Tate Encounters


Editor for this Issue:
Victoria Walsh

[E]dition Five: Reflecting on Reflexivity and the Transdisciplinary

In the editorial of the last [E]dition, published in October 2008, Tate Encounters articulated a position of 'post-critical museology' which proposed a trajectory towards a new model of research practice that, while recognising the significant contribution of recent museological studies, identified the limits of engagement with and influence this body of work has had upon the museum itself. The core of this argument rested upon the recognition of the separation of knowledge constructed by theory outside of the museum in the academy on the one hand and on the other, the instrumentalised knowledge of the museum produced by the vocational ethos of museum studies courses.

The perspective that Tate Encounters adopted, as an embedded, interdisciplinary and collaborative project, focused on bringing the substantive work of the academy into closer alignment with the everyday contingent practices of the museum as much as to bring the concerns of the museum into closer discursive alignment and engagement with the knowledge and expertise of different academic disciplines, many of which have themselves remained differentiated within the academy itself. As a consequence of this stance, Tate Encounters had to be alive to its own potential to falter and fall into prescriptive research practice, framed by academic or museological interests. As Arjun Appadurai has noted of academic research:

"What do we mean when we speak today of research? ... Like other cultural keywords, [research] is so much part of the ground on which we stand and the air we breathe that it resists conscious scrutiny. In the case of the idea of research, there are two additional problems. First, research is virtually synonymous with our sense of what it means to be scholars and members of the academy, and thus it has the invisibility of the obvious. Second, since research is the optic through which we typically find out about something as scholars today, it is especially hard to use research to understand research." (Appaadurai, 1999)

The research team consistently addressed this potential methodological pitfall by adopting a highly reflexive-interpretive approach to research design and analysis using enhanced participant modeling and dialogic data gathering during the fieldwork period. In contrast to critical museology's project of 'revealing' power-knowledge relations within the institution, Tate Encounters identified itself with what Alvesson and Skoldberg have described as 'R-reflexivity': reconstructive reflexivity as opposed to 'D-Reflexivity', which seeks to deconstruct its object of attention. As they state:

"R-refexivity is about developing and adding something. It means bringing in issues of alternative paradigms, root metaphors, perspectives, vocabularies, lines of interpretation, political values and representations; re-balancing and reframing voices in order to interrogate and vary data in a more fundamental way. R-reflexive practices are employed to illuminate what is left out and marginalized: the (almost) missed opportunity, premature framing, the reproduction of received wisdom, a re-enforcement of power relations and unimaginative labeling. They provide alternative descriptions, interpretations, results, vocabularies, voices and points of departure that could be taken into account, and show some of the differences that they would make. R-reflexivity aims to open up new avenues, paths and lines of interpretation to produce 'better' research ethically, politically, empirically and theoretically." (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000)

A major component of the Tate Encounters fieldwork that aimed to test and open out to public scrutiny this approach was a month-long programme of public discussions with seventy-two project participants and contributors that took place in the galleries of Tate Britain from February to March 2009. Each week of this programme, 'Research in Process', centred on a key theme that underpinned the project's set of research questions and emergent findings: the role and impact of gallery education; the space and place of digital technology within curatorial and museological practice; the status of difference within the formation and practice of cultural diversity policy; and, the nature of the 'encounter' with Tate Britain by the project's student co-researchers. (Recordings of all the discussions can be accessed at http://process.tateencounters.org/)

While [E]dition 6 will report on the final research findings of Tate Encounters, this edition builds on the 'Research in Process' by extending the invitation to two of the programme's external session chairs, Peter Ride and Raimi Gbadamosi, to reflect, from their own practitioner perspectives, on what emerged of interest and value to them. In addition, two of the student participant/co-researchers, Cinta Esmel Pamies and Aminah Borg-Luck, contribute articles generated from their encounter with Tate Britain during the fieldwork period. As with Cinta Pamies' article derived from her BA dissertation on the marketing practices of Tate, Silaja Suntharalingham also contributes an article from her MA dissertation (Leicester) 'Tate Triennial 2009: Defining Cross-cultural Strategies at Tate Britain' which inherently built on her own first-hand experience of working at Tate Britain and witnessing various curatorial developments and discussions unfold around the ideas and practices of cultural diversity and its relation to concepts of Britishness and the global. 

