Wealth of nations

Filled with treasures from around the globe and across the ages, England’s university museums are as varied as their funding, but those of Oxford and Cambridge still take the lion’s share of Hefce cash. Matthew Reisz on the changing roles of these repositories of knowledge

October 25, 2012


In the past few years, the Courtauld Gallery in London has mounted exhibitions on artists ranging from Michelangelo to Mondrian, by way of Cézanne’s card players and Walter Sickert’s Camden Town nudes. The University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has unwrapped a child mummy, brought us Royal Elephants from Mughal India and taken visitors on a tour of Claude Lorrain’s “enchanted landscape”. After Vermeer’s Women at the turn of this year, the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is now showing the tomb treasures of Han China. And the Manchester Museum served as one of the venues for We Face Forward, this summer’s major exhibition of contemporary art from West Africa.

So the first thing to say about England’s university museums is that they offer a huge range and number of spectacular temporary shows likely to thrill anyone interested in the visual arts.

On a completely different scale is Dorich House, built in 1936 for the Russian-born Estonian sculptor Dora Gordine and her husband, diplomat and scholar Richard Hare. Although the exterior has been described as looking like an Eastern European telephone exchange, the elegant interior features Gordine’s studio, a gallery displaying a lavish selection of her work and the couple’s private apartment.

After Gordine died in 1991, Dorich House was taken on by its next-door neighbour, Kingston University. It was extensively restored and awarded museum status in 2004. Run by a single full-time curator, Brenda Martin, with the help of volunteers, it operates on a fairly hand-to-mouth basis and is open about 26 days a year. Yet it is a fascinating place to visit, offering both an overview of an interesting artist’s career and the chance to nose around someone else’s home.

Here, then, is a second key point about university museums: they come in many shapes and sizes - and so does their funding. Of about 100 regularly open to the public and 300 used largely for research, 31 receive money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Museums, Galleries and Collections Fund. More than half of this goes to the four institutions mentioned in the first paragraph: the Ashmolean (£2.2 million for 2012-13), the Fitzwilliam (£1.42 million), the Manchester Museum (£1.35 million) and the Courtauld (£825,000).

Next on the list are Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum (£725,000), Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery (£720,000) and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (£330,000). It is necessary to go further to get beyond those same four cities and reach Norwich, home to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia (£300,000), and the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life (£300,000).

Furthermore, of the 16 Renaissance Major partners that will collectively receive about £20 million for each of the next three years as part of the Arts Council’s Renaissance programme for regional museums, three are (or include) university museums: the Manchester Partnership (Manchester City Galleries, Manchester Museum, Whitworth Art Gallery); the Oxford University Museums and Oxfordshire County Museums Service scheme; and the University of Cambridge Museums initiative.

What are we to make of this? The temptation might be to see it as some sort of Oxbridge fix. Rivals for the title of the world’s greatest university museum, the Ashmolean (which opened in 1683) and the Fitzwilliam (which opened to the public in 1848) are both “encyclopedic”, covering many artistic media and parts of the world over several thousand years (although neither is strong on photography or Latin America). They hold many invaluable objects from antiquity, plus Old Master drawings and paintings that obviously require scrupulous conservation. So they are always going to need funding on a scale that dwarfs most other university museums. Nevertheless, the Hefce figures still suggest a lack of balance across the sector.

And that leads to a further issue. The Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam and the Courtauld (which is particularly strong in early Renaissance, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting) are, in broad terms, similar kinds of institution, focused on the “high art” of the past, with a much more limited interest in contemporary and any kind of “popular” culture.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York attracted vast numbers as well as many sniffy comments for its Art of the Motorcycle exhibition in 1998. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is still showing Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 and has just unveiled Hollywood Costume. There seem to be few signs of anything similar at the main Oxbridge museums - just as the study of popular culture is far less developed there than at many other universities.

This may represent a perfectly reasonable policy for individual institutions (not least since directors are constrained by the collections they inherit) and can certainly lead to some wonderful exhibitions. But it also means that museums that embody interestingly different perspectives on what counts as “culture” and what is worth looking at get a far smaller slice of the funding cake.

