Thesis Check-in: The Ins and Outs of Interviews
Normally I write exhibition reviews, but today I am popping in with an update on my thesis project. After doing an exhibition project to complete my undergraduate degree, I was curious to try my hand at research. The topic that finally became my project was developed in conversation with various faculty. It considers calls for decolonization that have become prevalent in the museum sector over the last several decades and a lack of scholarship specific to how these calls have been taken up in the context of public art institutions that often deal with contemporary art rather than cultural objects. The project looks to the perspective of museum and gallery professionals to better understand how institutions comprehend calls for decolonization, how they have been responding in practice, and what challenges they have encountered in doing this work.
The best way to answer these questions seemed to be to go straight to the source – to ask the people doing the work! As such, a central element of my research were semi-structured interviews in which I spoke to professionals about their experience in the field. While interviews seem like a straightforward method of data collection, they require a number of logistical steps. For anyone considering this method, this article details some of the main elements involved in developing an interview-based research project.
After writing a research proposal, researchers must complete a Human Participant Ethics Protocol and submit it to the Research Ethics Board (REB) for review. My supervisor was able to provide an example of a successful REB Protocol so I could get an idea of how to answer each question. The answers to many of the questions will likely already be present in your proposal, however some questions ask you to think specifically about how participants are going to be recruited, what information is going to be collected, how you will obtain informed consent, any potential risks and benefits, and how they will be mitigated through the interview process. The Protocol also requires a copy of the interview questions, the recruitment materials, and a copy of the consent form. While preparing all of this information may seem tedious, once the application is complete, you will be ready to begin your research. Be sure to check the REB deadlines to ensure that your application is reviewed as promptly as possible. The REB often returns applications with a request for edits or clarification, so make sure to build in time to address these issues in your research timeline. I submitted my REB over the summer without realizing that the committee does not meet in August which led to some delays.
Next, I asked a colleague who roughly fit my interview criteria to do a test interview where they both answered the questions and helped me identify any issues with the interview flow and structure. This allowed me to practice asking my questions and to see how a real person would respond to them. This conversation was especially fruitful as it allowed me to tweak my questions, their order, and add additional notes to myself that might help clarify the questions in other interviews.
From there, I began recruiting interview participants. First, I relied on my personal connections, reaching out to people I know personally in the field to ask them to participate or to pass the information along to others who may be interested. I began doing the interviews as responses came in and kept track of anyone who was interested in a detailed spreadsheet. Next, I developed a list of potential interview participants and sent invitations via email. Museum professionals are busy people – especially those in small institutions who often take on the roles of many people at once. If someone expressed interest in the study and then stopped responding I was diligent to follow up after a couple of weeks (and sometimes I had to follow up more than once). Often, the study had just slipped their mind, but they were still interested and happy to participate.
In total, I did one practice interview and twenty-four official interviews. After spending hours on Zoom and getting stood up a few times, I had around 350 pages of transcripts to then code and make sense of. I read through these accounts and made document after document to siphon down the information and draw out the key points that appeared across the interviews. Now, with a pile of data, it’s just me and my computer day after day, writing away.
Using interviews has been incredibly useful for my study. At times they were frustrating and time consuming, leaving me wondering if there may have been a better way to address the answers I was looking for. But, what I am left with is a rich and detailed picture of how decolonizing as a term is being taken up in public art institutions right now. I hope my summary might provoke some reflection in the field and serious engagement with where we go from here and the language that we use.