Professor Chris Whitehead (University of Newcastle) came to working with museums and sites after a first degree in art history, which took him to museum studies and into collaborations both at national and international level. These fields, as he pointed out, rarely have clearly defined boundaries. His talk took shape around his experience over many years of working together with museums, and around giving an honest account of the challenges that such work presents. This summary of Chris’ talk is based on the features that surprised or resonated with someone who has to date only very limited experience of working with museums.
Challenges of bringing the world of academe and of museum practitioners together
Collaborators on all sides need to be aware of the often conflicting interests – those of the academic keen to ‘collaborate’, the home HE institution of the academic and the museum/heritage sector institution, and often there are sub-groups with important agendas within each partner group. Thus: time scales, audiences that are hard to reach, conservation issues, existing/tried and tested and hence efficient ways of working, audience requirements, media interest, annual report to the trustees for the museum sector, whereas for HEIs it is REF outputs and targets, different time scales of working/research time, academic integrity (e.g. critical stance to a museum; freedom to express an unpopular view)… along with factors such as admin support for academic leads, and harvesting insights over a longer term.
Often both sides realise that there are benefits to collaborating but especially for the museum sector, previous experiences of getting bad publicity as a result of having been made the focus of academic study or lack of buy-in from some of the museum staff may make future collaborations very difficult.
Challenges of working ‘internationally’
Deadlines for funding applications are often tight and information routinely demanded (e.g. about the collaborative partner institution) is potentially difficult to establish, or difficult to ascertain. Thus local government spokespersons may not ultimately be the people who have to be involved in the work itself. Hierarchies and other divisions and work practices (potentially at odds with accepted UK standards) may not be evident until the grant permits further visits.
Chris’ talk highlighted the many levels of challenges, such as communication, local historic conflicts between ethnic groups, bureaucracy and linguistic, encountered when working on a large project based in Istanbul. The reality of what he and his co-workers encountered once in situ made it expedient to treat research plans flexibly; at the same time opportunities materialised that had not been foreseeable whilst at the drafting stages for the funding application.
Depending on where in the world the collaboration takes place, some grants may involve development assistance to countries that might be called ‘developing world’ – or grants may be treated as such by local authorities.
Challenges of making the work count
Since the objectives are often very different (e.g. a new exhibition room, an exhibition for the museum, which have to fit into rigid time scales, and a book/publication or ‘impact’ for the academic collaborator, equally rigid but working to a different cycle) it struck this observer that the full realisation of all and any of the potential benefits may be difficult to manage. Short-term contacts for research staff supporting a large-scale project will mean that they disappear and will be busy with the next short-term project, unable to contribute to post-project legacy analysis.
Whilst the over-riding impression was of how challenging collaborative work with the museum sector can be, it was also clear that these do not outweigh the rewards for all parties concerned. The work had been life-changing for all concerned in at least some of the projects; quite possibly because everybody had been forced to go outside their comfort zone to make it happen in the end.
Professor Whitehead’s slides are available on the History UK website (see below). Personally, his talk and those of the other plenary speakers highlighted to what extent successful collaboration can only grow out of longer term relationships between a HEI and a museum/heritage sector institution, to ensure that there is sufficient knowledge and understanding of what will work in practice.
Event programme and additional information: https://www.history-uk.ac.uk/sample-page/2017-plenary-working-together-in-research-and-teaching/?subscribe=success#blog_subscription-2 .
‘Chris is the co-ordinator of the EU funded project CoHERE: The EU-funded CoHERE project, a €2.5million Horizon 2020 study into European Heritages and Identities, working with 11 other organisations across Europe.’
Karin Dannehl, EHS co-opted member to History UK