We’re delighted to bring you this guest blogpost by Jack Gann, whose reflections from his own discipline raise similar issues relating to collaboration as an earlier blogpost from the health care sector, on interprofessional education: readers from across the disciplines will notice common themes. Jack’s advice also complements our post about visiting archives and reading historical documents.
‘There is real cause for concern’ was the conclusion of the annual Cuts Survey recently published by the Museums Association. While museum attendance figures are up (in 61% of the museums surveyed), large scale funding cuts from both national and local government have forced one in five to close part of their museum or its branches in the past or coming year. In March, for example, five museums are due to close in Lancashire, including the Queen Street Mill in Burnley, the last surviving nineteenth-century steam powered weaving mill (a designated collection of national significance). While the cuts and museum closures are typically reported as a matter for concern due to the loss of a site of public, community benefit, the current state of the museum sector also represents a potential loss of hugely valuable resources for academics and researchers.
My own professional background is within the museums sector and now, as a PhD candidate, my research looks at the history and use of museums and so requires me to use them as a resource. I have therefore seen the challenges faced by the coming together of people within the museums sector and those within the academy from both sides. Although we have interests in common and the potential to enhance each other’s knowledge and practices, both museums and academics are forced to focus their energies on the outward facing public impact of their work and the need to secure sources of funding for future work, putting potential collaboration low on the list of priorities for both.
The Cuts Survey reports museums running on skeleton staff and suffering from recruitment freezes, along with an accompanied increase in reliance on unpaid staff at 45% of surveyed museums. Following the trend in previous surveys, museums anticipated spending more and more of their time on fundraising and income generation over the coming year, leaving collections research a lesser focus. The vast majority of this funding is directed towards individual projects, meaning that the staff, resources and collections of the museum are also inevitably all directed towards that particular project or exhibition, leaving little time for handling the enquiries or interests of academics with projects of their own.
At the same time, the survey reports a ‘hollowing out’ of key skills and knowledge through staff cuts. What this means for researchers is likely to include anything from museums’ inability to handle enquiries or allow access to stored collections, to an increasing lack of useful knowledge about those same collections, to the possibility of closure of museums and permanent disposal of valuable objects.
At a recent colloquium I attended on Curating the Nineteenth Century, hosted by the University of Leicester, there was a great deal of positive interest in a closer working relationship between museums and academics from both sides, but few thoughts on the practical possibility of making that happen. Beyond the formal arrangement of a Collaborative Doctoral Award in which a museum and a university take joint responsibility for a post-graduate researcher’s studies, the colloquium’s delegates struggled to see where opportunities for researchers working closely with museums could come from. Both museum and academic staff wondered how to fit developing these relationships in with their many other responsibilities.
Based on all of this, what then would be my advice to other post-graduate and early career researchers looking to utilise museums and their collections as a resource for their research?
The most important thing is to respect that you are not the museum’s main priority. Be aware that they are likely to be handling a number of other issues at the same time as your enquiry. Try to be flexible with your plans and make them far enough in advance so that you can find times for your research that will suit both you and the museum. Making arrangements with museums is not something that can be done at the last minute.
Secondly, make sure that you make it clear how your research can assist the museum. However you plan on using the museum collection to help you in your research, it is probable that your findings or analysis are likely to interest the museum. Sharing your findings can help the museum become more knowledgeable about its own collections and go some way to countering that ‘hollowing out’ of skills. Equally, offering yourself up for public talks will not only give you a platform for sharing your research through the museum, but also allow the museum a further way of sharing their collection, essentially allowing both of you to turn this research into something that has the desired public facing impact.
It is not all doom and gloom for museums, however. In areas such as collections being digitised and made available online, researchers (and the general public) have a level of convenient access to museum objects that they could never have had before. As any museum knows, there is nothing quite like getting your hands on the real thing, but nevertheless, just as e-published books and journals have meant that academic research can continue beyond the confines of the library, so too can digitised museum collections offer a window on material culture to researchers across the globe.
Ultimately, access for academic researchers to museum collections has become a little more difficult in the current financial climate. However, that is not to say that new opportunities are not opening up all the time. By working with these opportunities, we, as researchers, can help museums to demonstrate their continuing relevance and importance in the modern world.
About the author: Jack Gann is currently studying for a PhD with Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University. Prior to this, he worked for eight years for York Museums Trust in a variety of roles, including research for the redevelopment of York Castle Museum’s Victorian street, and his academic research draws on this experience to study the use of Victorian street scenes as a form of museum display. He is currently also co-ordinator of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies blog. You can find him on twitter:
Image credit: Guillermo Viciano, 2009, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr