Curating Research

Curating Research is a marriage between the disciplines of Research Communication and Curatorial Practice.

15min read

Research is “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications” (OECD, 2002). It could be argued that the culture of research output which predominantly takes the form of journal articles, essays and books does not create favourable conditions for this to take place in a diverse contemporary society.

Research output like this invariably limits its audience and is therefore not representative of ‘culture’ at large. Curating Research looks at how to increase the ‘knowledge of humans, culture and society’ by instigating a marriage between the disciplines of research communication and curatorial practice. This poses questions like; how can research enter the public consciousness in an age when we have more ways to share ideas than ever before? What information sharing platforms can be considered truly public, or openly accessible?

The act of communicating with audiences has become an important part of research and policymaking, particularly since the introduction of research excellence frameworks (eg. REF in the UK). This has given rise to ‘a splinter group of practitioners interested in all aspects of research communication and public engagement’ (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, 2016). Given the pace of change and innovation in these methods of communication, there is potential for research communities to learn a lot from the wider cultural landscape when it comes to the presentation, engagement, visibility, and aesthetic quality of their findings, concepts and ideas. In response, we can look to the art world, the wider cultural landscape, manufacturing and knowledge economies to provide some inspiration by looking at the specific tools (or vehicles) they employ to communicate with diverse audiences, then look at how a curator might use them to put academic thinking into public space.

Is it a contradiction to write a text about how we need to think beyond text? Yes and no. Yes, because there’s a common feeling that you should try to practice what you preach or provide direct examples as proof of concept. No, because there is a school of thought that says you have to meet people where they are if you want to get them someplace else. If we think about targeting an audience, writing is a perfectly logical place to encounter those who read texts and are thinking (or should be thinking) about what comes next.

I once heard someone say “You can fall in love with anyone if you hear their story.” The problem here is that not enough people hear, see or become sensitive to the stories of research until there is a crisis, sometimes not even then. Researchers, creative practitioners and audiences should all be excited by the idea that research can become anything, and not be satisfied with a familiar, default position.

The Curator

Until very recently it is likely you would only hear the word ‘curator’ used in the context of art galleries and museums. Today it seems to be popping up in all sorts of other places; festivals, playlists and shops to name a few – seemingly anywhere there’s a mediator for consumption of something by an audience. It appears to have evolved into “a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, pasted onto any activity that involves culling and selecting.” In short this code word means “I have a discerning eye and great taste.” (Williams, 2009).

The definition of the term is clearly broadening and this could be for a few reasons. Inside museums and galleries, job and funding cuts cause the role of the curator to include many more responsibilities, thereby broadening the view of what a curator is or does. Outside these walls there could be an attempt to bring some artistic swagger and academic glamour to less creative sounding roles in other sectors to elevate stock or professional status. 

Ask any two curators what it is they do and it’s likely to be different depending on what and how and what they are ‘curating’. However, the skills and activities they describe are likely to fit into the same spectrum. Over time it seems ‘curator’ will continue its evolution (or revolution) and become an umbrella term for said spectrum, attuned more to culture at large than any one single discipline within the schools of art, design, media and communication. If we are to embrace this contemporary idea of the curatorial, the dictionary definition in the future may read ‘activities concerned with the mediation and ultimately presentation of an idea to an audience’.

In this new world the idea that a curator is just a caretaker of special objects is now little more than a caricature. Curators have always made and commissioned content to explore and promote collections and dealt with emotional resonances (Walker, 2018). Perhaps the diversification of the term over time is the recognition it deserves.

Turns

Taken literally a ‘turn’ is simply a change of direction. If someone gets ‘turned’, they’ve switched allegiances or become open to a new way of thinking. The manner in which it appears in curatorial discourse suggests one might draw similarities between the way art is spoken about in terms of movements within periods of art history. These changes in direction are normally towards particular methods and modes of presentation, production and engagement that play to the sympathies and sensibilities of said turn. Every additional turn adds more potential strings to this bow, but also new positions to react to for practitioners.

Art and curating, by their very nature, are constantly moving, looking for the next turn or movement. This tends to be how museums plot and present the development of disciplines over time. These canons celebrate those who change the direction of what it means to be an artist and/or curator, they are then branded and used as reference points throughout discourse. 