In seeking to open up further questions of the consequences of the separation of knowledge practices and production between the academy and the museum, the project also secured generous contributions in the form of extended ethnographic, semi-structured, interviews from three leading academics in the fields of the sociology of race, cultural policy and art history: Les Back, Tony Bennett and Donald Preziosi. While each of these contributions offers insights and reflections from individually specific disciplines, a notable set of common concerns and themes usefully emerges in terms of a critically reflexive enquiry into the relation between the categorizing processes of art and culture with: nationalism, racism and modernism; the production, spatialisation and usefulness of discipline-led knowledge; and, the processes of globalization and digital development that new forms of cultural and capital flow are bringing within the sphere of culture itself.  What these contributions collectively reveal is the level of disconnection between the lived contingencies of everyday life and practice, its conditions, struggles and contradictions, with the totalizing accounts of art and culture that are generated by disciplinary knowledge and theory, and subsequently taken up by cultural institutions, including the museum. The questions that inherently arise from this centre around how can ambiguity, complexity and contradiction be valued and understood within a theory of practice and a practice of theory which is a necessary condition if a materialization and reidentification of the social within the public cultural realm is to be realized.

For Donald Preziosi fundamental questions need to be revisited about what constitutes the idea of art and indeed what motivations informed the European invention of the category and 'phantasm' of art which art history has worked in conjunction with to produce 'paradigms of difference'. As art history has perpetuated these paradigms, the need to ask the question 'who benefits' has become more urgent, and, despite the proliferation of museum building and museum studies, the question of how to 'step off the carousel' persists, calling into question not just the practice of art history, but the role of the museum as part of the interpretive machinery that sustains difference through its 'stagecraft' of display. In engaging with these issues, alternative disciplines such as 'artisanal anthropology' offer for Preziosi a way forward by reconnecting the idea of art with the processual knowledge of the artistry that produces it. Inherent within this move is a challenge to the predominant aesthetic mode of the art museum's modernist reification of the art object.

As Raimi Gbadamosi argues in his paper 'Scuffles in the Cathedral', despite the promise and ambition of the Tate Encounters project, from his role as an external commentator on the student co-researchers' visual documentation of their encounter with Tate Britain, the pervasive category of art within the museum undercut the value of their work as research as they 'inevitably became involved in the discourses of art' and their 'interventionist capabilities' were 'eroded (not completely)'; or as Gbadamosi puts it, 'Tate performs its magic.' But as he also argues, a more complex account of what might constitute Britishness also emerged through the co-researchers' ethnographic accounts, which, moving beyond an engagement with art solely in terms of the politics of representation, suggests what could be gained in the recognition of multiple readings of works held in Tate Britain: 'It was important to see other possibilities for Britishness that were not apologetic or self-conscious in their incarnation. Understanding these new narratives are important in understanding modes of consumption, recognising that the multiple reading of the same artefact no longer simply means foreign-ness. And that disparate readings do not necessarily mean opposition to ideas of Britishness, it may simply indicate codes of new ownership.'

Aminah Borg-Luck's reflexive account of her participation in Tate Encounters, as one of the student co-researchers, describes and embraces the value of contradiction as she unravels her conflicted and conflicting journey through both Tate Britain and the Tate Encounters project, noting that: 'I had the feeling that Britishness was both irrelevant and integral to me, that I absolutely was and was not Finnish and that the awe that the Tate Britain building encouraged was both off-putting and dazzling. I believed the very contradiction of all the contradictory impulses I had was worth pausing on as it offered its own insight.' Reflecting on the initial perception and avid rejection of the project's 'call' on racialised identities, Borg-Luck works through her own subtle and complex negotiation of her personal background and relationship to the framing and politics of identity through the discussion of her two films 'Lie Back and Think of England' and 'A Bit Himalyean', noting 'that as identities (national, personal, other) tend to be in a constant state of flux, attempting to locate any fixed or stable Britishness in Tate Britain's galleries was hugely problematic'.

