Who does research in museums?

"Where there is no research, there is no museum", says Wolf Dieter Dube, director of the Berlin museums, but this tenet has come under attack in recent years.


"Where there is no research, there is no museum", says Wolf Dieter Dube, director general of the Berlin museums, but this tenet has come under attack in recent years, particularly in Thatcherite Britain. Here is an explanation to government and the public as to why research is not an ivory tower luxury. The author is a senior member of the Victoria & Albert Museum, appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery last month.


The purpose of this document is to describe how and why the Victoria and Albert Museum undertakes research, both as part of the statutory requirement of the Museum's Board of Trustees to add to the body of knowledge relevant to the collections through research and the Museum's mission to increase the understanding and enjoyment of art, craft and design through the study and display of its collections. It is intended that the document will clarify how the Board of Trustees and the Director of the Museum have chosen to organise and manage research activities in the Museum; and that it will describe these research activities to new members of staff, to policy makers in Parliament and the Department of National Heritage, and to members of the general public.


Museum research is not, and never has been, a simple or single entity. Rather, it is a complex set of different types and styles of research practice, which can be differentiated, but which at the same time are interdependent. The document therefore concentrates on the task of defining the different categories of research activity required by the Museum. These activities are conceived of, and written about, in terms of a hierarchy beginning with the management of single objects and developing through to systematic research which develops the public understanding of the art and artefacts of the great cultures of the world.


The collections are expected to be central to research practices in the Museum. They require research in order to ensure that they are well understood and properly interpreted, grow successfully and are efficiently managed. Research should inform the selection and acquisition of objects into the Museum's collections; it is essential in providing appropriate levels of documentation; and it is expected to be an active part of the process of presentation of objects in the galleries, so that members of the public are made aware of the latest discoveries about the Museum's collections. At the same time, the collections pose particular problems of attribution, taxonomy, and interpretation. Many objects surviving from the past and acquired by the Museum are not readily classifiable in terms of their history, function and provenance. There needs, therefore, to be an apparatus of scholarship which can assist in the tasks of identification. Moreover, since the collections are largely focused on the history of the applied (or decorative) arts, a field of study which is not well developed in universities (neither design history nor art history currently pay much attention to the history of pre-industrial decorative arts), the Museum cannot simply rely on, or contract in, outside university-based research, particularly in the field of attributions. In contrast to the collections of other national museums which relate to parallel university-based subject areas, such as archaeology, art history, or war studies, the V&A has a particular responsibility to act as a major international research centre for the history of the applied arts.


Alongside the collections, there is a continuing need for publicly accessible, up-to-date information about the Museum's holdings. Information is required for exhibitions, galleries, teaching, and publications. It is an essential tool for analysis; and it may take a wide variety of forms, including images, statistical data, and structured and free text. Research into processes of information management improves the activity of acquiring, collating and successfully imparting information about the Museum's collections. This entails an understanding of systems of organisation, the measuring of different categories and terms, and an ability to recognise the data required for specific kinds of analysis. In particular, the Museum acknowledges that there are not yet established terms for the taxonomy of objects, so that the development of standardised terminologies is at least as complex as it has been in the field of library science. There is no point in developing sophisticated systems for the input of data about the collections if the data itself is inaccurate and out-of-date.


In the context of a museum, the meaning of the word "knowledge" can be considered most appropriately as the process whereby information about objects in the Museum's collections is deepened into a broader comprehension of their wider historical context and their intellectual and aesthetic significance. The central types of knowledge required by the Museum are the ability to identify objects in the collections, and to enhance the public understanding of their meaning. These forms of knowledge are indispensable to the interpretation of the collections and the Museum has an immense responsibility to ensure the continuity, enhancement and public dissemination of knowledge about objects in the collections. Members of staff must, therefore, maintain a constant dialogue between the objects, archival material and the relevant secondary literatures, between data and methods of interpretation, and between the Museum and its audiences. The Museum does not recognise a clear distinction between empirical and conceptual knowledge. There is always a close association between what an object is thought to be and how it is then interpreted.


Object-based expertise derives from the process whereby knowledge is gradually deepened through continuous contact with relevant objects of study. The accumulated experience of looking at, and thinking about, objects of like types makes it progressively much easier to identify and interpret them. The qualities of visual memory and mental record which make possible the attribution of works of art can only be fostered by continuous access to them; the ability accurately to identify and attribute them remains essential to many of the public responsibilities of the Museum. Of course, some forms of object-based expertise can, and should, be acquired from outside the Museum. Members of staff need to be in regular contact with experts in other museums, universities and the art trade. But a substantial core of object-based expertise essential to the Museum must be developed by the staff itself. The Museum must provide an environment which is sympathetic to the development of expertise, so that there is constant access to objects and the relevant secondary literatures, an ability to visit and study the collections of other museums, a continuous improvement in learning skills, good communications, and regular discussion with experts in appropriate fields both within the Museum and outside it.


