Show your art, institutions told

May 9, 2003

Universities do not make the most of their museum collections, keeping them for select researchers rather than opening them up for teaching purposes.

As the University of East Anglia's Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts begins its 25th anniversary celebrations, its director Nicola Johnson has spoken out.

"Most university museums don't exploit their collections' potential for teaching. Most just see them as any other museum. This is the only university that runs postgraduate museum courses in the museum.

"The Sainsbury Centre is a bit like a teaching hospital," she added.

"Students work alongside professionals - it's the best training they can get."

She said most museums also had not woken up to their research potential.

With other university departments close at hand, they could be used for generic research - for example, into how visitors use exhibitions and how they learn.

All staff employed by the centre have teaching duties. There are about 60 undergraduate and 40 postgraduate students, including 11 PhD researchers, based in the centre at any time. Students walk through the collection to get to their classes each day, and exhibits are housed in cases that allow 360 degree access.

Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury (parents of science minister Lord Sainsbury) donated their art collection to the UEA in 1973. The centre, housed in a building by the then unknown architect Norman Foster, opened in 1978. Ten years later, the Sainburys also endowed a research centre.

They began collecting in the 1930s, picking up inexpensive pieces from relative unknowns such as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. Unlike many contemporary collectors, the Sainsburys focused on non-western art, with many pieces from the Americas, Africa and Oceania, as well as prehistoric Eskimo art and the library of poet John Donne. The collection has doubled in size since the centre opened.

The Sainsburys originally offered the collection to Cambridge University.

But they feared it would be broken up and they wanted to create an international centre where students and academics could study and be enthused.

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