Engaging galleries, libraries, archives and museums with your research

In this blog post, Dr Shonagh McEwan – Knowledge Exchange and Impact Advisor, Edinburgh Research Office – shares insights from a recent Learning Lunch on engaging galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) with your research.

Our recent Learning Lunch focused on engaging with galleries, libraries, archives and museums – or GLAM, a term you may have heard used when talking about this sector. It was chaired by Janet Archer, who has joined the University of Edinburgh as Director – Festival, Culture and City Events, and was previously Chief Executive of Creative Scotland.

At the event, Janet introduced our three panellists – Andrea Cop, National Museums Scotland (NMS), Fiona Hutchison, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and Professor Toby Kelly from the School of Social and Political Science.

The audience got a real sense of the issues, priorities, best practices, challenges and opportunities for engaging with external partners in this sector. An important theme was understanding the culture, or ways of working within external partner organisations in order to engage effectively. In that sense, it was ideal to have two external partners from GLAM tell us more about how they work.

Engaging with National Museums Scotland

At National Museums Scotland (NMS), Andrea touched on:

  • Partnerships ‘with’: NMS want to be involved in fruitful, early conversations and is interested in co-creating original projects. NMS is an Independent Research Organisation and NMS has expertise to bring to a mutually beneficial partnership/relationship too!
  • Public impact: Remember that everything NMS does is for public impact and it has legal duties to fulfil around this. There are many ways to engage NMS with research from collaborative studentships, placements, co-supervision, or co-creating an original piece of research. Note that exhibitions may not be the best tool – major exhibitions are planned a minimum of 4 years in advance!
  • Andrea is their Academic Liaison Manager: If you want to partner with NMS, then get to know their collections and curators. But if you don’t know who to work with, or where to start, then you can always contact Andrea.

Engaging with Historic Environment Scotland

Academic expertise and collaborations are welcome, and Fiona Hutchison from HES built further on these themes. She emphasised that research expertise is very much at the heart of just about everything HES does as an organisation and highlighted the importance of:

  • Research Strategy: Not all GLAM organisations have one, but do check and take a look at HES’ Research Strategy before you contact them. It highlights how and why HES is doing research, and outlines its research priorities. HES is also an Independent Research Organisation, has a publication unit and a Research Forum.
  • Culture of the organisation: NMS and HES may seem large, national organisations, but the teams working on things are small. Academics need to understand this when approaching and working with organisations in this sector.
  • Early engagement and relevance: HES is keen for early engagement rather than ‘end-of-an-academic-research-project dissemination’. It wants to work with academics in relevant and timely ways for HES, and there is lots of potential (especially for social science researchers). Do contact Fiona if you see a relevant opportunity for further discussion!
  • Innovative public engagement: Like NMS, HES also has public engagement expertise. It is always looking for novel and innovative ways to engage its publics, and original research can be part of this. A recent example was engaging the public with archaeology through the love of dogs!

An academic’s perspective

After hearing from experienced external partners, we turned to Toby for his academic perspective. It became clear that good collaboration takes time, doesn’t happen overnight, and that being sensitive to different cultures in different organisations is very important.

Toby and NMS put on an exhibition, titled Conscience Matters, in the War Museum at Edinburgh Castle. This collaboration grew out of a conversation Toby had with one of the curators in NMS, which is a good example of an academic engaging early with a potential external partner in GLAM rather than viewing them as an organisation to turn to downstream. From the initial conversation with a curator, to the actual exhibition, took about six years and a journey that also involved different funding sources from CAHSS, NMS and The Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

A key challenge for Toby was that he initially didn’t appreciate how different the University of Edinburgh and NMS were as organisations, with very different approaches as well as just the different people across NMS that Toby had to connect with in order to put on the exhibition. Toby said he really benefited in his academic role from working in partnership with NMS:

  • How to tell a story and improve your writing: Toby learned a huge amount about NMS and gained from its expertise on how to tell a story. Toby has taken that back into his own research as well as into his own writing.
  • Reach: Around 700,000 people saw and interacted with the Conscience Matters His academic book sold around 1000 copies over a number of years! People engaging with his research in this way, through partnering with NMS, has a greater reach than his academic writing could ever have.

Co-creation and better collaboration?

In her new role at the University of Edinburgh, Janet Archer explained that she’s interested in inspiring and connecting creativity and culture to make the world a better place, as well as increasing the visibility of the University of Edinburgh’s research and activities and finding new ways of taking them forward. She asked the panel, what does ‘good’ co-creation look like? And if you had a wish for ‘better collaboration’, what would you wish for?

“What researchers can offer is a perspective on the NMS collections, in ways that the NMS curators can maybe not see or work on”. Andrea, National Museums Scotland.

NMS does need academic expertise to add value to what they do, and good co-creation requires learning about working with each other – and that may also mean working in different ways with different disciplines on different projects. It also needs open and flexible thinking, especially with regards to outputs rather than thinking ‘I need to put on an exhibition’.

“It starts with a tiny seed of an idea, and when the right people come together, it can grow into something quite spectacular”. Fiona Hutchison, HES.

Fiona echoed that, and added that good co-creation and collaboration is about clear expectations and being open with each other. The leverage and development that can happen is incredibly valuable for all involved in the collaboration.

Toby encouraged academics to be curious and for potential partners to have a sense of respect for each other, which does mean recognising differences, listening to each other, and being able to disagree! Co-creation and better collaboration requires that level of transparency and honest, respectful sharing of perspectives.

Hopefully this blog has provided some ideas and routes for future engagement and collaboration with GLAM. It does indeed take time and effort, but it is worth it.

Notes and further information

You may wish to note that the National Library of Scotland has recently finished consulting on its draft 2020-2025 Strategy. It is currently evaluating responses. You can read the draft Strategy here and look out or the full published document soon.

National Galleries Scotland has a new Research Manager, Ailsa Roberts. She is currently drafting its Research Framework, which will be available for circulation in due course.

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Shonagh McEwan

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