We can think of academia as being comfortably in a ‘linguistic turn’, perfectly happy with the idea that everything worth anything could be converted in to language and shared forth. But as we know from our day to day lives – just because something is written down somewhere doesn’t mean people see it, read it, understand it or act upon it. The ‘sensory turn’ says, yes, through writing you can send a story from one civilisation to another across thousands of years, but life itself sends its own stories across billions of years (‘The Immortals’, 2014). Il y a du hors texte! ‘The limits of my language are not the limits of my world’. (Howes, 2005). The ‘social turn’ looked to spark social change through participatory practices, whilst the educational turn played with pedagogy and the idea that places of art were also places of learning. Rogoff (2008) unpicks previous turns in order to understand what the term means in relation to the ‘educational turn in curating’. Is it a reading strategy, an interpretive model, the act of reading one system across another or the moment a new horizon emerges? The ‘curatorial turn’ saw curators rise into the position of ‘cultural agents’, the framers of cultural understanding (O’Neill, 2007). If a turn can be an awareness and exist outside of art, or be born from art, then how might we push for an ecological turn? Or are we in the midst of one? Speaking in this language of turns, this series of articles, amongst other things, proposes a ‘curatorial turn in research’.

Research Communication

The story of research communication could begin with scientists like Michael Faraday who realised that if their cutting edge research was to reach its potential and change the world it had to be seen. It had to satisfy what physicist Peter Fisher describes as the ‘…American sensibility of, “Show me!” Yeah, you can write your fancy European words, you can write equations, you can publish in some journal nobody reads. I want to see it… show me!’ (American Experience: Tesla, 2016). Hence, events like the Christmas Lecture series at the Royal Institution in London were born, a tradition that still lasts to this day.

Michael Faraday’s Christmas Lecture [lithograph] by A. Blaikley (1856)

As we move past the era of ‘the enlightenment’ with science communication and into the modern day – one could say that subjects in universities are treated as ‘the science’ of that thing. With this in mind, the popularity of creative and scientific thinking amongst publics is important if we live in a world where world leaders flat-out reject it.

Cultivating a broad public appreciation of science throws a protective blanket around the scientific community that must produce the experts society needs

Yanis Varoufakis

Wilkinson and Weitkamp (2016) lay some strong foundations for the creative direction that research communication should go from an academic point of view and suggest it is time for new approaches to prove their worth. What happens when the curator [an architect of interdisciplinary display and exchange] is challenged to develop such approaches? In using the curator as a prism for research a new role emerges which responds to Stern (2016) and Holden (2015) calling for a mediatory role to exist at the crossroads between research activities, outputs, impact, public engagement and culture. Currently the researcher themselves bares the responsibility of communication, public engagement, generating, recording and measuring impact. Hang in there academics, reinforcements are on their way!

Education settings provide places for teachers and learners to converse freely. But what happens when the former is not present? A parallel ‘knowledge transfer’ relationship in the art world would be between artist and viewer. In this world a curator endeavours to uncover methods to communicate the ideas of the former when they are not present. The relationship between researcher and society would benefit from the same role to exist. Just think of all the incredible albums that would never of happened without music producers.

Putting academic thinking into public space via conceptually appropriate means adds resonance. You open ideas up to a whole new spectrum of people who can add unique perspectives to the research process, or even prove themselves to be the experts Varoufakis (2017) refers to. We can see this notion expressed in movies (Good Will Hunting, 1997), but how might this happen in the real world? In order for the research community to communicate with contemporary ‘humans, culture and society’ effectively this series of articles also looks to provide a springboard for the development of both the act of ‘curating research’ and the role of ‘curator of research’ through the continuous collecting, selecting and experimentation of theories, opinions and aesthetics.

Research Excellence Frameworks

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is an evaluation which assesses the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. There is also a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and a third is in the pipeline; the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). They aim to provide accountability for public investment, establish certain standards within the sector and provide a basis for funding allocation (Stern, 2016). The data they accumulate is also used to inform various league tables based on different metrics, like how many contributions to peer reviewed journals did a university produce compared with another?

