Research is the engine that drives the museum

Over the next five years research at Tate will take shape in multiple interconnected ways. Staff-led practice-based enquiry underpins Tate’s ongoing activities – from curatorial research and cataloguing, across collection care and learning to visitor experience’s analyses of audience behaviour – informing and shaping how the museum works. Alongside this activity sit bespoke research projects and events that allow for the interrogation of specific issues, most often in collaboration with external partners. Our ambition is to nurture and showcase both forms of research equally.

Rethinking research at the Practice as Research Forum, Tate Britain, 14 May 2018

Rethinking research at the Practice as Research Forum, Tate Britain, 14 May 2018

The Tate Research Strategy is framed by Tate’s overarching mission, vision, aims and objectives, and organisational values, as well as its institutional commitments as the holder of the national collection and as an Independent Research Organisation (IRO). The Research Strategy draws together and builds on existing research strategies and delivery plans and good practice from across the museum. It is informed by research on art museum research in the UK and internationally and has been developed in consultation with colleagues, internally and externally.

The Strategy maps out what Tate is aiming to do, how we are going to go about it and who will lead on this activity within the organisation. It also sets out why we are prioritising certain strands of activity and ways of working. In this way the Strategy seeks to manifest Tate’s values to be open, bold, rigorous and kind and make transparent the approaches to research we are adopting across the organisation.

Two people sit working at a table covered in craft materials; behind is a wall collaged with text and images, including large lettering saying: Where does your mind take you?

The Museum of Things That Don’t Stand Still with University of Westminster at Tate Exchange, 14–17 May 2019
Photo: Dan Weil

Our vision...

... is to create a vibrant research culture across Tate that generates high quality research about art, ideas and practices of institutional, national and international significance, shared with a wide and diverse public.

What does a vibrant research culture look like?

A vibrant research culture is inspired by our work and visible in its impact on our practices. In this environment staff and others are supported to question, explore, analyse, create and share new insights and knowledge, within an overarching process of ongoing institutional development and change. Diverse ideas, interpretations and expertise permeate and go out from the organisation, in part through co-research with collaborators. These collaborators include artists, academics, students, community members, fellow museum professionals, young people, teachers, independent researchers and general visitors.

    A vibrant research culture is transparent and non-hierarchical, allowing staff to be in dialogue across and beyond Tate. Staff and collaborators test ideas and examine relevant topics that inform their work, aware of and working within clear criteria by which research quality is determined. Those working in and with Tate are supported to create and share original knowledge relating to the collection and issues relevant to the institution, to those engaging with the museum and to society more widely.

    A vibrant research culture is organic but purposeful, operating with a distinct understanding of its values, aims and ambitions.

    In summary, a vibrant research culture at Tate:

    • actively values all types of research and methodologies
    • encourages innovation and experimentation that animates our practice and contributes to existing and emerging domains of knowledge
    • is visible in its impact on our work
    • is inclusive and encourages engagement at all levels
    • involves collaboration and partnerships within and beyond the institution
    • is generous and invites better conversations and the sharing of knowledge.
    Dr Bronwyn Ormsby (standing second left), Principal Conservation Scientist at Tate, conducting a modern paints surface cleaning workshop for Cleaning Modern Oil Paints (CMOP) partners and colleagues at RCE Amsterdam, April 2017

    Dr Bronwyn Ormsby (standing second left), Principal Conservation Scientist at Tate, conducting a modern paints surface cleaning workshop for Cleaning Modern Oil Paints (CMOP) partners and colleagues at RCE Amsterdam, April 2017

    What is the purpose of research at Tate?

    Research at Tate is required to address the museum’s statutory institutional remit to maintain and catalogue the collection for the public. Tate must also meet its commitments as an Independent Research Organisation (IRO), which include making at least one successful funding application to the AHRC every three years.

    Participants on the Tate Intensive course gather round workshop leader and artist Harold Offeh

    Contested Spaces workshop led by artist Harold Offeh as part of Tate Intensive, July 2018

    Recognising these requirements, the purpose of research at Tate can and should also be to maximise the uniqueness of the museum as a research site that is essentially public-facing and practice-led. Research at Tate needs to be anticipatory and forward-facing. Through posing questions and providing insights relating to the urgent challenges and issues facing the institution today, research can contribute to current thinking and future planning. At the same time, research provides a reflective and critical space within Tate, where individuals and the institution can productively and collaboratively ‘stay with the trouble’. (The term ’staying with the trouble’ was coined by the theorist Donna J. Haraway, as a way to reconfigure our approach to the world and its inhabitants through prioritising exploration, collaboration and the recognition of interconnected complexities.) These requirements and purposes inform the aims, objectives and priorities for research across the organisation.

    Where are we now?

