Museum Research Visitor Profiles

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…

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Biodiversity Loss On Display

I originally wrote this way back in the alternate dimension of January 2020 and for reasons obvious and less obvious it never went out where I intended it to. I’ve found myself digging it out and sending it to others a few times since though so here’s me finally putting it out there, for ease of finding and sending on, more than anything else.

Public displays in museums are the thinnest veneers both in terms of the number and type of objects you encounter but also because very few museum colleagues get to work on exhibitions, very infrequently. Having said that, they are a very ‘loud’ veneer (mixed metaphors much) designed, as they are, to speak directly to a broad visitor group. I’ve recently been working on and thinking about large scale display changes in museums which come up fairly infrequently but present a lot of challenges, particularly when it comes to the natural world and especially looking at topics like biodiversity. How do you squeeze the vastness of the concept of biodiversity, a topic that is complex, important and flawed, into the finite volume of a display case for a diverse general visitor audience?

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Museums and… Good Exhibitions

Another blogpost shamefully recycled from Twitter, here’s the thread if you wanted to check out the thoughts as they were. I spend a lot of time thinking about exhibitions and they’re kind of a silly format for doing any kind of communication I think. There’s something quite quaint about the notion of “We want to say something important so we’ve put some things in boxes with labels and if you don’t come and see it in this specific time period, well you missed experiencing it as it was intended”. Of course there’s online versions of exhibitions and some museums create excellent catalogues but it’s a thing you have to see or it’s gone! The upside to an exhibition as a form of media is it’s hanging in there as an authored and authoritative medium whereas other modes of communication have all but disappeared inside themselves trying to compete with the likes of spotify, social media, bloggers, infinite hours of free video online etc. that’s all but killed off the music industry, printed news, the book industry and TV respectively. In the BIG SCARE QUOTES post-truth era p’raps there’s a value in being so… so analog.

Inspired by the always slick Wellcome Collections going as far as to publish their inclusive design guidelines alongside their online version of the exhibition and creating a lot of noise around their new ‘permanent exhibitions’ that largely eschew the modern penchant for exhibition gimmickry (museums without objects, objects covered up, exhibitions of light or coloured fog or post-it notes or…)  I tried to put my thoughts about the best kinds of museum exhibitions in my humble opinion. Continue reading

Museums and… Free Admission

As someone whose job is involved with information management and preservation, modern social media is seemingly engineered to fuck this up as much as possible. Google isn’t good at digging through social media platforms (even its own ones) and Twitter’s search tools are abysmal as anyone who has tried to find something they know they saw fleetingly scroll past can testify. In order for easy reference and retrieval before it becomes irretrievable kipple, I’ll be putting some of this stuff here starting with this mini thread on Museums and… Free Admission. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Museum Visit: Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum London

Image of Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition

It’s only when I uploaded this image that I noticed the interesting (and probably expensive) sexy ceiling thing goin’ on there. Note the giant hexagons strewn about. This will be important later on.

Last week I visited Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum, London. I had high hopes for the exhibition as there’s a certain frustration at seeing the same Hollywood Animal exhibitions at natural history museums over and over again. It’s forgivable to think that museums were nothing but dinosaurs, mammoths and fossil humans (as interesting as they are). Did it live up to high (tide) expectations or was it going to be a wash out? READ ON TO FIND OUT NO MORE RUBBISH PUNS I PROMISE. Continue reading