Research in the museum
Although research is generally considered the preserve of universities and higher education institutions, cultural organisations, such as museums or libraries, are active players in contributing to the advancement of research nationally and internationally. Just as the study of the chemical composition of oil paints informs the care and conservation of part of Tate’s collection, so the development and adaptation of philosophical and sociological concepts is instrumental to the delivery of its learning programmes. Research, with a specific albeit not exclusive focus on practice, is widely conducted across the museum. Exhibitions, events, school programmes and most of the public-facing activities that take place across the galleries and elsewhere in the world are the result of research and development conducted at Tate by its staff, often in partnership with UK or international institutions and individual researchers.
The open access repository
A repository is a web-based archive for collecting, preserving and disseminating digital copies of the intellectual output of an institution. In its open access version, it provides free, immediate and permanent access to research results for anyone to use, download and distribute. A metadata record containing essential information about the item such as title, author’s name, year of publication or abstract, is generally accompanied by a file available for download. The outputs included in a repository can come in textual, audio, visual or any digital format.
In April 2017, the British Library presented its plan to develop a repository, which would include an access function as opposed to solutions exclusively dedicated to digital preservation or internal collections management, to the Independent Research Organisations Consortium, a network of museums, galleries, libraries and other heritage organisations recognised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as having a large enough research ‘critical mass’ to be considered for AHRC and other UK Research and Innovation funding in the same way as a university.
At the time, the British Library was hosting several repositories or repository like functions, such as Data.bl.uk, a collection of datasets released by the British Library, or EThOS, the UK portal with over 500,000 doctoral theses. The British Library wanted to create a new repository infrastructure, which would be capable of hosting those and other repositories, as well as an additional repository for the research output produced by their own staff.
The presentation ended with an invitation from the British Library to discuss the potential development of a repository, which would be shared between those Independent Research Organisations that showed an interest. In the following months, four organisations joined the British Library to develop an open access repository for digital research outputs: the British Museum, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), National Museums Scotland and Tate.
Broadening access to research
Tate joined the pilot project viewing the repository as instrumental in showcasing the breadth and depth of the multidisciplinary research conducted by Tate and its partners across art history, collection management, conservation, curatorial practice, learning, library and archive, and museology. From Victorian Studies to Third Text, Tate staff have published articles in leading peer-reviewed journals and made a substantial contribution to the advancement of research in a wide range of disciplines.
As part of the preliminary work that is required when building a repository from scratch, the scoping of the institutional research production is among the most daunting tasks. At Tate, as is the case with similar institutions without a repository, an official (or unofficial) record of all the research contributions authored or co-authored by its staff simply did not exist. A list of publications was therefore compiled, which, in addition to articles in peer-reviewed journals, included books, book chapters, magazine and other journal articles, book and exhibition reviews, editorials, conference papers and posters, or any other published output. On top of that, a preliminary review of unpublished outputs was also conducted. This included what is known as ‘grey literature’ – those documents in print or electronic format that are protected by intellectual property rights and are of sufficient quality to be collected and preserved, for example reports, working papers or documentation of scientific analysis.
The open access repository comes with a broad understanding of research, which encompasses all those outputs that have a research component, beyond the otherwise narrow definition of academic research. This helps to counteract two opposing problems. On the one side, scholarly outputs (such as peer-reviewed journal articles) are usually accessible only to a specialist public of academics or researchers – Tate’s online research journal Tate Papers is a notable exception – thereby significantly reducing their impact beyond the confines of academia. On the other side, a large number of research outputs, from audio recordings of public talks to blog posts, are generally published outside the view of most researchers (for example on an event listing or project page on a website) and they are more often than not subject to inadequate preservation, thereby limiting their impact on future research. By its very structure, the repository will bring both types of outputs together (scholarly and non-scholarly) and will contribute to broaden the access to scientific research conducted in the museum for the benefit of all types of audiences.
Knowledge exchange and innovation
With four galleries across the UK in London, Liverpool and St Ives, over 8.2 million visitors and 734 new works entering the collection for a total estimated value of £22.5m in 2017–18 only (according to Tate’s Annual Report 2017/18), and approximately 150,000 members, Tate is a significant player in the UK cultural and creative industries. Creative economy develops when barriers in science and research are removed, intellectual property is acknowledged and interdisciplinarity becomes the norm. Tate benefits from and contributes to a knowledge-based economy.
The open access repository will play a fundamental role in centralising, preserving and making accessible Tate’s intellectual capital. Researchers and professionals from many sectors will benefit from the knowledge created by Tate staff and put into the repository. This material will be made accessible in the most open format allowed by the copyright restrictions imposed by publishers; a full metadata record will always be accessible, even when the content is protected by a third-party paywall. Similarly, Tate staff will also benefit from being aware of and having access to the knowledge created across the institution. The available information will stimulate internal innovation and the variety of voices that emerge from it will help to create a more inclusive environment.
