Group discussion on practice based research

Seminar discussing practice based learning research in museums and galleries

Research which produces nothing but books is inadequate.  The task…. Is not merely to understand and interpret the world but to change it.1

Increasingly museums within the UK and internationally are being called upon to undertake research and, to a greater or lesser extent, frame themselves as research-led institutions. Currently within Tate attention is being focused on what ‘research’ means in this institutional context and how in particular research can support the ongoing work of the organisation as well as contribute to wider debates.  Fruitful discussion is taking place on a range of issues including the relationship between ‘scholarship’ and ‘research’, the place of practice-led and practice-as research and the need to foster a research culture across the organisation in order to generate research outputs of the highest quality as well as support and empower staff members who wish to engage in research themselves.  The institution recognises the value of research, seeing it as vital to its ongoing activities. However Tate, alongside many other cultural organisations, is needing to think deeply about how research can shape and form part of the museum’s activities in positive and manageable ways.

Associated with these developments, for the last four years Tate Learning in London has been engaged in developing research-led programming and activity that is based in thoughtful reflective practice. Recognising that the work of facilitating learning experiences for all audiences could be improved through rigourous questioning, reflection and analysis, the department embarked on an intense programme of professional development and examination of the form, content and desired outcomes of all its learning activities. Alongside this has been a focus on implementing effective and meaningful evaluation of the work and the instigation of a number of specific research projects that have explored key elements of a range of programmes. This work has not been without challenges and needs to be understood as an ongoing project; however it has reached a stage where it is possible to reflect on the journey to date, note some positive changes, identify what has contributed to these and acknowledge where obstacles remain.

Learning at Tate has undergone a number of shifts in recent years, including the appointment of a Director of Learning and the amalgamation of the two London galleries’ (Tate Britain and Tate Modern) learning departments into one cross-site unit. The London department is comprised of seven teams each focused on developing programme for audiences ranging from young people (15 to 25), teachers and school pupils to families and adults, catering for those who are extremely familiar and knowledgeable about art and those who may have never visited a gallery before.  Further activities overseen by these teams include in-gallery and online interpretation and national and international digital learning and partnership programmes. As with many museum education and learning departments, the programming workload is heavy and time-consuming. The challenge is therefore to develop a research culture that enhances and supports this core activity rather than distracts from or unhelpfully adds to it.

A first step toward achieving the goal of implementing a research culture was to devise a research strategy for the department, which was completed in 2011.  Defining what Learning was aiming to achieve with and through research helped set the parameters for the work and clarify priorities. It also provided a tool by which it was possible to communicate the intentions for learning research internally and externally. 

Tate London Learning Research Strategy - Research aims

  • to interrogate the historic development of the practice in order to understand where we are now
  • to investigate the nature and quality of our current practice in order to develop rigorous excellence
  • to examine specific questions relating to our activity in detail to understand better what, how and why we do it
  • to formulate programmes that explore how we can go further in the future
  • to engage with current cultural discourse and examine key questions that have a bearing on learning practice and knowledge development in the wider context
  • To build theory in order to inform the future development of the sector.

Key features that are present here include the need for research to inform and improve practice, to deepen understanding of learning practices, processes and outcomes and to disseminate and therefore expand knowledge more broadly. 

The strategy also identified the research priorities for the department, whilst recognising that there would likely be an element of overlap between these strands (for example a project that focuses on a specific learning programme could develop in conjunction with another department within Tate, and with an external partner).

Tate London Learning Research Strategy - Research Priorities

  • Research-led practice across the Tate London Learning sites  
  • Projects focused on specific Learning programmes that develop out of the research-led practice strand
  • Projects that are undertaken in collaboration with other departments withinTate
  • Projects that are developed through shared interests with external partners.

An important element present here is the recognition of the value of embedding research-led practice at the core of the department’s activities and seeing this as the bedrock from which all subsequent research projects emerge. When time for research is limited it is important that specific research initiatives are perceived to be of direct interest and relevance to the programming teams who are involved in them in order that they take ownership of them and use the findings generated to support their work in the gallery.

So what does this look like and how are these aims and priorities manifest in the daily work of the department? Taking the research-led practice strand as a starting point, most tangibly there is a change in the nature, content and quality of the conversations taking part in the teams and greater energy devoted to examining programmes before, during and after they are executed. Time spent on planning involves questioning, refining and identifying key areas of focus that can be framed around a research question.2 Once programmes are in place, data collection takes place which is organised and analysed in order to inform the reflective conversations that happen alongside the programme and when the activity is completed.3 This reflection and analysis takes place within individual teams and periodically across the entire department. 

This methodology can be seen to resemble action research in some respects and as with such methodological approaches, programmes are open to constant reappraisal and potentially significant change.4 Likewise there are connections to one model of art practice. As the researcher Graeme Sullivan has identified:

Visual arts processes are critically important kinds of human exchange that have the capacity to change the way we think about how we come to know what we do.5

Drawing on this sense that art practice provides a means of understanding how knowledge is generated, research-led practice as framed within Tate Learning can be seen as an experiential process of conceptual enquiry that embraces inspiration, experimentation, the organisation and re-organisation of information, critical thinking and the building of meanings. 

From this research-led practice strand specific research projects have developed that have examined, amongst other things, young people’s experience of live art6 and the geographical locations for works of art that members of the public have identified and associated with.7 Collaborations have been forged with colleagues within higher education and museums (both within the UK and internationally) and team members have explored issues that are of particular interest to them individually and as teams.8 In addition we have a number of PhD students attached to Learning researching questions deriving from the department’s research priorities9.  Projects have been instigated with other departments within Tate which include a ‘Writing for Publication’ training course which was co-developed with the Collection Care division within Tate to address the professional development needs of practitioner-researchers in both areas. 

Arguably the most tangible research ‘output’ to have emerged from this process is the Learning programme itself; the interpretation within the gallery and online, the events and workshops that take place in the gallery with audiences and the online learning activities.

Additional, perhaps more familiar, research outputs include discursive forums, symposia, conference presentations (both at Tate and at UK and international events), peer-reviewed papers in academic journals, blogs, films, work in progress papers and exhibitions. Learning team members and associated academic partners are generating a wealth of research material, so much so that a need was identified for a space to contain and disseminate it.

The Tate Research Centre: Learning was established in June 2014 in response to this need and the broader recognition that opportunities to develop and communicate research in the field of learning in galleries to wider audiences beyond the sector have historically been relatively limited. The Centre does not have a physical space but exists predominantly online ( in order to promote research and knowledge exchange and inform practice.  In line with the values and practices of the department, the Tate Research Centre: Learning is co-created, conversational, speculative and propositional. It sees value in openness and risk and has creative practices at its core.

Apart from, but associated with, the existence of the Centre, other changes that are evident as a result of the moves to embed a research culture across Tate London Learning include greater transparency in relation to learning practices, processes and outputs, both internally and externally; the skills and knowledge present within the Learning department have been shared and made more explicit.  Equally, the vibrant critical and reflective practice that exists within this dynamic research culture has helped to generate a higher profile for learning, particularly through events, conferences and publications that disseminate findings. At the same time research has provided clearer insights into the audience’s experience and allowed for greater responsiveness to audience needs.  Overall the work of the department evidences increasing rigour and excellence that is becoming embedded in all areas of practice. All this in turn has supported the department to be resilient at a time when the funding climate is challenging and the museum education sector is under consistent threat. Research has helped Learning to understand better what it does and why and communicate this to others.

Without question, however, challenges remain in sustaining and building research within a busy learning department. The most pressing of these is time. Team members can struggle to find space in their schedules to devote to research and the necessary reflection that ideally would take place. A second issue exists in terms of team members’ levels of confidence and skills in relation to undertaking research themselves. The majority of the department do not have specific research experience or expertise and work has needed to be done to both familiarise colleagues with research concepts and methods, but also empower them to take on their own research projects. Professional development in the form of discursive sessions on terminology (for example on issues such as what do we understand by ‘research’, ‘evaluation’, ‘documentation’ and ‘monitoring’) have been implemented, alongside structured training on, amongst other topics, observation techniques and, as already mentioned, writing for publication. The ongoing regular meetings when teams come together and share, reflect, raise issues and hear from external researchers have been vital in tackling these challenges. Equally important has been the support of senior management and sustained partnerships with external colleagues within the museum sector and academia. Finally ensuring that each team’s budgets allocate a research allowance to every staff member to enable each individual to travel and/or to seek additional training and develop new knowledge has helped Learning colleagues to recognise themselves as researchers and see research as an integral aspect of their job.

It has been argued that research in educational contexts ‘should be understood, first and foremost, as the continuous application of a particularly coherent and systematic and reflexive way of questioning, a mode of interrogation’(authors’ emphasis).10 It is this systematic interrogation of the practice of learning in the gallery which can be seen to underpin the development of a research culture within Learning in Tate London. And as with the pedagogic practices employed in the gallery, the asking of fundamental questions sits at the heart of the research methodology being adopted.  Although the exploration of these research questions can be complex, time-consuming and frustrating at times, at this stage it is possible to say that the seeds of a research culture have been planted and are starting to yield valuable new knowledge and ways of working across the gallery.