Research – the museum’s key to creating new knowledge from collections

By Jane Legget, Head of Research, Auckland War Memorial Museum

How can museums unlock the intellectual value of their collections to contribute new knowledge? Understanding current thinking about material culture studies can help museum staff to develop their own collections-based research and better support and serve visiting researchers of all kinds.

Research on collections is an integral part of the daily responsibilities of many working with, and around, our museum collections—but what do we really mean by ‘research’? And how can we best use the, often unique, knowledge resources held by our museums? What kinds of questions do collection items and taonga raise? What lines of inquiry can help museum insiders – and other researchers – to create new knowledge?

In February, National Services Te Paerangi joined the Auckland Museum Institute in supporting a research capacity-building workshop, initiated by the Auckland Museum’s new Museum Research Centre. Historian Bronwyn Labrum (Massey University) and anthropologist Graeme Were (University of Queensland) led the three day-workshop, with 15 museum staff, Te Maari Barham from Voyager NZ Maritime Museum and four postgraduates from Auckland and Massey Universities. Their mission? To explore different approaches to interrogating human history collections, reveal new meanings and generate new knowledge through material objects and associated information.

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Discussions ranged from Samoan tattoo instruments and 19th century missionary dress; Egyptian necklaces and military greatcoats; Ratana flags and knitting patterns; to fishing lures and a school book converted into a photograph album. Workshop participants shared these diverse research interests, through object biographies, studies of categories of objects, enquiries into social contexts, interrelationships within groups of objects and materials, design and construction.

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Graeme and Bronwyn illuminated cross-disciplinary ideas, provoking participants to reframe their own research projects. Their impressive ‘double act’ encouraged the 20 participants to re-evaluate the research component of their work. The insights into other research processes not only provided new tools for the participants’ own practice, but also empowered museum staff to respond more effectively to research visitors. The challenge for those engaging in research is defining a core question to guide their lines of enquiry and clarify the research pathway with a focussed research design. At the end of the process a well-framed study will produce valid answers to the most important questions: “So what do these research findings mean, and for whom?” The systematic detective work which many find so enticing is only one aspect of the research process. The real contribution to the sum of knowledge comes from interpreting and discussing the findings and their implications for broader questions; putting this research down in writing; sharing it through different channels, and receiving feedback from peers and others.

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Typical of the group’s response to the workshop was this comment: “I will use the learning with how I frame my research question and consider my focus – I will be writing with more purpose than I otherwise would have.”

Another participant enthused, “I feel empowered to follow through with topics I have been interested in for many years”.

As Head of Research responsible for developing the Museum Research Centre, I am very grateful to National Services Te Paerangi for their generous support of this initiative. The participants’ enthusiastic response to the Workshop will strengthen research activity using the Museum’s collections and embed new thinking about material culture as a rich research resource. We hope to encourage more people to engage with our collections and benefit all of us with the new knowledge created.

Jane Legget