To get a better sense of how the system works, we need to go back to Hefce’s 2010 review of funding for university museums and galleries. This clarified and updated the core criteria. Institutions were assessed on the basis of how far they were “providing a service to the wider research community” and “supporting the provision of a high-quality teaching and learning experience by the wider HE community”, in each case “at significant cost” beyond meeting the needs of their own researchers and students. Also under scrutiny were their “public engagement activities” and the extent to which they addressed “Hefce’s widening participation objective to promote and provide the opportunity of successful participation in higher education to everyone who can benefit from it”.

Forty-four submissions from 28 institutions were received, and four collections were subsequently funded for the first time: the University of Bristol Theatre Collection (£60,000); the University of Brighton Design Archives (£60,000); the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge (£160,000); and the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives (£120,000). Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, on the other hand, lost the Hefce money it had been receiving.

Despite these changes, and the clear and relatively uncontentious criteria employed, it would not be unfair to suggest that a certain inertia was built into the system. The judging panel recognised “some constraints due to the inherited pattern of support” and, in cases where “a submission met the criteria well”, it “broadly maintained funding at the level provided in 2009-10”. It also “proposed that the relative funding allocations are set for a five-year period to provide crucial stability and allow the museums to plan for the future”.

“It is appropriate we should be one of the most generously supported, even in tough times,” Timothy Potts, director of the Fitzwilliam, told Times Higher Education shortly before leaving to take up the directorship of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “We have been able to demonstrate the three outcomes Hefce is looking for: research, teaching and engagement and outreach. We are getting more than most, but we are delivering on the criteria.”

In terms of research, for example, Potts points out that “over the past 20 or 30 years, major exhibitions have provided a hook for books that become the standard works. A lot of research in many areas, including history and sociology, depends on material culture. We are the custodians of that and provide access to it. We are absolutely in alignment with the university’s educational mission, and not just some sort of decorative addition.”

As for outreach, Potts claims that “after King’s College Chapel and the Backs, the Fitzwilliam is the most visited destination in Cambridge. Our events are the greatest bridgehead into the community the university has, and it is clear that the Vermeer and Han exhibitions draw a different demographic to Cambridge from visitors in general.”

For Nicholas Thomas, director of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which received £175,000 from Hefce), “outreach” embraces everyone from locals to people on the other side of the world. Over the past six years, he explains, “staff have worked to transform MAA into a genuinely public museum. The collections have much to offer wider audiences, not least Cambridgeshire ones, since many finds come from the areas in which they live and reflect the complexity of the human past in the region.”

He adds: “We (also) have a particular profile in collaborative work with indigenous communities - notably Maori, Torres Strait Islanders and various Native American groups - and aim to build the sophistication of methodologies in that field.”

The museum is also looking to “increase our understanding of the art, traditions and cultures” of those communities “and facilitate their access to relevant collections (here) and elsewhere”, Thomas says.

Jennifer Barnes, Cambridge’s pro vice-chancellor for international strategy, is also responsible for its museums, which she sees as “part of the conversation we as a university and region can have with other parts of the world”.

Yet, by “actively drawing people in”, they are also “the most accessible and tangible expression of what we do and who we are that the university presents to the external world. Cambridge has a sense of being something it might be difficult to engage with because of the level of scholarship and eminence. The museums entirely contradict that. They are profoundly accessible to the community and wider audiences, (who) get a sense of how the university feels about things and functions. You wouldn’t walk up to the Cavendish Laboratory and start engaging with a physicist. (But) you can get to the physics through the Whipple Museum, the anthropology museum, the zoology museum …”

In the case of many local young people, as a recent Fitzwilliam annual report points out, “a visit to the (museum), whether with their school or independently, will be their first engagement” with a higher education institution. In 2009-10, for example, more than 14,000 pupils took part in sessions led by education staff, and as many came in groups led by their teachers.

When asked about money for university museums, Barnes agrees that there are genuine questions about “whether the pot should be spread more equitably across institutions or whether we should be putting the funding into the truly historic collections, with an expectation to share, to loan, to be open and accessible to other parts of the country and the world”.

Cambridge has “challenged the museums to be national and even international collections in terms of lending material and providing access to scholars”, she says.

Barnes adds: “They already have a strong track record in reaching out regionally, nationally and internationally, and they are positioning themselves to do more of that rather than less. The loan scheme for other institutions in the country and beyond is absolutely core to that.”

