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Thursday, 11 June 2015

Why won't you respond to my email and other woes of academics

So here’s a bit of a spoiler for you – I (Kristin) am currently taking a break from museum work to do my PhD. And something I’ve found about being a museum professional in the academic world is that you are something of a unicorn. Everyone wants to hear about this mysterious ‘museum sector’ – who are these museum people? Where do they come from? How can I work with them? And most importantly, how do I get a museum job? At a panel at my university today, I was asked one of the questions I hear the most and one I think really deserves a full response. A fellow PhD asked me:

Do museums really want to help researchers if they are so busy and cash-strapped? If they really cared they would respond to my emails.

First of all can I just say, despite the reputation we might get from a handful of grumpy people, museums love, nay EXIST, to help with research and engagement. Please don’t get the impression that museums don’t want to help you, we do, and in fact if we are a national museum we legally have to. But your point about museums being busy and cash-strapped it well taken, and this, not any other reason, is why we take so long in replying.

That said, there are some things that academic researchers could do that will ensure you get the best response in the fastest time.
  • Please check the online catalogue first. If you email a question like: ‘I’m interested in Victorian pottery, what do you have of that?’ there is a pretty high likelihood that enquiry is getting dropped to the bottom of the queue. We aren’t there to do your research for you!

  • Then again, something like: ‘I’ve identified these three objects I’d like to know more about, plus anything else that comes to mind’ is fine.
  • That said, please please PLEASE include reference numbers in your emails. Museums look after literally thousands of objects and just saying ‘the 1850s textile from Burma’ is specific but likely not good enough. It helps us to send emails to the right person and keep track of the enquiry with a number.
  • Be realistic about the number of objects you enquire about. Please be sure you genuinely need to know about everything you are asking for – researching a huge object lists takes lots of time, especially if you only think you are really interest in one or two.

  • Similarly- do you really need to see those objects? Likely a picture will do and what you really want to see is the object file- the provenance. There’s no point in physically getting an object from an off-site store when really what you want to know is who owned it, collected it etc. Be sure to ask for the right thing.
  • Be polite. It sounds like the most basic one, but sadly often neglected. Yes it is (in a way) curators’ jobs to help you, but they are doing it on a tight schedule and budget, so be kind.

Although people may not realise it (and it may not always feel this way for museum people) but research requests are actually really important and helpful. Tracking the number of requests certain objects and files get can be important for funding bids for conservation or digitisation projects. In depth research on the collections by external sources can be an important resource that museum people just don’t have time to do. Theses and published articles can be a boon to showing a museum’s research impact and utility and often make their way into grants and annual reports. 

So since a museum is helping you out, be sure you share and share alike. Let them know when research you did using objects is being published and send them a copy. This goes in files to help future generations and can actually help the doors stay open!

Museums and academics have in the past had a fairly tense relationship, but we don’t think this has to be the case. If researchers understood how to work with museums, and remembered to pay it back in terms of research output, everything would be rosy. And maybe curators would be less grumpy about answering their enquiries… maybe.

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