An article by Stuart Bowes reflecting on the role of the Museum Registrar and collections management practice has been published in the latest edition of Museum and Society.
Stuart Bowes is in the third year of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Collaborative Doctoral Award, jointly hosted by the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies and the Royal Armouries. His PhD research explores the role of the registrar staff at the Royal Armouries in enabling public engagement with its weapons collections.
In support of these investigations, he has also undertaken training as a museum registrar at the Royal Armouries. In this capacity, he has contributed to the management, documentation and lending of its collections of arms and armour.
The Museum Registrar as ‘Assembled Role’: A Productive Conceptualization of Collections Management Practice? started life as part of the introduction to Stuart’s doctoral thesis on the management of restricted museum collections. But as his research progressed, he soon realised that the pivotal role of registrars required dedicated investigation.
“As I have learned throughout my PhD, especially during my work at the Royal Armouries, registrars are an integral part of the museum landscape. Yet, the backstage nature of the post means their involvement can be difficult to define with any certainty.
“By examining the interconnected functions and duties that constitute registrar practice, my article seeks to determine their role with greater clarity.
“I begin by exploring the reasons for this ambiguity – largely the result of the uncoordinated creation of registrar posts by individual museums. The article then identifies the functions that are regularly associated with registrar practice in existing definitions, often created by registrars themselves.
“Out of this material, I fashion a new conception of registrar practice made up of the individual duties that they are widely expected to perform. The resulting ‘assembled role’ spans the fields of resource management, logistics and risk management.
“Inspired by the work of Dr Arran Rees, my colleague in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, I demonstrate the ability of this approach to help us better understand the contemporary registrar profession by considering their multifaceted role in the acquisition of a digital meme.
“The article concludes by calling for further research into registrars and their practice. Without their essential contribution, museums would struggle to collect, preserve and display the surviving material legacy of the human experience.
“After many stages of writing and rewriting, it is great to see the article in published form. Hopefully it will bring greater visibility to the tireless efforts of registrars in managing museum collections of all kinds. Watch this space for more reflections on their practice.”
Abigail Harrison Moore (Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at the University of Leeds) supervises Stuart’s PhD, alongside Laura Bell (Director of Collections, Royal Armouries) and Jen Kaines (Head of Collections, Royal Armouries). Abigail said:
“Stuart’s research addresses a crucial question around the relationship between a registrar's focus on ensuring all of the governance and legislative processes and policies around collections of arms and armour are followed, and the obligation for museums to ensure access.
“Recruiting Stuart as Postgraduate Researcher to the Registrars: Training for the Future project offered us the exciting opportunity to work with an incredibly able researcher and writer, and someone who had not had the 'on the ground' access to registrar practice before.
“Stuart's journey through his research has been transformative for us all. As we saw at the recent European Registrars Conference in Strasbourg, our work together with Stuart has enabled us to develop our thinking about the complexity of what registrars do on a daily basis and so continue to offer bespoke training opportunities.
“I am delighted that Stuart's careful, complex and highly thoughtful research is now represented by this article in Museum and Society. We encourage all of our Postgraduate Researchers in the school to think about opportunities to present their ideas in the public realm, via workshops, conferences and different forms of writing.
“An article in such a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal points towards Stuart's future opportunities as a museum professional and/or academic researcher.”
Museum and Society is an independent peer-reviewed journal which publishes new writing and research by academics and museum professionals about museums in their social contexts. The journal is both international in scope and at the cutting edge of empirical and theoretical research.
The Museum Registrar as ‘Assembled Role’: A Productive Conceptualization of Collections Management Practice? was published in Vol 21, No 1 (2023) of Museum and Society on 15 May 2023.
Find out about Stuart’s journey as a Postgraduate Researcher in the Registrars: Training for the Future blog.
Photo of Stuart Bowes. Image courtesy of University of Leeds.