The Museum believes that it is necessary to retain the concept, as well as the practice, of pure research to describe research which is not directed towards a particular project, but which concentrates on the advance of knowledge in the subject areas represented by the Museum's collections. In universities, this is the category of academic practice known as basic research (described by the Frascati Manual as "experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view"*, without which the other activities of universities function inadequately. There is a difference between research which is directed towards the study of particular objects or groups of objects, and research which concentrates on the wider subject area represented by the collections. Pure research within the Museum stimulates innovative thinking about the nature and significance of the collections. It feeds into the ways that they are presented and it crosses the boundaries of materials-oriented subject specialisms.


Alongside pure research, and often dependent on it, is a range of different categories of applied research. We use the term "applied research" to designate those activities which have a specific end in view. Within the category of applied research, sub-categories can be identified.


Audience research investigators how, why and what people come to the Museum, what they expect to find in it, and the extent to which their expectations are satisfied. This is a field of research in its own right, linked to sociology, psychology, market research, and social planning. Since it is an area of study not traditionally developed by the Museum, it is usual for the Museum to buy in existing expertise rather than developing it itself.


Good quality research requires immediate and convenient access to the relevant secondary literature. It is therefore important that the National Art Library, as the Museum's research library, should continue to be at the forefront of the provision of documentary research materials. Through its collections of primary and secondary literature, the Library contributes to our understanding of art and design in general, while also increasing through research in historical and analytical bibliography our knowledge of the book as physical and intellectual object.


The V&A has a long-standing commitment to the development of conservation research, which has recently been enhanced by the establishment of a postgraduate course in conservation studies, managed jointly by the Museum's Conservation Department and the Royal College of Art. Conservation research involves the scientific examination of the materials of which objects are made, the techniques of their construction, and the environment in which they should be stored and displayed. It cannot be done in isolation, but requires a strong reciprocal relationship with the historical investigation of the social context of objects done elsewhere in the Museum. The Museum is in a privileged position to generate new data on the use of materials and artistic techniques, as well as on the history of objects in the Museum's collections, because of the wealth of its resources in conservation science.


Research should not only examine the nature and history of objects in the Museum, but should also address the process of formal and informal learning in a museum context at all educational levels. As with the history of the applied arts, educational research in museums is a field which is not well developed in the education departments of universities, which are concerned largely with classroom learning. There is a need for the V&A, as a major national museum with a unique identity as an educational institution, to contribute to the development of this field.


Museums are themselves increasingly regarded as appropriate objects of study, both within the museum profession and outside. It is desirable that research on individual objects in the Museum's collections is conducted within an environment which acknowledges that there is a history to the selection and acquisition of objects, the formation of the collections, and to methods of classification, display and interpretation.


We use the terms systems research to apply to new developments in the application of information technology. Appropriate systems have an important role to play in the application of computer technology to the management and interpretation of the collections. The Museum therefore is actively collaborating in national and international research projects to develop standards which will allow interchange of information and facilitate consistent use of an appropriate vocabulary.


It is helpful to differentiate the various audiences for Museum research; their order does not reflect a view of relative ranking, but rather a sense that there is an identifiable difference between fulfilling certain statutory obligations on behalf of government and a moral responsibility to contribute to the sum of human understanding for the benefit of future generations.


In relation to government an important part of the Museum's functions lies in an assumed, but seldom explicit, contract to provide a set of specialist services, which depend on the development of knowledge and expertise and require a sound research base. The Department of National Heritage uses the Museum to advise on the licensing of the export of works of art and on the valuation of objects for purposes of government indemnity. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art requires impartial specialist advice, which often has to be prepared at short notice. The Capital Taxes Office uses independent advisors from the Museum to assess the identification, significance and value of private collections which have been submitted for exemption from estate duty. The government through the Museums and Galleries Commission and the Museum requires staff to assess applications by regional and university museums for support for purchases through grant-in-aid. At the same time, our services to government should not be viewed purely instrumentally in terms of the provision of specialist services. National museums represent a significant part of the responsibility of government towards the effective support of a public culture.


In addition to the services provided to individual government departments, Museum staff provide a wide range of services to other outside public organisations, charities, and educational and professional bodies. They are constantly consulted by bodies such as the National Heritage Memorial Fund, English Heritage, the National Trust, and the National Art Collections Fund. They serve on the committees of national and international professional associations such as ICOM, IFLA, the Society of Antiquarians, the Association of Art Historians, and major specialist bodies, such as the Furniture History Society. The advice of staff is sought because of their specialist knowledge and expertise. Outside organisations, including cathedrals, churches, libraries and museums throughout the nation and abroad, need to be able to turn to the V&A for the highest quality information and advice.


