Becoming the world’s most research-informed science museum group
The Science Museum Group (SMG) will become the world’s most research-informed science museum group by 2022. It will do so by building on core strengths (such as the history and material culture of science, technology, engineering, medicine and the media) while developing expertise in international collaboration, digital innovation and audience experience.
Research underpins the work of SMG, enabling us to deliver the group mission of inspiring futures through the creative exploration of science, with the aims of building scientific literacy and inspiring the next generation.
Research is a key means by which the SMG values of thinking big, revealing wonder, sharing authentic stories, igniting curiosity and openness are expressed.
Research is an essential instrument for addressing the core and supporting priorities described in Inspiring Futures: The idea of ‘science capital’ was born in a research collaboration; further research will enable SMG to investigate and develop its implications.
Research enables SMG staff to grow our audiences and exceed their expectations because it enhances their professional practice across collections, visitors and policy, leading to a better cultural experience. The specific research audience is numerically small but disproportionately significant, as its members address otherwise unseen and unused collections and develop new narratives from them.
Research sustains and helps grow our collection, uncovering forgotten relevance and revealing new stories. It can be foundational in securing international working, enabling new networks.
Research into site histories can support the transformation of our estate; digital research is a priority area. Funded research brings in both in-kind value and income in support of SMG priorities, aiming to be cost-neutral to the organisation.
A reinvigorated research culture across the Group, that builds on One Collection and acknowledges expertise in all teams, will enable SMG to create a common culture of research, curation, display and learning. This is a major opportunity for SMG to gain influence by delivering a world-class and sector-leading research programme as a fully-integrated part of how the group works, expressing our international status, with an appropriate commitment to the highest intellectual standards.
SMG is one of 20 heritage Independent Research Organisations (IROs) of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This status recognises research activity and capacity and enables access to government-derived research funds, notably through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the council that most closely matches our activity. Research funding is a partnership of values, from which funder and funded both benefit; part of our strategy is therefore to work to support our funders, even as they support us financially.
Research funding is in a state of flux. The establishment of UKRI and the availability of new hypothecated funding streams under the Industrial Strategy and the Global Challenges Research Fund are providing new opportunities at the same time as Brexit has introduced significant uncertainties. This strategy therefore includes measures to remain cognisant of the changing scene.
‘Research’ here means the set of practices by which SMG undertakes ‘the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions’ (OED 2010). SMG undertakes differing kinds and levels of research, some of which is more academic, and some of which, our ‘everyday research’, is close to the secondary OED definition of the verb ‘to discover or verify information for use in a book, programme etc’. At the more academic end of the spectrum, the AHRC definition is valuable. This proposes that coherent research should define a series of research questions, lay out a research context, and specify the research methods for addressing the research questions (AHRC Funding Guide).
SMG staff are conducting research all the time: to develop the content for displays; to understand, preserve and build our collections; to gain insights into audiences; to develop new visitor experiences; and to build knowledge of our world and that of our predecessors as we consider the role of the museums in the future. Although much of this everyday research goes unrecognised as ‘formal’ research, it is essential to the work of the SMG Museums; furthermore, it is the foundation for what we can do in terms of more formal and scholarly funded research. In other words, there is a connection and continuum between the more basic fact gathering and checking kind of activity and the more analytical and synthetic style demonstrated, for example, in our publications.
Research is at the heart of what SMG does, and to succeed we need to recognise, support and leverage our research to the greatest extent possible. Where there is research to be done, then there is also the scope to enhance its confidence, quality, efficiency and visibility. Growing research will enable SMG to grow as a whole, as it brings in extra capacity at the same time as it builds national and international networks, and enhances understanding of collections, displays and audiences.
What SMG will do
Achieving this aim is a shared responsibility across SMG, in which the Research Department takes a key role. The department will explicitly become a service department to the Group, supporting research of all kinds and levels with SMG professional groups. Through collaboration, we will enhance research in digital, conservation science, learning and audiences as well as collections and history.
Because research will function across the Group, it will contribute to the creation of a truly coherent and integrated group of museums, in the spirit of One Collection. 
To ensure close integration with the museums’ programmes, SMG managers responsible for new cultural programming (including galleries and exhibitions) will hold early discussions with the SMG Research Department to ensure that, where appropriate, research funding applications can be developed in a timely fashion.
Across SMG, managers will support staff in the development of research skills and ambitions, including selective support for study for master’s degrees and doctorates as forms of continuing professional development.
SMG Research Department will work with colleagues to:
- Ensure that training and development opportunities are put in place for staff across the group to enable strategic research objectives to be met.