This negotiation between concepts of difference and Britishness, between diversity and the nation-state, reflected in cultural diversity policies of the last decade, invariably leads to the questions that Gbadamosi identifies as the political backdrop of Tate Encounters: 'How much difference is too much? What sort of difference is immediately desired. How does one identify useful difference?'  But as Les Back argues in his interview, the ground on which to begin to discuss such questions has been overlaid by political narratives of Britishness and arguments for social cohesion and integration that have obscured and elided the 'infinite traces' of history which need to be mined in order to produce a 'better understanding of British culture'. With reference to Salman Rushdie's observation, 'History happened abroad for the British', Back's questions turn on 'is an integrated society always good?' and 'what makes a good society?', noting the etymological roots of 'integrate' are 'to make like'. But as Back also discusses, a significant disjuncture between the value of academic knowledge and debate on race and nationalism and its impact on both policy and the 'ordinariness of everyday life' is notable, highlighting the degree to which the usefulness of such knowledge is dependent on the 'politics of reception'. In this respect, Back echoes a point also made by Preziosi, that while much knowledge and debate has over the last twenty to thirty years been embraced and engaged with through conferences and public events, including within the museum, such discussions including those of Post-colonnialsim in the 1980s, represented too much of a 'quick win' in the cultural realm, leaving the terms of reference essentially contained at the level of discussion, rather than producing change at the level of practice or institutional policy.

At sobering points in their interviews both Back and Bennett claim that the forces of racism and conditions of social inequality have never been so redolent in the UK following over a decade of New Labour government. For Back, New Labour 'completed Thatcher's project of profound individualism', while for Bennett the Party's consistent denial of the role of Class subsumed class difference within policies of social cohesion that inevitably led to 'deficit' models of cultural access, rather than an acknowledgement and engagement with social difference on its own terms, thus exacerbating social division.  But as Back reflects, the role that Sociology has historically played in the formation of cultural policy has also contributed to political confusion around how to approach the relation between race and nationalism, as 'massively political struggles about the terms of reference' in the 1980s became part of the problem not the solution, leading to the current dilemma of how to find 'another way to talk about Britishness that can face the past without guilt.' Furthermore, the prevalence within Sociology to think of nationalism in relation to the nation-state, to regard the State as the basic unit of Sociology, dis-acknowledges the need to 'look across' and understand the complex conditions and lived reality of post-colonnial and more recent global migration. In failing to make these connections through a 'methodological nationalism', theories of the global are being generated and embraced that further dislocate knowledge from the conditions of struggle in which they are socially and culturally grounded.

While discussions of globalization concern Bennett, the need to scrutinize the processes of governance at the social level remain a primary concern in understanding the agency which cultural institutions hold in contemporary culture. Retracing the origins of his interests in museums, Bennett discusses his emerging skepticism of cultural studies in the 1980s, which while recognising the importance of figures such as Stuart Hall, left him unconvinced that the spatially separated out politics of resistance could intervene and change the flow of cultural capital.  Pursuing a project to identify the institutional mechanism of policy processes, his pivotal role in the creation of cultural policy studies led to a direct engagement with museums as sites of cultural production that need to be better understood as complex organizations of different value systems within the public realm, rather than simple monolithic organizations. To this end, he reflects on the role and potential of collaboration between the academy and the museum and the potential to create a new paradigm of the public intellectual which moves beyond the political technology of the academic intellectual, issuing truths from above as a privileged 'seer'. As he concludes, what is needed is a different framing of the social than critical sociology has hitherto offered, which in part is answered by Bruno Latour's call for the development of flat ontologies of the social; a model that can recognize the museum as a network of practices and flows within and without, connecting it to the public and social, the national and global. In this respect, Latour’s project of 're-assembling' and 'retracing the social' has offered Tate Encounters a useful methodological counterpoint to critical museology, by reconnecting the cultural and the social through the opening out of the relationship between the viewer and the work of art, museum practice and policy, the everyday and theory without prioritizing any one position or account. As Latour writes:

