Researching museums during lockdown

By Matthew Jones, PhD Student at Sussex University.

For many people lockdown necessitated a reimagining of how to complete even the most everyday tasks. For me, researching museums it was no different. In the months prior to lockdown I was planning and carrying out fieldwork that was meant to continue into summer of this year. This consisted of going to various museums across the country, analysing their displays and interviewing museum professionals. As lockdown was enacted museums closed, staff furloughed, and traveling was no longer safe. My fieldwork was disrupted to say the least. The interviews and trips I had spent months planning fell through. I no longer could go see displays and exhibits meaning I had to rely on the blurry photographs I had taken on previous visits. Above all with staff being furloughed there was no one able to reply to emails. The out of office message became the theme of my summer as I tried to salvage my research.

My first thoughts, however, when lockdown hit was not to do with my research but that feeling of anxiety that many shared about the state of the world. Research became second fiddle to checking morbid graphs and listening to politicians fumble around for solutions or outright denial of the severity of the situation. So, I took a break. This allowed me to step back and revaluate how my research was going and most importantly how to continue forward while I no longer had access to the physical object of my study, the museum. One aspect, the interviewing of museum professionals, I rethought quite quickly. I would turn my interview questions into questionnaires that they could do at their own pace. I was conscious that many of the people who I wanted to give me their time to help my research were also reorganising their own lives and trying to adapt to the ‘new normal’.

A typical Western Museum.

The second aspect of my fieldwork, visiting museums and critiquing displays was not possible to salvage. While some museums created online exhibitions or put more effort into creating digital resources it is simply not the same as being in a museum space that has been carefully constructed to be embodied by an audience. That being said, one of the best examples of a museum adapting to this is the International Slavery Museum who, google street view-style, have created a virtual reproduction of their galleries online so that you can digitally walk through them, look at objects and read labels. It is not quite the same as being there, you can ghost-like warp through walls very easily by accident, but it is the best I have seen. Moreover, being unable to access museums physically meant thinking more about them in other ways. I turned my focus to looking at what museums produce: reports, blogs, videos, podcasts and so on. This allowed me to continue understanding the approach of museums to the topics I was interested in and provoked me into thinking about museums as more than a physical manifestation of curatorial intent.

The end of Colston.

Regarding the topic of my research, I was perhaps very lucky that it became a major news story over the summer rivalling the daily doses of pandemic coverage. My research centres on how museums display and exhibit the British slave trade and its legacies, therefore, when Black Lives Matter protestors unceremoniously dumped the statue of the slave trader Colston in Bristol harbour my research gained a new lease of life. It was reinvigorating to see not only decisive action being taken to challenge the ease with which slave traders are monumentalised in public space but also to see the passion with which many people had about confronting the legacies of enslavement. During lockdown my motivation to do research and work towards my thesis had been severely hit. Each day became a drag as my fieldwork turned into a slog and the enforced separation from friends and loved ones continued on. The actions of these protestors reminded why my research matters and that even though doing research was hard, it was still important to do.

Above all then, lockdown forced me to revaluate and rethink how to research a physical thing, the museum, in a time when it was not safe to do so. Some aspects were easily adapted while others could never truly be reformulated for the digital world. The challenge of this was both useful in making me rethink aspects of my research but it was also demoralising for much of the summer as my research slowed down to a snail’s pace. On the other hand, selfishly, the events of Black Lives Matter and the museum sector’s response revitalised my research and opened new terrain for me to look at.

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