Art museums today face many challenges. Like all museums, they need to respond and adapt to the many forces shaping the contemporary world. Growing internationalisation, the emergence of new centres of economic and cultural power, demographic shifts, the demands of environmental sustainability, the information revolution initiated by the web and the opportunities provided by new technologies (especially social media) have changed the environment in which museums operate today.
Art museums also need to engage with the increasingly diverse practices of contemporary artists, constructing new narratives from the complex and unresolved histories of contemporary culture. Their functions of collecting, conserving, displaying and interpreting art are now being reframed in the light of new art practices and a rapidly evolving vision of the relationship of art museums and their publics.
Launched in September 2009, the Centre aims to bring together museum staff and specialists (including academics from a range of disciplines, other museum professionals and artists) to address issues facing art museums today. Themes for discussion and research include:
- the philosophy and ideology of the art museum today, including the implications of increased internationalisation
- the social and civic roles of the museum, its buildings and spaces (onsite, offsite and online), and its place in individual and collective behaviour and memory
- the visitor, visitor experience, and the non-visitor
- the educational and research functions of the museum, and the role of museological studies within museums
- curatorial practice and the creation of new narratives
- new challenges in collection care, including sustainability and responses to new artistic practices.
Based in Tates Research Department, the Centre aims to be proactive (instigating and supporting research projects), reactive (able to respond flexibly to new ideas and initiatives, and to facilitate the research of others), strategic (focusing on areas where the Centre can play a distinctive role), collaborative (working with a wide range of specialists and partner institutions) and experimental (willing to take risks).
It also seeks to exploit the many benefits of being sited within a dynamic museum of national and international significance. These include access to research materials and professional networks, and the possibility of engaging a broad public with the outcomes of research through, for example, displays, conferences and Tates online research journal Tate Papers. However, the Centre also seeks to foster self-reflection and to look beyond, and stand outside of, the institutions interests. Although particular attention is paid to Tate, as an instigator of research or an object of study, the focus is on issues of relevance to the sector as a whole and its future development.
In this three-year period the Centre will foster and support activities, ranging from doctoral studentships and seminars to publications and funded research projects, within the following three broad areas.
Museum history and practice
Tate has long undertaken research in order to help shape its development in specific areas. It has also engaged with the professional and academic community in reviewing practice and in understanding the history of the museum. The Centre aims to support such research and reflection through events and projects that generate new knowledge and draw on critical thinking.
- Tate Modern Project seminars – a programme of seminars involving staff and external speakers, addressing issues affecting planning for the new museum
- Curatorial Discussion Group – a quarterly discussion group, led by curators, addressing issues arising from curatorial practice today (begun 2009)
- Tate Exhibition History – an online archive of all exhibitions at Tate from the beginnings of the gallery to the present day
Related projects include:
- Tate Encounters: Britishness and Visual Culture 2007–10
- Matters in Media Art
- Collaborative PhD awards: Bryony Bery, Replicas and Reconstructions: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Art, University College, London; Corinna Dean, Establishing Tate Modern Cultural Quarter, London School of Economics; Caroline Donnellan, Establishing Tate Modern: Vision and Patronage, London School of Economics; Alex Hodby, Tate Modern and the Expansion of New Institutionalism: New Developments in Art and Public Programming Practices, Goldsmiths, University of London; Antoinette McKane, Tate Liverpool as a Force for Social Renewal? A Critical Study of Tate Liverpool’s Interpretation and Education Policies and Practices (1988–2008), University of Liverpool; Ali MacGilp, The London Art Market and the Formation of a National Collection at Tate 1926–1950, University of Reading.
To support future historical research on museums, the Centre is keen to foster new cross-institutional research and thinking about how museums record their own activities. An initiative in this field could look at what is, what is not, and what could be documented, and why; it would involve a range of museums and archive specialists. Developing from this, the Centre also seeks to encourage new, non-canonical approaches to the study of the history of museums and professional practice, leading, it is hoped, to unconventional avenues of exploration and new emphases within museum studies. Research and reflection on current and new practices will involve the future role and identity of curators, internationalised perspectives on museum collections and narratives, and the sharing of collections.
The Museum online
Tate was one of the first museums to publish images of its collection online and today publishes the UKs leading arts website. This makes it well placed to explore the new responsibilities and relationships of the art museum within a networked and distributed digital society.
Current projects include:
- Lost Art, an online exhibition (supported by 4iP and the AHRC).
- Analysis of the behaviour and interests of online visitors to Tates website.
The Centre seeks to develop new understanding of the ethical codes required by the museum to navigate the digital environment responsibly, examining how these may differ from existing museum codes and responsibilities. It aims to look at the implications of engaging with audiences online, and raise issues around freedom of speech and user expectations. Issues relating to changing understanding of authenticity, the boundaries and identity of a museum collection, museum expertise and user-generated narratives will be explored. With support, the Centre would wish to foster qualitative research into the varied uses of museum-produced material within a semantic web environment, an area that could deliver new understandings of the social and educational value of online cultural content.
There has been a wealth of research into the nature, experience and expectations of museum audiences in recent decades, with attention focusing particularly on the complex relationships between culture, community, learning and identity, and on issues of enfranchisement and social inclusion. Tate Learning has a long and distinguished record in the field of gallery education. However, there remains a strong sense within museums that much remains to be understood about the changing nature of visitor experience, learning and expectations, and about how to view the place and future of the art museum in relation to non-visitors. At the same time, visitors are increasingly seen to interpret material and construct meaning in their own way, and to hold conversations among themselves using social media, leaving museums with the challenge of finding new ways of connecting with a broad public.
- Tate Encounters: Britishness and Visual Culture 2007–10
- New Learning Practices in the Art Museum
- Collaborative PhD awards: Antoinette McKane, Tate Liverpool as a Force for Social Renewal? A Critical Study of Tate Liverpool’s Interpretation and Education Policies and Practices (1988–2008), University of Liverpool; Victoria Young, Art Museum Attendance and the Public Realm: The Agency of Visitor Information in Tates Organisational Practices of Making the Art Museum’s Audience, London South Bank University.
The Centre is keen to support work that explores audience experience and understanding of the role of the art museum, within the UK and internationally. Research into how people learn within gallery spaces – and what the implications of this are for the art museum – is potentially of critical importance to the future of the art museum. More generally, the Centre seeks to examine the role of trust as a salient feature of museum authority and status, and to ask whether this needs to be renegotiated with audiences and whether there is room for acknowledgement by the museum of fallibility and limited knowledge.
For further information please contact the Centre’s convenor, Jennifer Mundy, Head of Collection Research, Research Department, Tate National (email: email@example.com).