Perhaps one of the least talked about audiences, within the museum sector, are research visitors. Here I don’t discriminate between what makes a researcher a researcher, it could be a titled world expert wanting to study objects, an enthusiastic budding biologist with some specimens to identify or an artist wanting to paint, sketch or draw museum specimens, and everything in between. Basically, all the behind the scenes visitors to museums as opposed to the tourists, day trippers, event attendees, school and university groups.
Facilitating research visits is one of the hidden, often time consuming, yet brilliant parts of museum work. In larger museums it’s a endless troupe (troop, troop?) of visitors and enquiries that can take up half the working year. At smaller museums it may be a quieter flow of enquiring minds a year. I say this work is brilliant because this kind of self-directed access to museums is one of the best things about them and speaks from the heart of a function of museums. We hold this stuff and information about this stuff with a dash of expertise (although many researchers bring their own) for you to access. How can we help you? First-time visitors (although often the first of many) express gratitude and often surprise at the help they receive but, although it may be forgotten or not often shouted about, it’s a big part of what museums are here for and we record and report researchers. In part this use justifies museum’s existence and is an absolutely unique function of them.
In my experience, there is a smidge of snootines sometimes about curation/collections management as service provision, but it is rare. Many museum colleagues go to extraordinary lengths to help enquirers and visitors despite it not especially being the big shouty project work or generate numbers that can in anyway compete with the raw through-the-door numbers, the flawed but unshakeable yardstick that still carriers a lot of the weighting of museums comparative worth. For my money the fact that you should be able to book a visit to any museum, see objects from their collection for reference, study or sheer pleasure is a key part of what they are there for, baked into the ethos of many museum’s founding and a fundamental function of accessibility to human knowledge held for the wider good in theory without cost, discrimination or judgement.
Read on for One and Done-rs, Precocious Prodigies and Inside Cricketers…
The reason why I’ve put fingers to keys on this one is that there is a wealth of audience research in museums looking at visitors and non-visitors, audience evaluation, online visitors etc. but I’ve never seen a breakdown of the kinds of research visitors and direct users of museum collections. This tongue-in-cheek list borrows from the awful visitor profiling technique of grouping audience chunks into theoretical visitor segment profiles (Traditional Culture Vultures, Ladies that Lunch, Urban Arts Eclectic). This list is unashamedly biased to the kinds of direct collection researchers I’ve seen over the years in natural history museums.
The Art Crowd. Broad category this one, architects, painters, photographers, fashion designers, video game developers, prop makers, sculptors and more. Some come to privately practice their chosen art never to be shared or seen by anybody else, others produce works or studies for works that later fill galleries and grace screens. Some come with a vague idea of what they want to study, others come with a laser focus. Some come once. Others, every other week. Can sometimes require some negotiating about expectations and parity, we couldn’t accommodate every Art Crowd researcher with two weeks of hand and foot service even if we’d want to.
Can You Do My Homeworkers? Sometimes a difficult one to deal with, especially when they’re university students… Enthusiastic students who are either trying to cheat the system or exhausted all other lines of inquiry. I think most of us, when it’s clearly a coursework task, try to give them a steer to further information or hints and clues rather than “the answers”. Occasionally it’s clear that a whole class has been given your email address and a comprehensive set of questions to ask a museum curator about. Please, if you are thinking of doing this, check with your friendly neighbourhood curator first so they can manage expectations and also set a sensible length list of questions. It can be exhausting to comprehensively help one student then feel duty bound to help the 49 identical queries that come in shortly after it.
The Collection Referencers. Either sharpening their identification skills, developing their expert eye or wanting to cross reference images, footage or (poorly preserved) field material with the real deal. Here we get the commercial surveyors, art historians, biological recorders and fresh from the field collectors. Can often be overheard exclaiming that “nothing compares to using a reference collection”. Inherently know that labels can’t be trusted. Always welcome back with that attitude.
Don’t Stop Believers. We all get them. Often very long emails from lone truthers who have made connections nobody else can see. May have been in touch with all of your colleagues already and dismissive that they’ve not seen the truth. Overwhelmingly aided by Internet based research. Probably have a garishly coloured website. Mostly harmless. Definitely enquiring minds.
Emergency Services. Rare but occasionally we’ll be approached by emergency services and government bodies needing identification of objects and specimens to aid criminal investigations, medical emergencies and therapeutic treatments. These kinds of enquiries and category of researchers at the sharp end of worthiness and provide a good night’s sleep that all this “useless” information occasionally makes a tangible difference.
Existential Philosophers. From crises of faith to settling pub debates, these can be fun, occasionally harrowing. People earnestly in search of the big answers. Can often involve long back and forths and requires some sensitive mediation and open exchange.
