Is this me (us)?

I feel that I ought to open with a disclaimer. I am sometimes an educator and sometimes a researcher. One of the things I like about being an educator is the balance of control and improvisation. I am a bodger of makeshift solutions to immediate and temporary problems; an improviser of responses to unforeseen questions. I shy away from the term, ‘creative’. I am not an artist.

So, I was slightly bewildered to experience a sense of recognition when reading a paper on arts practice as research. ‘Bursting paradigms: a colour wheel of practice-research’ (Hope, 2016) looks at the different ways that arts practice and research intersect. She expands the (apparently) traditional distinctions of research into, through and as (for) arts practice into a six-fold spectrum of possibilities.

Hope is looking at arts practices as a research paradigm in the UK and the issues that people have been wrestling with over the last couple of decades. “When framing practice as research there is a tendency to foreground the process. How and why am I going about this and how does it relate to other processes of trying things out in a similar way?” One of the challenges with this is that it foregrounds certain ways of knowing and of communicating that knowledge that don’t necessarily fit well with the academic focus on the written word.

The point where I started to recognise myself, and the work of other museums staff, was where Hope starts to talk about the way that artist-researchers work. “A common thread that perhaps [runs] through practice-research is one where methodologies emerge because of the practice, rather than prior to it. […] [When research starts with practice] questions and methodology emerge through making, doing, and testing things out. Searching might therefore be iterative, improvised, and intuitive resulting in cyclical or reciprocal research dynamics rather than always focusing on searching for the answers to a predefined question.” Later, Hope notes that “practitioner-researchers “do not merely ‘think’ their way through or out of a problem, but rather they ‘practice’ to a resolution””. This last bit feels like a lot of education work – iterating round to a working solution when faced with new challenges or new audiences.

Doesn’t this describe the work that museums’ staff are engaged in as they explore how to work with people with dementia?

I’ve had a couple of lovely conversations with staff at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter about their on-going work in this area. This feels like a good description of what they are doing. And the Active Ageing Officers at Beamish. And, almost certainly, others.

Hope goes on to discuss research paradigms. A research paradigm underlies the ontology, epistemology, and methodology that a researcher might sign up to. It gives clues as to where, philosophically, the researcher is coming from, defined as a shared set of “beliefs and values, laws, and practices which govern a community of practitioners”. […]  “Existing research paradigms include a positivist worldview, which implies research is scientifically verifiable and can be proved or disproved, [and] a non-positivist understanding, implying situated knowledge that acknowledges subjectivity of the researcher and the significance of context. […] How a researcher relates to these different ways of viewing the world will depend on the discipline they are coming from and the focus of their research. Practice-research is often aligned to a non-positivist tradition that uses a qualitative methodology.”

It has to be said that communities of researchers and communities of educators are perhaps less reflexive of their own ontologies and epistemologies than they might be. (Though, to be fair, I usually have to get my dictionary out to make sure I understand what epistemologies are, before I work up to reflecting on my own.) I also find this personally challenging as I was initially trained in a positivist worldview and am trying to cross-over into a non-positivist tradition. (Painful!) However, as Hope notes, while “ontologies might be distinct, approaches, discoveries, and research questions might overlap and interweave.”

It seems that arts-based research paradigms still face various challenges. One is how to establish validity. Another is that, in some cases, “the practice becomes the research itself, rather than a description or illustration of the research”, which means that interested others must engage “with the practice not just a writing-up of the practice.” This is something else I’m trying to get my head around at the moment – how do you effectively share good, creative practice when so much of that practice is based on tacit knowledge? Finally, Hope finds that “practice is not trusted [within academia] […] the dominant paradigms remain intact with a polite nod to alternative ways of working.” I suspect that the same could be true of the various funding and political agencies that museums work with in order to support their work.

On the whole though, it strikes me that this idea of the practitioner-researcher is something that I can usefully appropriate for my own work and one which helpfully re-frames a lot of the work that I see going on in the museums sector, nationally & internationally.

Reference

Hope, S. (2016) Bursting paradigms: a colour-wheel of practice-research. Cultural Trends, 25(2), 74 – 86

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About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
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