If there is a high enough demand for paid service, this income can be used to employ a researcher, freeing up the time of other members of staff. Alternatively, the fees could be used to subsidise in-house research expenses.
Connecting with other organisations
Museums should proactively encourage the use of their collections by outside researchers.
Publicise the items in your collections and seek to forge links with specialists and higher education researchers. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds collaborative projects between academic partners and museums. Working with an expert on a specific project or even just informal networking can often produce ongoing results and wider benefits.
Institutions for partnerships
Identify parts of the collection that would make good research projects, for both academics and students, then make contact with local university departments. All academic staff will have their research interests listed on the university’s website. Students are usually trained in the use of libraries and archives, but less often in the resources available in museums, so the offer of an information and training session might be welcomed.
Visit the Collections Trust website to find contacts for subject specialist networks. Connecting with special interest groups could lead to fruitful research projects.
Network with other museums through organisations such as the East of Scotland Museums Partnership. Relationships with local history societies, natural and archaeological history clubs and other amateur organisations can lead to productive research partnerships. This will also increase your museum's community links and audiences.
Examples of all of the ideas outlined in this guide can be found elsewhere online:
The Collections Link have guidance on copyright, publication rights, and subject specialist networks. The Arts and Humanities Research Council have advice on partnership funding.
- Museum Practice, No. 36, Museums Association, Winter 2006
- Discovering Physical Objects: Meeting Researchers' Needs, Research Information Network, October 2008
Museums Galleries Scotland
This is just one of many advice guides on running a museum offered by Museums Galleries Scotland. Read our complementary guide to in-house research for another angle to museum research. You can always contact us with any further questions.