The assessment (REF, 2014) looks for ‘originality, significance and rigor’ in outputs (the same traits exhibited by artists who make it into the art museum), ‘reach and significance’ in terms of impact and ‘vitality and sustainability’ in the research environment. Institutions select and submit case studies themselves which leads to a decision to be made on whether certain projects (or outputs) are suitable, or ‘REFable’.

This pressure to conform to a Research Excellence Framework has opened up a difference of opinion (or understanding) between schools of study, disciplines, individual academics and maybe whole institutions as to what an output is, or can be. This results in any one of the aforementioned silos defaulting to what has come before rather than acting upon their unique opportunities and idiosyncrasies. Some will go on reading and writing, whilst others move on to explore other forms of communication. As we have established, the traditional mode of academic production, whether a book, essay or journal article, is text. This serves several systemic purposes, but becomes problematic when it’s time to enter non-academic arenas. 

Certain disciplines have distinct advantages when it comes to demonstrating their impacts, a natural inclination to think about presentation that embodies their day to day practices. Art and design subjects have galleries, liberal arts subjects have theatres and venues for performance. Schools of education, business or mathematics for example do not have the same logical mapped routes of communication and may come up against institutional friction if they seek to establish something viewed as unconventional. What may seem radical and abstract in one silo may appear natural and logical in another. Enright (2018) has made her theatre productions the public facing wing of her research, offering audiences a front row seat to a dramatization. We see a similar process-based approach to public engagement in film (The Act of Killing, 2012) and re-enactment (The Battle of Orgreave, 2001). 

Robinson (2015) alerts us to his observation that “some people confuse conformity with raising standards.” That whilst frameworks for measuring research quality may be constructed with all the best intentions, the wider effects may be quite different. The most helpful thing the REF may have instigated, from the perspective of research communication, is to promote the value of considering non-academic impact. Encouraging practitioners to design for impact early, rather than evaluating activities and outputs further down the line.

2014 saw the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) introduce new ‘research impact’ criteria, described as “any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. Some research institutions have based their pathways to achieving this impact around a Logic Model. This model consists of five distinct steps; input, activities, output, outcomes and impact. An injection of curatorial thinking in and around the ‘activities’ and ‘output’ sections of this model will have a significant influence on all the other sections by way of cross-pollination.

Impact Pathway Logic Model (edited)

Impact

Impact can be seen as the evidence of the difference that research makes (eg. 100 lives saved, 100 more products sold). Regardless of our discipline, we all hope that the work we do has impact. Whilst the act of measuring it may come from calls to justify its worth, or public funding, reaching for it may generate multifarious possibilities we had not yet considered. Research impact is consistently divided into academic impact, which is a contribution to discourse and scholarly activity, and non-academic impact that happens ‘outside academia’ (REF, 2014). Despite this desire to categorise, there will naturally be an interplay between the two. 

Perhaps the most elusive commodity in the impact game is a well-rounded method of impact measuring. The methods used may depend on who is asking for evidence and for what reason. Inside a system that communicates through text and numbers, evaluations tend to default to quantitative approaches, captured quickly and presented generically. The Impact case studies database (REF, 2014) attempts to give us an idea about how impact was generated in past submissions across a variety of contexts, but simply lists outputs as evidence to corroborate it. This indicates an acceptance that outputs not only affect impact, but are seen as direct evidence of it. We can therefore identify a link between public engagement and research communication and the wider impact of research in society.

Increasing ‘reach’ (the number of people who have seen or engaged with your research) is an important factor if you aim for something to enter public consciousness, but as a number this only tells us so much. Using this as a measure or evidence for impact is problematic unless you can demonstrate a significant increase. Picking a meaningful metric can paint a more profound picture of impact. If we take the example of a research project focusing on homelessness; being able to quote how many people came to an exhibition about homelessness tells you something, but it would be far more interesting and impactful to know; how many people did this project get off the street, and what are they doing now?

Research communicators have a part to play in creating pieces of the impact jigsaw and understanding that they will be numerous and diverse (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, 2016). The diversification of outputs and activities would provide more conceptually appropriate platforms for research to be seen, heard and understood quicker and more deeply by more people. In turn this provides more varied opportunities to collect and measure impact. This may also give birth to new research questions like; can inanimate objects collect impact data?