    Photograph of a man using a virtual reality headset

    The Preserving Immersive Media research project explores how to effectively care for artworks which use immersive technologies such as virtual reality headsetsPhoto: Jack McConchie

    Research has been an integral element of practice across Tate arguably since the formation of the museum in the late nineteenth century. Certainly, research on the collection undertaken by curators and conservators, investigations into pedagogy and audience outreach by educators and the testing and manifestation of ideas by artists have been core to the success of the museum since the mid-twentieth century. In the last fifteen years there have been moves to formalise and support scholarly research at Tate, with the creation of the Research department in 2006. Tate was granted IRO status in 2007, enabling the organisation to apply directly to the different Research Councils for funding for projects, fellowships and Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentships (CDPs).

    Tate operates within a wider context wherein museums are increasingly expected to function as discursive spaces, contributing to positive social change. At the same time museum professionals are working in a climate where anxieties about authenticity of information and distrust of expertise is widespread and where debates on identity, representation, power and the at times problematic legacy of history are very present. In this wider context research needs to make an important contribution to an informed culture of debate within and beyond Tate.

    An audience watches a projection of vertical stripes of white light - a performance of Tony Conrad’s Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain at Tate Liverpool

    A performance of Tony Conrad’s Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain at Tate Liverpool, May 2019Part of the research project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the MuseumPhoto: Mark McNulty

    How do we understand research?

    Recognising the multiplicity of research across Tate, we have adopted a broad and inclusive understanding of research that can be applied across disciplines.

    Research is a creative and reflexive process involving three key characteristics that apply across activities and disciplines: questioning, a process of structured enquiry and the creation of original knowledge that goes out into the world.

    Artist Zoe Leonard in conversation with curator and art historian Briony Fer, Tate Modern, December 2018

    Artist Zoe Leonard in conversation with curator and art historian Briony Fer, Tate Modern, December 2018Photo: Amina Onitilo

    Aims for research at Tate

    • To enrich Tate, making it a better place to work and to think and enhancing the quality, originality and effectiveness of practice, supporting its ambition to be an artistically ambitious, culturally inclusive and rigorous art museum for the world
    • To contribute to scholarly and practice communities, adding to world knowledge and creativity and sharing museum perspectives with colleagues
    • To enhance the knowledge and experience of the public, developing and exchanging knowledge with a more diverse range of people

    Objectives for research at Tate

    • To nurture and showcase existing research activity across Tate, building on this to embed rigorous scholarly and practice-based research and reflective practice across Tate
    • To generate original insights and new knowledge to inform relevant disciplinary fields and provide solutions to challenges encountered in Tate’s practice and the sector more widely
    • To deepen and widen knowledge and understanding of Tate’s collection, through increasing access to, and supporting greater diversity in the information provided and the interpretation of it
    • To contribute to the realisation of a diverse and innovative exhibition and public programme
    • To promote the co-production of knowledge within Tate and with collaborators in the community, academia and the international field
    • To support and empower the public to explore Tate’s research resources and generate new knowledge and insights
    • To raise the profile of research internally and externally, communicating its value, rigour and relevance to a more diverse group of people

    The responsibility for realising the objectives for research is shared across Tate. However, it is anticipated that the Research department will take a key leadership and facilitation role, working in close collaboration with colleagues across Tate and external partners. In the case of large-scale research programmes and individual research centres it is anticipated that the Research department will take more of a co-ordinating role, linking across and beyond Tate, aligning activities with the overarching Research Strategy and supporting with dissemination.

    Tate Library zine collection launch, Tate Britain, 2 August 2019

    Tate Library zine collection launch, Tate Britain, 2 August 2019Photo: Sam Day

    Priorities and Innovation Areas for research

    The following four priorities and two innovation areas for research align with wider institutional urgencies. Research and innovation in these areas will build on Tate’s existing strengths and specific expertise and contribute to ongoing and vital debates in the sector more widely. Research and innovation across Tate will not be confined to these six, however particular attention and resources will be devoted to furthering enquiry and activity in these interconnected, interdepartmental and cross-disciplinary areas. It is understood that digital is an essential feature of all six areas.


    • The global, national and local – interrogating the transnational and resituating British art; its history, generation, acquisition, cataloguing and display
    • Contested museum practices and histories – addressing contemporary concerns including decolonisation, representation, diversity, identity politics, ecology and sustainability; their impact on art museum collections, practices, structures and audiences.
    • Creative learning and new models of participatory practice – interrogating and evidencing the nature and value of learning and engagement with and through art and innovations in museum participation, notably through Tate Exchange and community-focused initiatives at Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool
    • Innovations in collection management, development, conservation and access – addressing the evolving needs of Tate’s diverse collections alongside developments in library and archival practice
    A group of people crouch in a circle facing inwards holding mirrors in front of their faces

    A workshop as part of the Schools and Teachers Summer School, Tate Modern, 2019Photo: Matt Greenwood

    Innovation Areas

    • Innovations in research publishing and discovery – raising the profile, value and accessibility of Tate’s research publications of all types using a wider range of available formats and platforms, digitally and in print
    • Developments in practice-based research – supporting staff as researchers, building the intellectual capacity of the museum, innovating with forms of practice-based research and reflective practice for museum professionals and surfacing and making accessible the varied research practices across Tate

    Published October 2019