By Inge Zwart
It’s a version of a story that we have heard many times by now: someone with plans for April/May/June had to cancel their flight/stay/research right before leaving, and was left with a need to adjust. As part of a PhD research program such as POEM, I count myself lucky that I was able to do this at my pace, within the security of a job and support of my university and research group. Although it didn’t feel like it for most of the period, I can present a positive spin to my story in this article and will highlight how I have found a way to conduct fieldwork while having to work from home.
The plan that got disrupted
This was the idea: go to Denmark for POEM’s Knowledge Hub at the end of March and leave for the Netherlands from Aarhus, to stay there for 3 months. In the Netherlands I had arranged a stay at a Dutch museum to conduct ethnographic research within the public programs department that works extensively within a participatory practice framework. I would use this data to build my third case for my dissertation about professional perspectives on participatory practices in museums. In my overall research plan, this year was reserved mostly for data generation for all three cases.
In the middle of March it became clear we had to delay my visit. Like many others we decided to postpone ‘for now’, seeing what would be possible later. At the same time, travel restrictions were introduced at Uppsala University and I was not allowed to leave abroad for work. Soon, the museum and I, understood that it was best to extend the ‘postpone until further notice’ indefinitely. And so, slowly but surely, I realised: conducting fieldwork as I planned will not be possible for now and Uppsala will be my home base for the upcoming period.
As anyone following COVID-related news in Europe knows, Sweden had quite a different approach to battling the spread of the virus from most European countries. Adjusting to life within the few restrictions introduced became a matter of individual responsibility. Both at work and in my personal life, it was mostly the uncertainty of it all that was and continues to be straining and stressful.
As the change in my research plan was introduced quite suddenly and within a short timeframe before I would undertake the plan, I first had to take in the short-term cancelation. After this initial adjustment, I started to – guided by my local supervisors – think about how to adapt my research. What is still possible within the restrictions?
Should I wait till it is possible to go and carry out my original plan, or would I risk a further delay? What is necessary for me in terms of data generation and how can I fulfil that need in another way? And most importantly: what should I do now?
Finding new ways
First things first, there still was enough other work to do. Turns out data analysis takes a lot of time, and I still had enough data to analyse from my previous fieldwork. So, there was by no means a shortage of tasks. Second, without even really planning for it, I re-connected more intensely with the museum in Sweden whose work I follow for my dissertation. Because of my planned visit to the Netherlands, this collaboration would be on the backburner until I would return to Sweden. Now, I all of a sudden had more time to connect with them.
Fieldwork over the phone
We quickly established a weekly phone call routine. In the beginning there was a lot to catch up on. As a small community museum, they were dependent on just three part time workers to keep the small building open. When the pandemic hit Sweden, they soon had to close for visits, not just because of restrictions from the government, but mostly because of limited ability of coming in themselves. They were either dependent on traveling with public transport, on parental leave or part of the risk group. They started working on new applications and collaborations. Initially, they were glad to have more time and focus for this task. Applications were both necessary for immediate support for the museum due to the corona crisis, as well as the general ongoing work that was planned all along.
We continued to call. The director would talk me through her tasks, the discussions they have had with each other and their collaborators. She would share about the impact of the restrictions on her life, and I shared about mine. I would ask questions about what they had mentioned in the conversation before, how they came to a certain decision or how she felt their work was changing during this period. They were interesting and fruitful conversations, that further solidified my relationship with the museum.
Eventually, or perhaps now, it is time to reflect. Is this fieldwork? I started out thinking this was just a way to keep our contact warm for when it would be possible to conduct ethnographic research again. Now, I believe it is a little bit of both. The notes from the conversations show a relevant shift and, as they took place quite regularly, they are witness of an extraordinary time in the existence of the museum. If and when ‘normal’ fieldwork will be possible again depends both on restrictions on institutional and governmental level, as well as on the plans of the museum itself. The conversations we have had over the past half a year will ensure that at that time we can ‘hit the ground running’ in our collaboration and in my research. Time will tell if this becomes the main ‘meat’ of my data, or if will just be a short element of a multi-faceted ethnographic study.
Inge Zwart is a POEM fellow working at Uppsala University in Sweden. There she does research on participatory practices in museums. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org // Twitter – @zwart_i