How to Write a Research Enquiry to a Museum

Museums are full of great stuff and the job of many museum curators and collections managers is to make museum collections as accessible as possible. Collections are there to be used, not hoarded for  some future end-of-world-saving scenario. Museums receive hundreds of thousands, if not millions of queries a year about the collections they hold from university researchers, students, artists, teachers and members of the public. However, there are a few top tips I’d like to suggest to ensure that your enquiry is as helpful as possible to the people who look after collections and ultimately to help you receive a response. I’ve written previously on the UCL Museums and Collections blog that museums could be a bit more helpful for researchers trying to locate material for their use, currently it’s not necessarily easy or straight forward to match potential users with the people and collections that could be helpful for them. The excellent Ministry of Curiosity wrote a blog post earlier in the year about academics accessing museums ‘Why won’t you respond to my emails and other woes of academics‘ and I’d like to expand on Kristin’s list for everybody who might be writing a query to a museum.

Despite what popular culture will tell you, museums are very busy places and museum professionals are likewise very busy. By writing better email enquiries, you’re more likely to get a quicker response (or a response at all in some cases) and less likely to be buried in the inboxes or put in the email folder ‘to deal with’*. This isn’t to say that all museum curators are precious little flowers that need to be mollycoddled before they’ll co-operate but it’ll go a long way towards a swifter response and you’ll find that many museum professionals will go the extra mile to be helpful and accommodating if you at least treat them like a human being in the first instance. The nature of the job also means that we tend to have long memories and there’s always a ‘war stories round the campfire’ session at post conference liquid fuelled networking sessions so your duff enquiry will be recounted with amusement at best, or you’ll get a reputation for being annoying or someone to be given a wide berth at the very worst.

  1. Be Polite Despite what you may have learned at school, museum people are people too, so please do try to treat them like a real living person even if your query is an email to a large mailing list or network of professionals. Make an effort to use proper sentences. Punctuation is highly rated. Saying please and thank you is basic etiquette and do take the time to introduce yourself before launching into what you need. It’s also recommended that you try to keep all the back and forth correspondence in one email thread rather than sending 12 separate emails, each with different (or no) subject lines. Many of us have to report on the enquiries that we handle and it’s helpful to be able to locate all the information in one email chain rather than digging through a stack of emails over a period of months.
  2. Seriously, Be Polite As a man, I regularly get promoted to a Dr. despite the fact that nowhere have I ever listed myself as being one. I have plenty of female colleagues who get post addressed to ‘Mr’ or ‘Dear Sirs’ (despite having strongly female names), get overlooked by visiting researchers because they were expecting a man (“sorry I’m looking for Dr XXX”) and in one extreme case, colleague Dr Tori Herridge, received post addressed to her and her boss assuming they were a married couple. If you’re not clear how to address someone from their name alone, then best steer clear of gendered language. Yes, the odd faux-pas does happen but when they’re easily avoided, it doesn’t create the best impression.
  3. Be Professional Free email accounts tend to be a lot more flexible than institutional clients however, the email address you set up when you were 14 may have been appropriate back then, but aliases and email addresses like HotLips69 or IHateManU don’t exactly scream ‘person to be taken seriously’ or ‘person to be trusted around irreplaceable museum specimens’. It really helps if you use an email signature too with a bit of information about you. Are you based at a University? Are you a student? Are you a World expert? Or are you a time wasting crank? This extra information can be the difference between a request for more information, a helpful response tailored to your background or none at all in the never-ending drive for efficiency. You’re also representing your institution/group/school/company so assume that it’s not acceptable to start addressing people as darling or mate from the first (any) interaction. Same goes for emoticons and kisses.
  4. Do some research before hand Researchers for television and film can be the worst at this. Most museum folk are more than happy to share their knowledge about their field but then there’s doing your job for you and then there’s taking the piss. If it sounds like you’ve not even bothered to try to refine your question you may find you’ll get a curt response suggesting you come back when you’ve actually Googled it at least. The same goes for useful contacts, we’re not your little black book and it’s painfully clear when you haven’t even looked at a single website to search for an expert in X, Y or Z. If you are a researcher for a media company and really don’t have a clue where to start, I’d suggest asking for a meeting to discuss some ideas rather than demanding a brain download there and then over the phone or in an email. Lastly, if a curator has been helpful, it goes a long way when you give them a credit or a thanks. As I mentioned above, museum folk have long memories and talk to each other which may explain why you’re all of a sudden getting a frosty reception when previously curators were extremely helpful in doing your research for you.
  5. Be Clear As well as being polite, it’s really helpful if you are clear about what you need and why, especially if you are running surveys for a poll or gathering opinions for a research paper. What are you interested in? Are you gathering opinion to try to prove that some races are genetically inferior to others or is it for a government advocacy document? Is this for a thesis or is it research for a blog post? Where will this be published? Will this be fed back? In over ten years of working in museums, I’ve filled out countless surveys, some of which are short and well designed, but I can count on one hand the number of times the results have been shared or the final report sent back to the participants. The clearer you are upfront, the more likely it is that you’ll get a response, otherwise, these kinds of queries are easily ignored.
  6. Give plenty of notice I know of one museum that has a permanent auto reply that states there is a two month back log for dealing with enquiries. Museum professionals don’t sit around doing nothing waiting for your enquiry there are a myriad of other things going on. Most museums are a constantly spinning revolving door of research visitors, public visitors, school groups, exhibitions, tours and volunteers and you can’t be given an appointment to access the collections because the people who organised their visit six months ago are coming in. The longer the notice period the better, not just because there’s a year-round high demand but because for some enquiries, it will take at least some time to organise equipment, contracts  and insurance. Again the media can be particularly bad at this, surprised to find out that it’s not possible to get a leopard skull to the TV studio across the country for 5am the next morning FOR FREE.
  7. You aren’t that important, actually And you’ll find that you’ll be even less important if you mark your emails with URGENT or HIGH PRIORITY if they aren’t genuinely either.
  8. Sometimes we go home. Another popular myth about museum workers is that they are put into a cupboard overnight and sleep upright awaiting to be let out to dust exhibits. You may be surprised to know that actually many of us have lives outside of work so please don’t send emails chasing up enquiries you sent at 4.30pm on Friday afternoon first thing on Monday morning and if you have been given someone’s personal contact details to arrange special access don’t start phoning them up at midnight expecting professional help routinely afterwards (this has happened to me more than once).
  9. Don’t be SPAM If you follow some of the tips above and act like a human being then chances are you’ll be recognised as one by the people you are contacting and email spam filters. Workers at national museums, university museums and local authority museums already receive a huge amount of institutional email as well as spam we get because contact details are publicly available. Consequently, museum spam filters tend to be on the overly cautious side. If from your email address and subject line you’re not obviously a person, then you may find your enquiries go straight to the bin.

These are my top tips for writing research enquiries to museums informed by my personal experience and chatting with colleagues who work in other museums. As I mentioned above, museums could generally be much more helpful than they currently are and I’ll be covering some of the ways they can be in the next blog post. If you work in a museum and have any other tips to help research enquiries to get resolved sooner then drop them in the comments and I’ll add them in above.

* Many museums have responsibilities to look after their holdings for perpetuity so the timescale for dealing with an awkward enquiry could be quite some time…

UPDATE 15/12/2015- Corrected the title of the Ministry of Curiosity blog post!

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2 thoughts on “How to Write a Research Enquiry to a Museum

  1. Pingback: How to be More Helpful to Researchers | Fistful Of Cinctans

  2. Pingback: How and why to cite museum specimens in research | Fistful Of Cinctans

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