- Develop a ladder of research competencies for use by managers across SMG in staff CPD and job descriptions. Collaborate with them to identify opportunities for research, and to implement within job roles, working to an appropriate proportion of time for research activity.
- Extend research networking activities, events and seminar programmes across all SMG museums and the National Collections Centre at Wroughton, to engage with regional and national partners and enhance SMG’s position as an important part of the UK research infrastructure.
- Increase participation in SMG Journal across the group, including support for those less experienced in scholarly research and writing.
- Develop the audience for SMG research amongst university and heritage organisation colleagues and the interested public via event design and effective marketing. Publicise SMG research, through the Journal, museum blogs, Lates, web pages, Annual Research Report and staff update meetings.
- Work with SMG Libraries and Digital to archive research outputs and research data, so that they can be repurposed and made available for future use.
SMG Research Department will work with colleagues to:
- Ensure close alignment between the research programme and SMG’s cultural programmes.
- Increase funding for research activity across the Group, including applying for research projects, networks, fellowships and impact funding.
- Work with colleagues to develop research and research projects in new and existing areas by:
- assisting in transformations of scale (for example assisting in Learning in the transition from project partners to project leaders);
- discussing potential in new (for SMG) areas such as digital, international research and heritage science.
- reinforcing existing research strengths in historical and conservation study of collections.
- Diversify research funding beyond our current core funder (AHRC) to the full range of research funders and, working with SMG’s development department, selectively – for example in the case of named fellowships – to corporates and individuals;
- Sustain funding for postdoctoral training, including for doctorates.
- Establish a SMG-wide Fellowships, Associateships and Exchanges Scheme
- Engage in master’s training as benefits individual museums, and explore potential options for developing our master’s provision.
- Develop a proposal for ‘SMG Research partner’ status for award to selected research organisations.
- Investigate the potential for establishing a centre for the study of a major area of concern, such as histories of use, or innovation.
- Continue to work with the IROs’ Consortium (‘IROC’) to advocate to funding bodies for support for research in heritage organisations.
The Department will continue to oversee the submission of applications to research funders via SMG’s Research Approvals Group, which follows the following criteria to support research that:
- Demonstrates a fit with SMG Inspiring Futures core priorities and SMG Research Priority Themes, including practical contribution to the museums’ Master plans and programmes (see below: item 4, and Appendix 1).
- Displays Intellectual strength appropriate to national museum status and to ensure competitiveness.
- Grows and extends the capabilities and areas of research expertise of the SMG Research Department and its ability to capture funds in a way allows this growth to be ultimately self-financing.
- Delivers training and development opportunities in research practices for SMG staff and students.
- Builds relationships with external partners that contribute to SMG’s research capabilities and enhances reputation of SMG.
What the SMG Research Department is doing
Over five years, the SMG Research Department has developed a set of research practices that provide the experience and skills to enable greater research activity across all SMG sites:
At the Science Museum Dana Research Centre and Library, we have established a model for how research spaces can be run to enable and embody our research culture, cementing our academic reputation and public profile.
This includes resources and workspaces for students, fellows, associates, researchers and staff; an in-demand venue for academic conferences, workshops and book launches; and a seminar programme. SMG has a good track record of funded research projects, housing 13 projects (11 AHRC, two Leverhulme) since 2012.
SMG benefits from involvement in training at both master’s and Doctoral levels (two AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships – 42 students – since 2013).
Doctoral students do valuable work, each devoting three plus years to our collections and concerns.
Postgraduate training enables substantial research to occur, can help train potential recruits for roles in SMG, and creates a wider alumni community that brings vibrancy, inspiration and networks to SMG.
Academic publication is a key means for SMG to be properly outward looking. To support this, SMG will continue to publish and develop the Science Museum Group Journal, also investigating options to extend our online academic publishing.
We will also continue to encourage staff to publish papers in other academic journals, and books with a variety of publishers (working with the publications team and licensing department).
SMG Research Priority Themes exemplify this strategy’s emphasis on conducting research to support the Museums’ masterplans and programmes. They are therefore expected to change moderately often and are reviewed biannually with SMG Executive and Heads of Collections/Chief Curators. In addition to the differing and changing levels of research activity appropriate to each SMG museum’s collections and programmes, each may take the research lead for a particular SMG strategic priority.
A. Top-level and Cross-SMG
- Science Capital, including audience research, public history and the public culture of science;
- The material culture of science: to include histories of use;
- The experience of scientific and technological change;
- Science, technology and the senses, including sound and music;
- Digital collections, digital opportunities;
- Understanding the universe: capturing, analysing and interpreting the physical world;
- Technology, engineering and innovation: how ideas become reality and impact on lives;
- Biosciences: the history and future of life sciences and medicine;
- Science and technology: international perspectives;
B. Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester
The Museum of Science and Industry explores how ideas can change the world, from the Industrial Revolution to today:
- Ways of seeing industry, from contemporary observation to museum experience;
- Public engagement with science and technology, including citizen science, art science practice and science communication.