"… in the old paradigm you had to have a zero-sum game – everything lost by the work of art was gained by the social, everything lost by the social had to be gained by the 'inner quality' of the work of art – in the new paradigm you are allowed a win-win situation: the more attachments the better … the more ‘affluence’ the better. It is counter-intuitive to try and distinguish 'what comes from the viewers' and 'what comes from the object' when the obvious response is 'to go with the flow'. Object and subject might exist, but everything interesting happens upstream and downstream. Just follow the flow. Yes, follow the actors themselves or rather that which makes them act, namely the circulating entities." (Latour, 2005)

As Andrew Dewdney noted in the Editorial to [E]dition 4 titled 'Post-critical Museology', it has been through the mixed methodology and practice of Tate Encounters as a transdisciplinary, embedded project, defined by critical reflexivity, that 'we have crept up on this larger and more abstract politics of culture not through polemic, but through the embedded and engaged process of 'narrating ourselves' within and towards the institution. Our stock of research practices have developed from the continuing encounter with the institution, what it is to be there, how that feels, how we engage, what responses we receive.'

It is from a position within Tate Britain also that Silaja Suntharalingam contributes her paper 'Tate Triennial 2009: Positioning Global Strategies at Tate Britain' which discusses how the museum is grappling with the issues of Britishness, nationalism, migration and identity within a political and cultural arena of debate around multiculturalism, diversity and the global. As Suntharalingam acknowledges in her introduction, her paper is subject to values she has adopted through her position of work at Tate Britain (now located in the Development Department), but equally draws on her first hand experience of working in the Education department and being closely networked to the Tate Encounters project and the Cross-cultural programme. As an exhibition, Tate Britain's triennial is aimed at putting the spotlight on the contemporary condition of British art, but in the hands of the external curator Nicolas Bourriaud the 2009 Triennial also came to represent a provocative intervention into discussions of what constitutes and defines the category of British art, and by implication Britishness. As Suntharalingam notes: 'For Bourriaud, contemporary British art at this moment is defined by an alternative form of modernity which supercedes postmodernism. In his definition, artists are no longer bound to cultural roots, singular artistic practices or linear histories, but rather free to to roam across boundaries and practices, locating their work in fluid 'cross-cultural, cross-border negotiations', which he defines using a new term 'altermodern'. The key points of the manifesto [Bourriaud on the 'altermodern'] are that "Multiculturalism and identity is being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture" and "Artists are responding to a new globalised perception. They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication." '

For Suntharalingam, the arguments of Bourriaud's 'Altermodern' exhibition coincide with a recognition at the level of practice within the museum for the need to move beyond static notions of identity tagging and labeling, reflected in the work of the Learning Department at Tate Britain, the formation of a working group 'Tate for All', and in the research work of Tate Encounters, leading her to conclude that 'In order to continue to reflect the ever-changing culture outside the gallery walls, the 'global' at Tate Britain should retain a discursive, self-reflexive and critical approach across all areas of work, in order to avoid definitions of culture becoming static', and to meet the gallery's mission statement of 'reflecting the world in Britain and Britain into the world.' The account put forward by Suntharalingam can perhaps be usefully read as an encouraging counter-point to Les Back's discernment of a growing sense of 'melancholic nationalism' that is seen to be emerging within different strata of British cultural life and society.

Not unsurprisingly, the majority of contributors to this edition touch upon the impact of the world wide web and the development of digital technology on the experience of identity and access to culture. But while Tony Bennett recognizes new counter-flows of cultural capital at the global level, Donald Preziosi is less optimistic about the democratizing claims of new technology, noting his encounter with 'artistic concentration camps' in the middle of the Australian desert where artists are being trained to reproduce and imitate forms and styles of artistic production already taken up by the international art market. Peter Ride's paper, reflecting on the week of discussions on the relation between the museum and Web 2 in the Research in Process programme, however, opens up a far-ranging discussion from what is the relationship between newness and innovation, the changing spatialisation of knowledge, the challenge to institutional ordering of knowledge and information, and the conflict between authority and expertise and public participation. What emerges throughout this discussion, however, is the degree to which the museum’s need to engage with and respond to the interactive nature of the web has forced open a series of difficult questions and recognitions that, despite some deep knowledge of ‘core visiting audiences' gained through market research and visitor studies, fundamental issues about the nature of the encounter between the work of art and the 'public' which have historically been suspended and displaced by the modernist art museum (in its self-dislocation from the social) now need addressing. As Ross Parry states, 'We don't take that big step back and ask what is meant by 'public' and 'society' and how they fit together. We are so used to using industry shorthand that we don't trouble ourselves to ask the philosophic questions.'

