Bethany Rex

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Research Fellow

University of the Arts London

Biography

Bethany is a Research Fellow at University of the Arts London where she works on the Creative Lenses project. She is also a Visiting Research Associate in the department of Media, Culture, Heritage at Newcastle University.

Her research investigates changes which have taken place in the publicly-funded cultural sector, particularly to local authority museum management in the UK, as a result of public sector budget cuts and changing approaches to how public services are managed. She is interested in how individuals and groups adapt to these circumstances and how they understand their roles and responsibilities in this context. In a broader sense, she is interested in whether commitments to ideals such as accessibility, public ownership and equity, which have been central to the legitimacy and distinctiveness of publicly-funded cultural organisations for decades, are being maintained, neglected or re-examined at this current time.

Bethany completed her undergraduate degree in Combined Arts at Durham University in 2009. After working in arts publishing for several years, she commenced her MA in Museum Studies at the University of East Anglia in 2012. During the MA she became interested in government initiatives which pushed an expanded role for individuals and groups in the design, delivery and decision-making structures surrounding public services and how these initiatives informed museum policy and practice. The empirical work for her MA thesis led her to the world of the local authority museum, where she developed an interest in the history, functional and symbolic role of these public institutions, as well as the people who work there. This led to her PhD research which examined the intricacies and consequences of transferring public museum buildings to groups with little to no experience of museum work as an alternative to proposed closures prompted by spending cuts.

Before she joined UAL, she was a Research Assistant (2015-16) and Teaching Associate in Media, Culture, Heritage at Newcastle University (2014-16) with a particular focus on the roles and functions of museums and heritage organisations in society over time and their relationship to public policy and governmental initiatives and the changing nature of communication in the cultural sector via digital means and its effect on memory cultures, notions of cultural knowledge and value.

Whilst her research is primarily concerned with a theoretically-informed examination of contemporary changes to the cultural sector, her empirical engagement with local authority museums, and the groups who have taken up the task of managing them, has led her to work with sector bodies to translate her findings into practical outcomes. As part of this, she is currently working on a guide to Community Asset Transfer with the Association of Independent Museums and Arts Council England.

Research interests

Local authority museums, decision-making rationales and practices related to resource allocation in the domain of publicly-funded culture, perceptions of museum work and its priorities by museum professionals and non-professionals, the performative nature of organisational practices and routines specific to the museum sector, museums and public sector ethical codes and methodologies informing research into the organizational aspects of museums. 

Research statement

I approach my primary research interest, the local authority museum, as both an organisation and an institution. This perspective has informed a special issue on ‘Museum Methodologies’ to be published in Museum and Society in 2018, edited by myself along with colleagues Dr Nuala Morse and Sarah Harvey Richardson.

As an organisation, my aim is to focus on the mundane aspects of museum work and to gain a better understand not only of what the museum professional does during their day-to-day working lives but how the routines and requirements they engage with have a structuring effect on how museum work is done, and hint at why it might continue to be done in certain ways over time. This interest emerged from the empirical work I conducted as part of my PhD research and makes use of an actor-network-theory perspective in order to foreground material practices and their effects via ethnography and other qualitative methods conducive to this focus.

I have long been fascinated by the idea of the local authority museum. These institutions, because of their ever-present origin stories as well as their positioning as part of representative local government structures, shoulder a great deal of responsibility in terms of the values they are expected to honour in their practice. I am interested in how the roles assigned to local authority museums as public institutions are changing and equally how people working in these museums understand their responsibilities and loyalties in this context. In this regard, the efforts of leaders in the museum sector to advocate for the significance and value of their institutions remaining as part of an infrastructure of public culture, both in terms of how they are funded and who they endeavor to benefit, is an important component of my interest in the museum as an institution.

Part of the institutional identity of public museums, and other publicly-supported civic venues such as libraries and parks is that their uniqueness and, to a certain degree, value is seen to flow from their non-commercial character. Relatedly, these institutions were founded and continue to be informed by principles of equitable access, public ownership for posterity as well the free circulation of knowledge and ideas. Although there are important differences regarding their institutional histories, funding infrastructures and relationships to local democratic structures, these principles inform practitioners working in the publicly-funded cultural sector as a whole. However, these principles are arguably challenged and their reinterpretation necessitated by contemporary changes to how culture is funded and who is involved in its management. I explored these dynamics in relation to the local authority museum as part of my doctoral research. More recently I have begun to explore these questions in relation to cultural organisations operating across Europe.

Projects, awards and grants

Civic culture: an intervention into contemporary debate. Funded by the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal Award. Co-Investigator with Prof Rhiannon Mason, 2017-18

How to successfully take over your local museum. Funded by Arts Council England/Association of Independent Museums. 2017-18

From PhD to Publication. Funded by PGR Innovation Fund, Newcastle University. Co-proposer with Jennifer Locke and Alexia Mellor. 2016

Local Authority Museums After the Cuts: A Study of Other-than-Public Forms of Management. Funded by AHRC Doctoral Award, 2013-17

School of World Art and Museology Scholarship. Funded by University of East Anglia, 2012-13