When Christopher Brown was interviewed by Sir Colin Lucas, who was then Oxford’s vice-chancellor, for the position of director of the Ashmolean, he “offered ideas about how we could move it from a somewhat inward-looking university institution into a great public museum”. Brown elaborates: “The collections here are astonishing. It is by far the most important museum of art and archaeology outside London, so we wanted to open it up as a great national museum that happens to be in Oxford.”

Under Brown’s directorship, which commenced in 1998, public interest in the museum has certainly grown. After a £61.3 million redevelopment project completed in 2009 (which included the construction of a new building), annual visitor numbers, previously around 300,000, spiked at 1.2 million before settling down to about 1 million (in a city of 165,000).

The Ashmolean operates as a department of the university, with curatorial staff expected to teach and to be research-active; uniquely, they are even granted a year’s sabbatical in seven. But Brown is delighted that “local people are also using it in just the way I like people to use museums - just as they would come into the National Gallery between trains at Charing Cross and see one or two pictures. That’s what makes a free museum so different from a paying museum.”

A snapshot of its revenue sources (see graphic right) makes clear how dependent the Ashmolean is on “public” money in the broad sense. Of a budget close to £8 million in the financial year 2010-11, just under £2.2 million came through Hefce as a funding council grant, nearly £1.1 million from the university and almost £300,000 from the Renaissance programme. Donations, meanwhile, accounted for about £1.7 million and commercial activities, grouped as “sales, services and trading”, generated slightly over £1.4 million.

Brown acknowledges that money from Hefce is “hugely significant for our ordinary running costs”, so if it were ever put straight into the general Oxford “pot”, he could face “a challenge about whether the business of the university is to run a museum or to organise teaching faculties. The more we are involved in teaching, the more important we are to the university’s basic job of teaching and research.”

Perhaps partly as a result, one of Brown’s main concerns is “getting the collections used more in teaching”. Certain rooms in the new Rick Mather Extension are designed for “teaching from the object”, so the challenge is to get not only classicists (who have traditionally focused on texts) but also medics and even business school academics doing just that. This has led to the university engagement programme, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the tune of $1.1 million (£686,000) in total, employing a staff member and three postdoctoral researchers to go to the faculties and show them how such teaching works.

Although it is still early days, Brown reports that “we’ve got the money and the people in place, the conversations are beginning. We discussed it with our colleagues beforehand and it’s welcomed. We’re talking to the medics, for example, about how our collections (such as anatomical drawings) could be used in teaching. It’s part of widening the curriculum for medics.”

This leaves the question of how far these great museums remain backward-looking, still slightly wary of the contemporary and the “popular”.

At the Fitzwilliam, the gallery specifically devoted to 20th-century and contemporary objects is next to the main exhibition space and is incorporated into it for major shows. For Potts, the former director, this is an area the museum “needs to continue to build on, through cultivating collectors and artists. We have had exhibitions of contemporary calligraphy and of leading contemporary artists such as Howard Hodgkin and Maggi Hambling, but we haven’t focused, for example, on street culture. Should we do so in the future? Yes!”

The next stage of the Ashmolean’s redevelopment will devote a whole new floor to modern and contemporary art, for which Brown plans to “borrow from important collections, since we won’t be able to put together a stellar collection of our own”.

Yet his general policy is that the museum’s exhibitions “ought to be related to the permanent collection and deepen one’s understanding of it. I doubt whether ballgowns or Harley-Davidsons are the future.”


