How to be More Helpful to Researchers

My last post was a ‘How To’ for researchers of all walks of life to write an enquiry to a museum. I’ve mentioned in a previous post for UCL Museums and Collections Blog about the foibles of finding and accessing museum specimens (specifically natural history museum in the UK) and I’d like to expand on that in this post. Accessibility and relevance of collections is enshrined in many museum’s ethos, founding principles or strategy yet as a museum researcher on occasion, as well as someone who works in a museum, the sector can make it very hard to link the people who would be users with collections. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a number of researchers who have had a poor response from museum enquiries, even well structured ones, and I’ve got a three year old and one year old enquiry lodged somewhere in the pipes at two well known UK National Museums. With ever present pressure on resources within the sector as well as a need to justify why we need to plough resources into maintaining vast collections, here are a few things I think we could do, to get those collections better used.

  1. Crap Websites If there’s perhaps one thing you could get unanimous agreement on across the museum sector, it is that our websites are in part or perhaps altogether a bit crap. Most of them are cobbled together from projects with a bit of funding for ‘webpages’ here and there, developed in fits and starts by a multitude of different people all of which probably had different remits and objectives. We’ve also got the problem in that most website users will be people looking to visit the museum displays. As a consequence, very few museum websites are geared towards research visitors who want to access the stored collections. One of the most frustrating aspects, I find, is trying to find an actual person to contact and for medium to large museums, if you do find a staff list, you have to be familiar with the esoteric administrative divisions of the institution as well as job titles, which in museums, is infamously opaque. As one an example, there are countless others, have a look at the Natural History Museum staff directory to see the diversity of job titles and divisions and that’s just within one of four departments. Some people are listed as ‘Museum Scientist’, some are just ‘Curator’ others are ‘Collections Managers’ without indication of which collections, some helpfully have a more descriptive title with birds, reptiles etc. in the title and others are incredibly specific- Senior Curator, Phthiraptera and Thysanoptera (my colleague Paul Brown). Thankfully most museums have a general enquiries contact to save you having to get a postgraduate qualification just to interpret job titles however….
  2. General enquiries Is there anyone responsible for looking at the general enquiries email account? I know of two museums, where for a while, there wasn’t anyone responsible for making sure that general enquiries were passed on to relevant colleagues. Even if you do have someone with this role however….
  3. Does anyone know what you do? Aside from the smallest museums, most museum services will employ tens to hundreds of members of staff with many roles changing on a yearly basis through staff leaving, projects ending, organisational restructures and casual staff contracts. Does the person or people responsible for dealing with enquiries on the phone, in person or through the general enquiries account (e.g. front of house staff)  know what everyone does? In my experience both in front of and behind the scenes, it’s obviously not feasible for any one individual to know what everyone does, so is there a parsing document or guide to help narrow it down? Can this be be made available outside the museum to give people a chance of working out who looks after the collections they want to see?
  4. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence One thing that researchers I’ve interacted with have found helpful is to receive a response to a query, particularly queries to mailing lists or research networks, even if there isn’t relevant material.This helps to narrow down the number of institutions that will need to be systematically approached and allows more accurate quantification and qualification of the proportion of collections visited and researched be it Jacobian jockstraps, playing cards or chimpanzees. No response at all could mean there is material, there isn’t material or we don’t know if there is or isn’t material.
  5. Transparency Again, from talking to museum based researchers and being one, it’s more useful to be transparent about enquiries which may be difficult or impossible to respond to rather than to not respond at all. Perhaps cuts has meant that there’s nobody to respond to an enquiry, perhaps the material is lost or is going to be inaccessible for a number of years due to a redevelopment project, poor condition or flooding. In some cases, it may be that certain enquiries aren’t ever going to be directly responded to due to institutional priorities, in which case there should be published…
  6. Policy or Guidance Does current resourcing and prioritisation mean that members or the public or undergraduate students won’t be admitted to the collections? Are there parts of the collections which are not available to be loaned ever or for a fixed period of time? Are there parts of the collection that are so heavily requested that priorities have to be managed for funded research projects? If there is a policy or guidance document, communicating or publishing it will save time and lead to a lot less frustration from researchers trying to find it or making enquiries only to find they wouldn’t have been able to access collections in any case. Furthermore, by having a dialogue with users, it may be that researchers can work with museums to build a case for advocacy or funding to help make material accessible or to justify a post to make the material accessible in other ways.
  7. I can’t help you but I know someone who can I suspect that most of us do this already but there’s some evidence to suggest it doesn’t happen as often as it should. If for whatever reason, you can’t help a researcher either because you don’t have the material they are looking for or there’s restricted access on material, why not recommend other institutions that may be able to help. Additionally, if collections won’t be accessible for a collections move or refurbishment approach colleagues in other museums to ask if they would be keen to be listed on email auto-replies. However, it’s important to let the museum know that you are being suggested as a contact point, unlike one example I’ve heard of, where a collections manager was inundated overnight because unbeknown to them, they’d been suggested as a redirect by a very large National UK museum….

Are there any researchers or museum professionals who have other bright ideas for making museums more accessible to our research communities, from scientists to artists to members of the public? If so drop a line in the comments and I’ll add it to the list.

One thought on “How to be More Helpful to Researchers

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

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