Curatorial Dreaming

Beyond survival and power, perhaps ‘dreaming’ (imagining desirable futures) and problem solving (making improvements) could be described as the drivers of progress, hope and invention in the heart of the modern human. We are not talking about utopian thinking, there’s something just too unrealistic about that, and why Earth is so interesting, it’s somewhere that exists in a place equidistant between heaven and hell.

To those growing up in the 1950-70s, imagining the future was drawing flying cars, picturing civilisation exploring the cosmos like those in Star Trek or even perhaps “…being part of the first generation of people who wouldn’t die” (Whitty, 2017). But with current generations only witnessing the introduction of the electric vehicle it might be that, if we are to have an impact in our lifetime, if we want to see the fruits of our labour, then we must not lower, but recalibrate our expectations, our dreams.

Among other applications, a curatorial dreaming methodology allows the curator to step out of disciplinary boundaries in order to explore all manner of worlds they previously had no business being part of. What does a political electoral system look like in the hands of a curator? What about the working week? Butler and Lehrer (2016) ask scholars to imagine their ideal exhibitions as a productive way to channel critique. We can therefore think of ‘curating research’ as a curatorial dream based on observations and critique of the current research landscape.

Propaganda to public engagement

One of the earlier types of propaganda was religious art, propaganda on behalf of theology. Religions, in particular Christianity, have a clear idea about what art is for; “The point of art is to lend lustre and conviction to the teachings of Jesus Christ, to convince you to be a bit more like Jesus” (The School of Life, 2013). In the 21st century, my generation might associate ‘propaganda’ with war from history lessons at school.

Edward Bernays (Lucian Freud’s nephew) was hired by the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to ramp up support for World War I at home and abroad after an early career as a press agent and editor. After this job had run its course he realised something about his skill-set; “what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace” (Century of the Self, 2002) …and so the first ‘public relations’ business was born in New York City.

The term ‘propaganda’ had negative connotations so soon after a war so it was decided to repackage these methods as ‘public relations’, a far more agreeable term to describe a new business in America. He bought into his uncle’s theory that whilst individuals were capable of rational thought, the masses were inherently irrational and subject to herd instinct. It would be up to skilled practitioners to use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways (Bernays, 1923, 1928). Speaking of connotations, his use of words here, highlighted in bold, are quite telling in that they show how he thought about audiences.

From 1919-63 Bernays becomes the go-to man for corporate giants and political campaigns who are willing to trade money for broader popularity and profits. We cannot doubt his talent for designing bespoke strategies for his clients. Bernays pioneered publicity stunts, product placement, focus groups, tailored ad campaigns, endorsements whilst playing on people’s hopes and fears. These tactics become the blueprint for selling goods, services and political parties to people to this day. The American Tobacco Company realized it could be making twice as much money if women smoked cigarettes. Enter Bernays who engineered a scene at the New York Easter Day parade. He organised a group of women to join the parade and simultaneously light Lucky Strike cigarettes dramatically in front of waiting photographers. The press was then informed that these suffragettes and feminists had been overheard calling them “Torches of Freedom”. The headlines wrote themselves and contained all the emotion and symbolism associated with the suffrage movement; equality, liberty and freedom from male oppression. The rest is history.

As the public relations business grew Bernays realised that to keep selling large volumes of products to people who already have everything, you need to change society from a ‘needs’ to a ‘wants’ culture. It could be argued that certain cultures and societies have reached a consumerism saturation point, whereby the cost outweighs the benefit. Could a rebalancing of needs and wants be the answer?

From a neutral point of view, with hindsight, Bernays’ tactics have revealed that long-lasting societal change can be achieved, engagement through emotions and experiences calls people to action, people pay attention to things placed in their fields of vision, and perhaps most importantly, having no restrictions on the medium for an output in conjunction with a bespoke strategy can achieve big shifts in public opinion and policy.

Whilst on face value these can appear to be dangerous cocktails I am mixing, they are relevant, because although propaganda, public relations and public engagement exude different connotations, they see value in the same tools. What does the stock ‘knowledge of humans, culture and society’ look like if the curator of research, whose aim would be to inform, inspire and innovate, not just sell, repurposes these methods? The curator of research can be to the research community what Bernays was to American corporations. Bernays as a curator. Bernays with a moral compass. What would he do if he worked for the public sector?