People, Places and Things: New Models for Collections-Based Research

March 20, 2017

A ‘parliament of things’ holds court in an anatomical theatre, precious paintings are suspended for all to see in a giant mirrored bowl, migration histories and scientific mysteries are painstakingly teased out of 300 year-old woven silk and metal – museum research is more adventurous than ever and the inaugural symposium of the V&A Research Institute (VARI), taking place on 22 March 2017 at the V&A, shows how and why.  Speakers from Berlin, Rotterdam and London will be on hand to explore the many ways in which museums are both knowledge institutions and collecting institutions, unique and transformative meeting places that give new lives to old objects.

In the UK, the V&A was the first museum to establish a dedicated Research Department, but of course research activity is at the heart of almost everything the Museum does.  Museum research takes place in conservation and in curatorial departments, in learning and teaching, in exhibition-making and label-writing, in trend-forecasting and digital documentation – and in all the places in between. These collaborative encounters at the museum’s core forge unique forms of knowledge (though they are not always visible to the public or seen as research by those involved).

With greater and greater interest in material culture and its complex histories, a transformation of research cultures is taking place in different leading institutions.  What processes and practices, as well as infrastructures and architectures, are being crafted in order to shape this change? With the VARI Symposium 2017, the V&A is bringing together three leading European examples of museum research practice in an expanded field: a national museum (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), a university collection (Humboldt University, Berlin), and a private foundation museum (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam).

Colleagues from these three very different kinds of institutions will be sharing their developing models and experiments for forging fresh forms of collections-based and object-focused investigations.  All three speakers will be outlining new forms of museum research, from those spanning science and humanities to those led by makers and practitioners, as well as those co-created forms of ‘citizen research’ being collaboratively effected with visitors.

The event will be introduced by the V&A’s new Director, Dr Tristram Hunt, and will feature a presentation about the V&A’s new Research Institute (VARI), a five-year programme of experimental research generously funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.

VARI’s current projects feature highly interdisciplinary practices which are developing new methods of collaboration in and beyond museum contexts.  One such project is bringing together conservation science with design, textile and social historians around a 300-year old Album of designs for woven silk created by Huguenot refugee James Leman, who worked in Spitalfields in the early 1700s.  Another is looking closely at embodied knowledge — thinking with the hands — through the sharing of skills and experience between potters, surgeons, musicians and more.  As the world’s leading museum of art and design, how can we articulate the full value of craft knowledge — a treasure more endangered, perhaps, than the objects in our collections?

In Berlin, the vast research collections of the Humboldt University are being activated and brought out of their disciplinary cupboards and into the limelight in the extraordinary context of the Tieranatomisches Theater — an historic veterinary anatomical theatre on the grounds of the Charité Hospital.  Built in 1790, the theatre is the oldest preserved teaching edifice in Berlin and a masterpiece of Prussian Early Classicism. Brought back into use by the University’s Helmholtz Centre in 2013 as a public space for experimental exhibitions and research exchange, it is now a beacon for interdisciplinary exploration of material culture.

At the bottom of a park in Rotterdam that is ringed by wonderful museums, the Depot Boijmans van Beuningen will open in 2019: 40 meters high, the building is a vast bowl for collections access and care, its mirrored walls reflecting the city back to itself over 360 degrees. A response to increased requests to see artworks not on display from an ever more interested and informed public, this new building will combine open storage, exhibition space, a conservation centre and collections research training. A site for collaborations with and between private collectors benefiting from museum expertise, the Depot will offer unparalleled access to wide-ranging collections.

Each in their unique way, these three projects are breaking new ground, resoundingly making the case for museums as innovation labs for new research methods.  Architecture old and new, tried and true methods, and entirely new configurations of skills and disciplines: all are brought into play as infrastructures for thinking through objects and collections.

The end of the evening will conclude with a playful and thoughtful response from the V&A’s Director of Design and Capital Projects, David Bickle, and its Director of Research and Collections, Bill Sherman, before opening up to what is bound to be a lively Q&A!

People, Places and Things:

Inaugural Annual Symposium of the V&A Research Institute (VARI)
22 March 2017: 16:00 to 18:00
The Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre
Free, drop-in
Symposium followed by drinks reception at 18:00 in Museum Café

Dr Martha Fleming, Deputy Director of V&A Research Institute
‘Projects are Processes: the V&A Research Institute’

Dr Jochen Hennig, Central Collection Commissioner at Humboldt University, Berlin and Professor Thomas Schnalke, Director of the Charité Medical Museum, Humboldt University Research Collections, Berlin
‘Object Laboratory at Humboldt University: Research and Teaching Infrastructures in the Tieranatomisches Theater’

Dr Sandra Kisters, Head of Collections and Research, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
‘Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen: Open Storage in a Public Park’

Closing Response: Professor Bill Sherman, Director of Research and Collections, Victoria and Albert Museum, and David Bickle, Director of Design, Exhibitions & FuturePlan at the V&A
‘Front of House/Back of House’

2 comments so far, view or add yours


This looks to be a fascinating collection of experts and discussion topics. For those of us unable to attend, will there be resources online to share the insights more widely?

Hi Russell! Yes, VARI plans to publish in-depth and ongoing research activities, methods and outcomes on the VARI website and in open access scholarly publications as well. All best, and thanks for your interest, Martha.

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