- Science, industry and the city.
C. National Railway Museum and Locomotion
The National Railway Museum explores how railways fundamentally changed the world in which we live. The themes and stories we showcase are informed by our priority research areas:
- The origin and development of railways in Britain;
- The historic and ongoing influence of railways on the politics, economics, society, and culture of Britain.
- How railways function through the interaction of people and technology;
- The multi-faceted impact of railways internationally, and Britain’s role in shaping them, particularly in China, India and Britain’s African colonies;
- How Research and Development has been integral to defining Britain’s Railways and continues to do so.
D. National Science and Media Museum
The National Science and Media Museum explores the transformative impact of image and sound technologies on our lives. We are interested in research that helps us to better understand our collections, the role of technology in our lives, and how our audiences engage with and use our museum.
- The histories of image and sound technologies, including photography, film, television, technology for live performance and broadcast;
- The transformative impacts of digital on image and sound technologies and the implications for museums and collecting organisations;
- The civic and community role of the museum in a globalised and interconnected world.
E. Science Museum
The Science Museum explores the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine that shape our lives.
- Science and technology in international perspective, especially in China (historical and contemporary aspects);
- Major narratives of science, technology, medicine and culture: STEM responses to global challenges; 19thc and 20thc science and engineering; space technology and exploration;
- The role of technology in everyday life, including domestic technologies;
- Diversifying our understanding of learning, including play as a learning technique.
Research is essential to the authenticity and integrity of the Science Museum Group’s work. It enables us to develop new knowledge or deepen an understanding of a known topic. Conducting research involves exposure to – and engagement with – the world’s most insightful scholars, pioneering industries and the latest thinking on the subjects we represent.
SMG’s research will be underpinned by these values:
Trust and Expertise
At times of increased uncertainty and adversity it is our responsibility, as a public organisation, to support scientific and technological understanding, national and regional culture and civic society. By conducting research that illuminates science and technology while interpreting and disseminating our collections, we can play an important social role as an organisation that brings people together; one that is simultaneously accessible and authoritative.
Shared SMG Culture
A reinvigorated research culture across the Group, that builds on One Collection and acknowledges expertise in all teams, will enable SMG to create a common culture of research, curation and display, uncovering forgotten narratives from our under-studied collection, and developing new stories. This is a major opportunity for SMG to gain influence by delivering a world-class and sector-leading research programme as a fully integrated part of how SMG works. In this we express our status as a world-class cultural heritage organisation with an appropriate commitment to the highest intellectual standards.
Collaboration and Partnerships
Recent research by the Art Fund highlights the potential for forging and extending relationships between museums and universities for the sake of ensuring the health of museums’ understanding of what their collections stand for. Short- and long-term research collaborations, with universities, enthusiast groups, the public and industry, can provide enormous opportunities as researchers are given the chance to learn from others and think beyond traditional museum activities. These can develop into strategic relationships, where long-term collaborative research networks enable essential cultivation of shared research concerns and activity of mutual benefit to heritage organisations, the universities and the public. Collaboration also ensures museums maintain an outward facing, rather than inward, institutional focus, and enables us to leverage internal research capacity.
Research can diversify our activities and minimise the risk in trying new things. By providing new opportunities to work with others, or to experiment with new approaches, research liberates SMG to explore new avenues of scholarly work, interpretation and audience participation, often at no cost to core budgets. It can enable us to construct new frameworks for analysis or prototype content and services on new forms of technology. In short it gives us the opportunity to play with new ideas and new people.
Research activities provide our staff with the opportunity to develop their knowledge, skills and influence, diversify research and development practices, and form new relationships with external professionals. This can include some formal training, e.g. oral history or research methodologies, masters and doctoral training, or more vocational experience e.g. lecturing to Masters students. Conducting research develops expertise and delivers rewards to staff in terms of institutional commitment and external recognition. Our research-active staff act as ambassadors, building networks of influence and benefit to SMG.
SMG has big ambitions to increase our international work. Research funding provides one way to develop new relationships, and to explore the past, present and future of science and technology across the world. As well as building important international research networks, research can also enable us to consider new perspectives on the ways our collections reflect global change. Here, international ambitions and the availability of international research funding promise a virtuous cycle of delivery and grant capture.
 One Collection is our cross-SMG single-collection ethos, overseen by the collections services department, under which we are shifting towards common collection processes and practices. This is linked to our major collection move to the National Collections Centre at Wroughton and the digitisation strategy.