Museum artefacts

1 Drawing of a unicorn, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

2 Fossil, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

3 Leafy sea dragon, Cole Museum of Zoology, University of Reading

4 Bronze bird, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

5 Bronze head, Dorich House, Kingston University

6 Portrait of Jan de Mol, Courtauld Gallery

7 Terry’s Lozenge label, Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York

8 Lantern slide, Alfred Denny Museum, University of Sheffield

9 Cast of rattlesnake, Museum of the University of St Andrews

10 Carving, Gordon Museum of Pathology, King’s College London














University museums and galleries in receipt of Hefce funding
Higher education institutionMuseum/galleryCollectionsHistoryHefce funding 2012-13 (£)Number of employees*
University of OxfordAshmolean Museum of Art and ArchaeologyImportant collection of archaeological specimens, antiquities and fine artOpened 16832,200,000156
University of CambridgeFitzwilliam MuseumWorld-class collections of art and antiquities spanning centuries and civilisationsOpened to public 18481,420,000118
University of ManchesterManchester MuseumIncludes a large collection from ancient Egypt as well as zoological objects, a herbarium and a vivariumOpened to public 18901,350,00049
Courtauld Institute of ArtCourtauld GalleryOne of the finest small art museums in the worldEstablished 1932825,00020
University of OxfordPitt Rivers MuseumCares for the university’s anthropology and world archaeology collectionsFounded 1884725,00051
University of ManchesterWhitworth Art GalleryIncludes one of the country’s finest collections of British watercoloursFounded 1889720,00041
University of OxfordOxford University Museum of Natural HistoryHouses the university’s scientific collections of zoological, entomological and geological specimensCompleted 1860330,00036
University of ReadingMuseum of English Rural LifeComprehensive collection relating to the history of food, farming and the countrysideEstablished 1951300,0009
University of East AngliaSainsbury Centre for Visual ArtsArt museum founded when Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury donated their collection to the universityOpened 1978300,00037
Newcastle UniversityGreat North MuseumSpans natural history, geology, archaeology and world culturesEstablished 1884240,00019
University College LondonPetrie Museum of Egyptian ArchaeologyOne of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the worldEstablished 1892180,0008
University of CambridgeMuseum of Archaeology and AnthropologyWorld-class collections of Oceanic, Asian, African and Native American art and archaeological findsEstablished 1884175,00024
University of BirminghamBarber Institute of Fine ArtsOne of the UK’s finest small collections of European artOpened 1939 160,00024
University of CambridgeScott Polar Research Institute – Polar Museum and collectionsArtefacts illustrating polar explorationCollection opened 1934160,00010
Royal Academy of MusicRoyal Academy of Music MuseumA world-renowned collection of musical instruments, manuscripts, objects and imagesOpened 2001150,0006
Courtauld Institute of ArtCourtauld LibrariesHistorical art books, periodicals and exhibition cataloguesEstablished 1932 and 1944140,00011
University of YorkBorthwick Institute for ArchivesOne of the biggest archive repositories outside LondonFounded 1953120,00013
University of OxfordMuseum of the History of ScienceAn unrivalled collection of early scientific instruments Collection began 1924 100,00012
University of KentBritish Cartoon ArchiveCovers the history of British cartooning over the past 200 yearsEstablished 197390,0002
London Metropolitan UniversityWomen’s Library†The most extensive women’s history collection in the UKEstablished 192690,00013
University of CambridgeKettle’s YardA house containing a distinctive collection of 20th-century art, with an adjacent galleryDonated 196690,00012
Durham UniversityOriental MuseumThe only museum in the North of England devoted entirely to the art and archaeology of the OrientOpened 196080,0007
Middlesex UniversityMuseum of Domestic Design and ArchitectureWallpapers, textiles and designs from the late 19th to the late 20th century used to decorate “ordinary” homesCollection began 196680,0005
University of CambridgeUniversity Museum of ZoologyA large collection of scientifically important zoological materialCollection began 181480,00010
University for the Creative ArtsCrafts Study CentreAn international centre for research in the field of modern craftsEstablished 197070,0003
University of BristolTheatre CollectionOne of the world’s largest archives of British theatre history and “live art”Founded 195160,0003
University of BrightonDesign ArchivesBritish design and global design organisations in the 20th centuryEstablished 199460,0006
University College LondonGrant Museum of ZoologyLondon academy’s only remaining zoological museumFounded 182850,0004
University of BirminghamLapworth Museum of GeologyOne of the UK’s oldest specialist geological museumsEstablished 188040,0003
University College LondonUCL Art MuseumFine art ranging from Old Masters to student work from the Slade School of Fine ArtCollection founded 184731,0003
University of CambridgeWhipple Museum of the History of ScienceScientific instruments and apparatus related to the history of scienceFounded 194431,0004
* Paid full-time equivalent staff, rounded up/down. May not include central support staff. Posts may not be funded by the university.%3Cbr /%3E† Moving to the London School of Economics in 2013.
Source: Hefce, museum websites and university press offices

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