Bringing research to light
The preliminary phase of the open access repository pilot project, which mostly focused on reviewing the number and types of research outputs, returned unexpected results. Firstly, the sheer quantity of published and unpublished research material greatly surpassed the initial estimates, which had to be revised multiple times in the course of the process. Secondly, the feedback received from the staff that were involved in the process was extremely encouraging; rather than seeing the repository as a bureaucratic inventory of their own work, many authors stated that collecting together all their own research and bringing it into one place with that of other staff across the gallery would add value and meaning to it, and would amplify its impact on the practice of museum professionals at Tate and beyond.
From an initial search of published contributions authored or co-authored by Tate staff, approximately 650 results dating from 1975 onwards were returned. This search began with entries collected in two major databases (Scopus and Web of Science), which do not include a considerable number of publications. If we add the articles appearing in magazines (such as Apollo), the number would probably increase by a few hundred more. On top of this, an additional 850 publications, mostly exhibition catalogues with contributions from Tate curators, have been published by Tate Publishing. Approximately 650 articles by Tate staff and external writers have appeared in Tate Etc., a print and online quarterly magazine published by Tate. At the time of writing, an additional 273 articles have been published in Tate Papers, and around 600 contributions (such as essays and case studies) were included in just a handful of born-digital books hosted on the Tate website, such as J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours or The Camden Town Group in Context. Audio and video recordings of recent lectures and talks that took place in Tate galleries number close to 3,000. Adding hundreds of datasets originating in research conducted by conservation scientists, together with several thousand exhibition items authored by curators, would give a very rough estimate of c.10,000–15,000 research outputs either authored by Tate staff or published by Tate, which could be included in and, in most cases, made freely accessible via the open access repository. The inclusion of these outputs in the repository will also contribute to their long-term storage and preservation, and allow for processing with data-mining techniques, thereby enhancing their value to researchers from all disciplines.
a new role for research
Besides the quantitative aspect of this initial investigation, a more thorough understanding of the potential impact of the repository on the preservation, circulation and reuse of research within the organisation emerged from multiple conversations between the project team, active research staff and relevant stakeholders from all departments. One of the key issues was what to deposit or not to deposit into the repository. Parallel to dealing with copyright limitations, questions concerning the quantity, quality, consistency and relevance of the research material had to be addressed.
Although institutional repositories have been generally very open to host material that goes well beyond the traditional definition of an academic research output, there were reservations at the time that Tate staff would only want a small selection of their own output, a sort of ‘best of’, placed in the repository. In fact, quite the opposite turned out to be true. From a small but meaningful sample of scoping interviews with active research or editorial staff, it emerged that the opportunity to bring together the quasi totality of research produced by an individual in the most diverse formats, from book chapters to podcasts, largely outweighed any concerns about publications that could look dated or the content of which does not necessarily reflect the author’s current views. On the contrary, the possibility to make visible and transparent the evolution of their own research production and, in some instances, of specific areas of research to which Tate staff has been substantially contributing, from J.M.W. Turner to the preservation of digital artworks, constitutes a previously invisible historical documentation which shows how practice has changed within the institution across the decades. This latter point, when applied to the historical analysis of the language used to describe artworks or artists from a specific gender or community, becomes particularly relevant to the present focus on how to make the museum’s collection and documentation more inclusive of the people and stories that have too often been absent or under-represented.
Building the research infrastructure of the future
Since the official start of the open access repository pilot project in March 2018, Tate, National Museums Scotland, MOLA, the British Museum and the British Library have been collaborating to develop the repository, tailor it to the requirements of non-academic research organisations, and ensure that it will be fit for purpose for decades to come. The repository has been built using software called Samvera Hyku, a new open source system significantly extended and developed by the project’s technical partner, open access publisher Ubiquity Press. This means that all the work conducted by Ubiquity Press, the British Library and its partners will feed back to the Samvera Hyku open source community for other institutions to benefit from the developments and experience from this pilot project, in particular regarding the repository’s scalability, multi-tenancy and user experience.
One of the key features of the open access repository is that it is layered. Each participating institution will have its own repository; however, there will also be a shared layer, which allows the user to search across all repositories, thereby facilitating the linking of data from different collections. This functionality alone shows the potential value of this collaboration among cultural institutions across the UK.
The open access repository aims to become an essential element of the UK research infrastructure. At the same time, the individual repositories will become the backbone for how cultural organisations record, document, preserve and make accessible the research that they produce, in line with the most stringent open access requirements set by the UK research councils or major private funders. The individual repositories will become a driver for internal innovation within those organisations, and a platform for knowledge exchange open to everyone, from professionals in the creative industries to the general public. With the pilot phase closing in August 2019, further development will follow in view of the expected launch of the repository during Open Access Week in October 2019, while the repositories are expected to be fully operative by March 2020. Much work remains to be done, but cultural organisations such as Tate are working towards the creation of the facilities, resources and services that are being used by research and innovation communities to conduct research and foster innovation in their fields, preparing for the social and economic challenges of the future