Welcoming external researchers
The importance of research
Research into collections is important to ensure they’re properly understood and interpreted. Through research we can uncover hidden and marginalised histories, increasing our knowledge, and often changing the way we interpret objects.
Structuring a research report
Each research project should have clearly defined aims and outcomes. Timetables and strategies for resources help to keep the overall process of conducting a project as smooth as possible.
Writing a research charter
Researchers may include school children undertaking a project, a scholar writing a monograph, or researchers specifically contracted by your museum.
It’s important to provide any researchers with information on contact details, visiting hours and any information they require about the collection they’re studying. This information can be incorporated into a research charter.
Research charters should include details of response times and information on how much notice is required to respond to queries. This allows your museum workforce an appropriate amount of time to respond. Create online databases that detail the records of your museum collections so that researchers have a first point of contact before getting in touch with you. List what resources are available to researchers in your museum, this could include:
- A print or resource room
- A library
- Online collections database
- Dedicated research space
- Fact sheets and FAQs for common enquiries
- Staff names and contact details, including titles and areas of expertise
- Appointment booking
- Research services offered and any fees charged
- Photography and photocopying
Some items in your collection will attract more research attention than others. For the most popular collections, it’s worth preparing a set of FAQs in advance to facilitate casual researchers and free up staff time. Online FAQs, links to finding out more, and general online information about your collections can be incredibly useful first stops for anyone undergoing research on well-known objects.
Creating a research space
Ideally every museum should be able to provide a clean, well-lit, and secure area for the purpose of collections research. This isn’t always possible, and you might need to compromise.
Here’s some tips for creating a research space:
- Create a library-style space by gathering all the museum’s reference books, journals, and catalogues into one place.
- Prepare relevant documents before researchers arrive.
- Ensure that there’s sufficient lighting and access to a power source for laptops.
- Provide a selection of research equipment (gloves, magnifying glasses, measuring tapes and callipers, padded supports, pencils, a torch etc).
- If you don’t have a dedicated research table, use a non-slip cover or mat for the table you’re using.
- Set up a public research area in a gallery, using photocopies, scans, and microfilms of museum objects. This way people can easily browse through historic documents such as news clippings without wearing away the originals.
Researchers working with collections should be supervised, both for the safety of museum objects and the protection of the researcher.
Ensure you have appropriate details for the researcher and information about their project. Wiltshire museum have a lot of experience in hosting researchers and provide useful information about this on their website.
Provide the following guidelines for any research visit:
- Information about supervision arrangement and the accessibility of materials.
- Identification and contact details required from the researcher.
- Visitor guidelines/behavioural expectations within the museum.
- Information on where to leave coats and bags, and a notice that bags may be checked, if appropriate.
- Rules about the handling of objects and the use of gloves, if appropriate – safe handling techniques should be demonstrated by staff.
- Permissions regarding cameras and laptops.
- Rules about photography and photocopying.
Research agreements and fees
External researchers enter into an agreement with your museum whenever they’re conducting research. Think carefully about the terms of your agreement with researchers and establish in advance whether you’ll require any fees. Considerations for research agreements
- The name and contact details of the researcher
- The type of identification required
- The nature and purpose of research
- Copyright on objects, often not owned by the museum, and Intellectual Property Rights and Publication Rights
- Use of data
- Feedback of research findings to the museum including mechanisms for updating catalogue information and copies of articles
- Guidelines and agreements for analytical research including requests for destructive research, research on human remains and other sensitive collections
- Provision of photographs and digital images for publication
- Forms of reproduction permission, Publication Rights waiver
- Any fees
Some museums with a large volume of enquiries charge fees to members of the public to undertake research on their behalf.
Not all museums need to charge fees, but for some it can be advantageous. If there is a high enough demand for paid service, this income can be used to employ a researcher, freeing up the time of other members of staff. Alternatively, the fees could be used to subsidise in-house research expenses.
Connecting with other organisations
Museums should proactively encourage the use of their collections by outside researchers.
Publicise the items in your collections and forge links with specialists and higher education researchers. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds collaborative projects between academic partners and museums. Working with an expert on a specific project or even just informal networking can often produce ongoing results and wider benefits.
If your museum is part of a geographic forum, these meetings are also a good opportunity for knowledge sharing in regards to research.
Institutions for partnerships
Identify parts of the collection that would make good research projects, for both academics and students, then make contact with local university departments. All academic staff will have their research interests listed on the university’s website. Students are usually trained in the use of libraries and archives, but less often in the resources available in museums. An information and training session might be useful as well as appropriate instructions on object handling.
Visit the Collections Trust website to find contacts for subject specialist networks. Connecting with special interest groups can be particularly useful for research projects.
- Wiltshire Heritage have made their research charter and fees available to view.
- Visit AHRC to find out about funding for your research or to discuss collaborative doctoral projects with a university.
If you have any questions about welcoming external researchers, please contact our Collections and Interpretation Manager, Jacob O’Sullivan at email@example.com