For James Davis, Online Collection Editor, the challenge for the museum rests on the fact that 'in creating an interactive website you are creating tools and services, not information. So you have to ask what people want.' Continuing to quote Davis, Peter Ride's paper returns us in part to Preziosi's starting point of how the category of art (and its corollary art history) functions and to whose benefit, for, as Davis notes, to take up the interactive nature of the Web 'leads to an ontological debate. If we allow ourselves to say that the reproduction online or in any other media may have as much value as an original artwork we allow that audience to change on a fundamental level.' In short, paradigms of difference are potentially relocated to the public sphere rather than formed and contained within the closed parameters of professionalized practice and knowledge. For Ride, the challenges presented by the digital to the museum are not just of interest in relation to the specificity of the medium, but rather 'it may be to think how the institution changes in its approach to change itself. If it maintains a position of irreconcilable differences or if it finds an approach to negotiate them.'

Finally, Cinta Esmel Pamies' paper 'Into the Politics of Museum Audience Research' brings together and traces the emergence of the 'public' as audience in museum culture in the UK over the last twenty years, resituating a history of Visitor Studies and Market research practice at Tate within museological and cultural policy analyses of the relation between the State, governance, accountability, and the rise of consumer-orientated modeling of audiences within corporate strategies. This empirical account is, however, framed within a personal counter narrative of resistance and skepticism which Pamies describes: 'Explicitly and implicitly combining media theory, museum studies, sociology, visitor studies, philosophy and political philosophy, this extended paper is considered a piece of ritual resistance. Using and adapting the academic setting inevitably connected to the imposition of shared cultural norms, this piece aims to increase reflexive awareness of the fundamental sources which cause the previously stated feelings of exclusion and oppression upon entering an art museum.'

This is a position that emerged for Pamies through her participation in the Tate Encounters project as one of the student co-researchers and her subsequent detailed research (which formed her BA dissertation) into the practice, policy and theory of audience research and development within the UK museum sector, taking Tate Britain as a case study.

Perhaps what mostly typifies all of these contributions is a desire for a more complex, open-ended method of enquiry, analysis and telling of the historical formation and contemporary experience of the relation between the contingencies, pleasures and struggles of lived experience with the continuities of meaning-making and interpretation that cultural and academic processes of knowledge-production seal off behind what Preziosi calls 'the firewall of the Enlightenment'.  In bringing together in this edition reflective contributions from participants, practitioners and experts, including the disciplines of Sociology, Art History, Cultural Policy, Digital Media, Museology and Cultural Studies, the hope is to bring the questions and issues of Tate Encounters that they all connect to, into a common discursive realm that can produce knowledge and insights of as much interest and value to the museum as to academic debate. In attempting to move beyond the position of Critical Museology, to that of a practice-based theory of the museum, what the project has proposed as Post-Critical Museology, the hope and ambition is that a restaging of the central problematic of missing audiences, audiences constructed by paradigms of difference, can be relocated in the missing account from within the museum. By focusing on the connections and disconnections in the network of practices within the museum, between the museum and the academy, and between the public realm of the everyday with the public realm of the museum, the attempt is made to open out an analysis of the relationships between the marginalized diasporic viewer and the work of art in order to build a situated account of the encounter rather than the conceptualized one of theorized discourse or the statistical or conceptual one of policy.


Alvesson, M. & Sköldberg, K. (2000) Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research, (2009) London, Sage, 313

Appadurai, A, 'Globalisation and the Research Imagination'. International Social Science Journal, 51, no. 160, 229-38; 233

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. (2007) paperback edition, Oxford:  Oxford University Press