The Museum has a significant place within the community of international scholarship. Alongside their membership of professional associations, staff serve on the boards of academic journals; they are employed by universities as external examines; they give papers at international conferences; and they publish books and articles and reviews in scholarly journals. The V&A has a particularly important place in academic scholarship because it represents a subject area, the history of the applied (or decorative) arts, which has not been as well developed in universities as the histories of architecture, design and painting. We therefore aim to have an equivalent status and facilities to those of a major international research institute.


Research should not be seen solely as a specialist and self-contained sphere with an audience limited to fellow professionals. Members of the general public are also motivated by a love of learning. So, the results of research should inform a whole range of other work within the Museum, including permanent and temporary displays, its educational work, and Museum publications. It is an intellectual challenge to make the latest research discoveries available, accessible and comprehensible to a non-specialist public. Research should be key to effective public communication.


In its origins, the V&A was established as a Museum of Manufactures with a very specific mandate to improve the public understanding of the principles of design. It was believed that investigation into the common properties of objects and an understanding of the nature of taste would enhance the competitiveness of British-made goods; the display of historical artefacts was expected to inspire and set standards for the making of everyday products. It is still an important part of the Museum's mission to ensure that objects are interpreted in their original context of industrial or craft production. In all our research, we are determined to ensure that we improve the understanding of the process of manufacture and the relationship of artistic achievement to industrial production.


Museums exist not only for the present, but for the future as well. We have a responsibility to ensure the safe passage of objects to future generations and to add to the stock of learning. We should not see ourselves simply as custodians of objects, making them available to members of the public, but as interpreters of the collections with a moral, as well as professional, responsibility to make sure that objects are understood with a wide and deep sense of their cultural importance.


Having established the centrality of research to the Museum's public responsibilities, it has been acknowledged that the Museum must continue to devote considerable energy and resources to research whilst at the same time managing its research activities as efficiently as possible. To this end, the Museum has established the following facilities and procedures.


Reorganisation of the Museum in 1989 was intended to improve the facilities for research in the Museum. To this end, a research department has been established. It has four functions:

The development of research opportunities for Museum staff

Staff who are working on major research projects, such as new gallery developments and major exhibitions, can be seconded into the Research Department. For other projects, particularly associated with academic publications, it is possible for members of Museum staff (not only curatorial, but also conservation, library, and other professional staff) to apply to the Museum's Research fund, established by the Finance Committee of the Trustees to improve the research opportunities for staff in the Museum. It is allocated from bequest funds, and is administered by the Museum's Research Committee. The fund is used principally in order to facilitate major periods of research leave (i.e. between four months and a year) for work towards a research project, normally a publication.

The maintenance of an active research culture in the Museum

It is important that the Research Department is able to maintain an active research agenda of its own, alongside the management of Museum-wide research projects. It was, therefore, agreed by the Executive Council of the Museum in January 1991 that the Research Department should have a small number of core staff who should have responsibility for inter-disciplinary areas of study which cross over the materials-oriented specialisation which has traditionally dominated the thinking behind the management of the Museum's collections.

The enhancement of opportunities for outside scholars to work with the collections

It is essential for the health and vitality of the Museum that outside scholars have ample opportunities to work with the Museum's collections. To this end, the Research Department has been successful in securing outside funding for a system of research fellowships, which enable younger scholars to work for a significant period of time on the interpretation of an area of the Museum's holdings.

The management of the V&A/RCA MA Course in the History of Design

The Course was established in 1982 partly as a way of ensuring that the Museum was able to participate actively in the development of design history as a subject area, partly to encourage the extension of the methodologies which were being used in the interpretation of industrial design to the study of the applied arts, and partly to introduce highly motivated postgraduate students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds into the working environment of the Museum. The Course represents a significant part of the Museum's commitment to the study and interpretation of recent industrial and product design; it trains students to examine the relationship of design to circumstances of technology and manufacture.


The Victoria and Albert Museum is in a unique position to develop the public understanding of the history of the applied arts and design through the study and interpretation of its collections. It has the resources as well as a highly trained staff. It requires a continuing effort of institutional will to ensure that these resources are used to best effect. The environment for research both nationally and internationally has become extremely competitive and there is demand from government for increased productivity as well as accountability throughout the public sector. In meeting this challenge, the Museum will not degenerate into being a service organisation without a sense of its deeper mission.

Charles Saumarez-Smith

Head of Research Department, Victoria and Albert Museum

[* "The Measurement of Scientific and Technical Activities ("Frascati Manual")", Paris, OECD, 1976, p.19]