General Public. An oft-criticised clunky catch-all but general public enquiries tend to be people who have sought out the museum with a quick query:- what’s this weird thing? Is this a Rembrandt? Do you want this egg collection? How old is this treasured heirloom? And how does this thing work? They’re genuinely a real pleasure to deal with (when you can get a satisfying and definitive answer less so when you can’t) and provide a steady flow of weird and wonderful reasons to share information, often supported by backup pictures and references from the collections. Some museums get a steady stream of “how much can I flog this for” requests. Many museums run a public enquiries service or have opinion days (many art museums still do this) to support this wonderful civic function.
Inside Cricketers. They’re actually interested in the museum- its history/function/staff/practice! Here be a thousand cultural heritage degree surveys, sector bodies undertaking research and consultancy or colleagues looking to share advice and experience. I deal with these with aplomb knowing that many pay it forward. I’ve done my fair share of asking so it’s my turn to answer. Extremely rarely, surveyors share their final research reports. Get one of these about human remains about once a fortnight. University library shelves must creek with the same dissertation written a thousand times over.
Local Historians. Often come at you with factlets about the museum and local history you weren’t previously aware of, often hot on the trail of family history, putting together walking tours or working on self published pamphlets and booklets. Veritable fonts of knowledge on extremely esoteric subjects. Very often confident in approaching museums and fondly recall a research visit from years ago. These kinds of researcher visitors really stress the importance of locally focused collections and the importance of a museum that occasionally centres what’s on its own doorstep rather than competing with everyone else for national or global importance.
No Stone Unturneders Rare beasts but a group of researchers I am particularly fond of. They’re on single minded missions to canvas museums far and wide to personally inspect every single specimen of species X or work of art by artist Y. Often amazing experts who teach us a thing or two about getting our eye in and very often generously leave the museum with a raft of new identifications and corrected old ones to update catalogues with as well as flag up important objects otherwise assumed to be quotidian (largest, oldest, best preserved etc.). Many have been on their mission for decades if not longer and some come back to double check something they may have missed. Museums do not make it easy for people to do this, to find examples of their chosen hunted prey and the time and travel to museums to see them is a privilege few can afford. Can be well-funded students blazing a trail or the independent researcher putting together a magnum opus on the topic. NSUrs I salute you and the work you do, generously shared, often outshining museum’s own attempts at connecting collections.
One and Done-rs. Second in volume perhaps only to general public enquiries, one and done-rs (not doners) quite simply have a specific request, turn up, get what they need and go away again. Includes many higher education students and researchers, commercial researchers and experimental artists. Short, sharp bursts of museum research. Will actually acknowledge you when they publish.
Precocious Prodigies. Early obsessives often accompanied by bewildered parents who will give you a “where does she get this stuff from?” glance as they reel off obscure facts or come out with deep philosophical questions. High chance you’ll see them again for work experience, as a volunteers, undergraduate, postgraduate and eventually esteemed expert. Will make you feel old as you remember when they came in as a nipper.
Sample Collectors. We get these a lot of these in natural history collections but art history and archaeology variants exist. They’re sampling (sometimes destructively) to build a database, run an analysis or answer a wide ranging question on topic X, Y and Z. Could be DNA, dendrochronology, isotopes, materials or measurements. Often well versed in the ins-and-outs of museum procedures for these kinds of things and once again, will actually read the small print on your forms and share their work when it has an output!
Subsidising Media. Fewer words strike fear when dealing with researchers than “I’m from a documentary company…”. Strange group of researchers who still use a telephone. Will ring without forewarning and want to sponge your brain dry of ideas for their next documentary/Guardian article project. Don’t expect a credit when the very thing you suggested hits the small screen 2-3 years later. Some are earnestly trying to rapidly get up to speed on a new-to-them-topic and make sure they’ve got it straight. Some, it is clear, didn’t even give it a Google first. A sub-category here is “we’re-filming-down-in-Devon-tomorrow-afternoon-can-we-borrow-the-Mona-Lisa-for-a-scene-we’ll-give-you-a-credit(you’ll have to, it’s contracted)-we-don’t-have-a-budget. The Golden Rule here is the more you bend over backwards to help these kinds of projects the less you’ll get out of it.
The Writer’s Block. Often a very narrow demographic of established authors doing a museum book. No matter how your interview or chat goes will assuredly depict you as an eccentric oddball (sometimes vaguely accurately) call your stores dusty and marvel at the pickled heads in jars they didn’t see. 50-50 chance they’ll get your name or the museum’s name right.
Did I miss a few archetypes? Are any of these empowered by online databases? How do we genuinely turn more people into museum researchers? Thoughts, comments and questions or leave a comment if you have your own research visitor category.
UPDATE 08/04/2021. What’s the word for not being able to spot typos and grammatical errors until you publish it? Fixed some of those. The rest are a deliberate in-joke or secret code.