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.

CfP: The New Museum Paradigm: Shifting Representations of Empire at Museums and Art Galleries in the UK

Abstract Deadline: 21st June 2019

Provisional Date of Symposium: September 20-21st 2019

Location: University of Sussex

Please E-mail abstracts to 

Abstracts should be no longer than 300 words. Please include a short bio of no more than 150 words, along with your university affiliation.

It is widely held that the chronological development of ‘universal’ museums and their collections imitate the contours of imperial history. In recent years, this claim has led many museums in Europe and across the world to reconfigure their focus, appearing as places more inclusive of cultural diversity, in an open desire to move away from their colonial roots.
In Britain, the beginnings of this phenomenon can be traced back to the late 1980s, when, fuelled by the discourse of multiculturalism, museums began to re-engage with histories and legacies of Empire, not least because communities that had come to Britain as citizens of Empire in large numbers in the late-1940s and 1950s, and their descendants, began to make demands for better representation both politically and culturally. More recently, the commemoration of the bi-centenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 2007, which occurred in a milieu of memory and museum booms, marked a turning point in how museums use memory to engage and negotiate the imperial past.

In this context, collections and their interpretative methodologies are being redefined, leading to re-readings of historical narratives and to the normalisation of curatorial settings appealing to emotions, which sometimes make use of artistic methodologies. Exhibition projects thereby become sites of formation of utopian narratives in which knowledge of the past can be used to shape better presents and futures. In this, museums have become increasingly reliant on external sources – such as artists or communities – to provide the critical work necessary to redefine narratives, interpretations and methodologies. This introduction of multiple perspectives through a collaborative process leads to museums incorporating memory and personal testimony to interpret the history and legacies of the empire from a subjective perspective. While the application of these new strategies have had mixed success, this represents an important epistemic shift away from the primacy of the curatorial voice and the object in creating visual, textual and aural representations of colonial history towards the opening up of the museological process which can be seen as part of decolonsing the museum and the art gallery.

We welcome papers concerned with this new museum paradigm as it relates to representations of empire, colonialism, and slavery; principally, when, how, and why have these shifts taken places across museums and art galleries in the UK? Additionally we are interested in themes on the politics of display and repatriation, museums and migration in a postcolonial age, innovative museum practices towards decolonial futures, museums and public ‘postcolonial’ discourse, Visitors and the postcolonial museum, exhibition and collection histories, museums, art and politics, the role of art in memory-oriented exhibitions, decolonizing collections, city/local museums and representations of Empire & colonialism and more.

For more information and details please see: