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How having IRO status helped Tate build a truly adventurous research programme


Tate is leading the way in showing what an adventurous Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Independent Research Organisation (IRO) can achieve when a commitment to research underpins everything it does - from its exhibitions and displays, to the collections it builds, conservation and collection care and learning programmes.

Back in 2006/07 IROs became eligible for funding alongside Higher Education Institutions, if they possessed the kind of in-house capacity to carry out research that materially extends and enhances the national research base and could demonstrate the ability to lead complex projects.

Tate - with its combination of world–leading expertise, incredible collections and bold ambition - was an obvious candidate, and the decision to become an IRO has led to an extraordinarily fruitful period for the organisation.

Professor Pip Laurenson, Head of Collection Care Research at Tate says: “Becoming an IRO triggered some deep thinking about what it means for the museum to be a research organisation, and highlighted the range of practices engaged in research within the museum - as well, of course, the research potential of our collections.

“At Tate we carry out research that relates to collection care, conservation and learning as well as art history, curatorial practice and museology.

“Much of our research is multidisciplinary and our academic partners are very important to us. 

“A lot of our research comes from our response to emerging artistic practice – and the changing nature of what it means to be a museum in the twenty first century. In addition to our existing and evolving collections, what makes a museum a very particular research environment is the centrality of our audiences. 

“So, translating the research that we do back into practice, back to our audiences, through a range of channels, is key.”

Performance at Tate: Into the Space of Art 

Dr Jennifer Mundy, Head of Art Historical Research cites Performance at Tate as a perfect example of what can be achieved.

The project, led by the University of Exeter, ran from 2014 to 2016, and as Co-I Tate hosted the research team, framed a workshop around a major performance at Tate Modern, and created a major online scholarly publication. 

“It was a very interesting project on many levels for both Tate and the community of performance scholars,” she says. “It primarily looked at the neglected - and indeed unknown - history of performance at Tate, going back to the 1960s.

“When we applied for funding, we knew that there was all this interesting material in our archives. But we didn’t really know what it was or understand its significance.”

What has emerged through the research is the extent to which performance art has changed over the last half century. When it became established as an artistic medium, in the 1960s, it primarily came from a position of opposition to the art museum and all it stood for, in terms of permanence and tradition. But from there it has moved over time, alongside changing attitudes at galleries like Tate, to become something much more accepted and integrated within institutions.

“This shift was repeated around the world and for us it was very important to find out what it meant for performance art,” says Jennifer Mundy.

“This research was ostensibly about Tate, though it was really about performance, performance studies and the museum sector as a whole. We were able to tap into all kinds of embedded knowledge and expertise through our staff. We also brought in multi-disciplinary experts, such as ethnographers, to look at how people see and respond to performances. And we’re still working through the implications for the canon of representing the history of performance art within the museum.”

Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project

Another major research success has been Cleaning Modern Oil Paints, with co-investigator Dr Bronwyn Ormsby - who is the Tate’s Principal Conservation Scientist, is a collaborative project exploring some of the most interesting and pertinent challenges associated with the conservation of 20th and 21st century oil paintings, running from 2015 to 2018 and funded in the UK by the AHRC as part of a European Joint Programming Initiative on cultural heritage.

“The project is helping us address some of the challenges of cleaning modern oil paints by bringing together, through international collaboration, a very highly specialised group of experts in the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, United States as well as the UK ” says Professor Laurenson.

The fundamental problem being addressed is that these works of art are not behaving in the same way as traditional oil paintings.

“They are displaying some very curious phenomena, for example, the creation of crystals on their surface,” says Professor Laurenson. “Some of them are exhibiting unusual solvent solubility, meaning that traditional ways of cleaning them are no longer possible.

“As we come to a time when these works need conservation and cleaning, finding the right answers becomes increasingly urgent.

“This is a real world challenge, directly impacting on how we treat important works of art, including those by Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein and Pablo Picasso.”

To find out more, researchers have been working with an extraordinary set of historic paint swatches provided by the paint manufacturer Winsor and Newton, which allow the study of how formulations have changed over time.

Their findings will have implications for every collection that holds modern oil paintings.

Watch the video

But these projects are just a couple of examples from a rich portfolio of projects.

The AHRC has so far funded 64 studentships at Tate, the range of topics that they have been involved with is incredible – and their findings have, for example, directly fed into the way exhibitions have been designed at Tate, framed the conservation of software-based art and informed how the art museum might enable conversations around race and culture.

“I think we have been very successful in developing these young researchers and helping them get careers, both in museums and galleries, and the academic sector,” says Professor Laurenson.

“I think increasingly we are seeing movement between the academic and museum world and the research at Tate is helping facilitate this.

“We’re delighted with the IRO scheme and what it has done for us – and the whole sector.”

PaCCSFest runs until 29 April at various venues around Bath www.paccs-fest.com

Header image copyright: Testing a Winsor & Newton Oil Colour swatch. Photo © J. Paul Getty Trust

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