Treasure trove on your doorstep - so unlock it

May 21, 2004

Universities must take more pride in their museums, which are key to achieving strategic goals, says Nichola Johnson

University museums are potentially well placed to support their institutions' strategies while providing a valuable public service at a time when scholarship in most other non-national museums is in decline.

There can be little doubt of the significance of the collections held by the 100 or so publicly accessible university museums.

Although they comprise only 4 per cent of the museum sector, they hold 30 per cent of English collections designated of outstanding national or international importance by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In Scotland, five university museums hold 13 per cent of similarly significant collections.

Responsible stewardship, exemplary management, well-communicated and collaborative scholarship, high professional standards and creative and inclusive public programmes can be found among university museums. The learning and outreach projects developed by some to overcome the limitations of location and external perception are benchmarks for the entire museum sector.

The potential of university museums is identified in this week's report from the University Museums Group. But their achievements seem to be little recognised or lauded by their universities - in spite of the fact that they represent an area of activity in which the museum is already delivering, on behalf of its university, the introductory access to higher education that is central to widening participation. School visits to university museums are for many young people their first and only point of contact with the world of higher education. Museums that are well integrated in the structure and academic life of the university - with public access central, rather than "bolted on" to overall objectives - offer the university the means to achieve strategic and government objectives.

But such museums' collective ability to realise their potential is frequently hampered by strategic impotence in host universities. As director of the University of East Anglia's Sainsbury Centre, I enjoy the full support of a well-informed vice-chancellor and an executive team, but this is uncommon. Colleagues in other museums are distanced from the senior executive "powerhouse" by layers of hierarchy and, sometimes, rivalry. They struggle with levels of revenue funding that prevent them from raising standards to a point at which they might be in a position to unlock increased income from external funding sources. Even the 38 museums fortunate enough to receive funding council support must look to their universities for a considerable proportion of income, although they have an increasingly proactive advocate in the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

University museums and their staff have historically been regarded by many in the wider museum sector as being inward-looking, poorly managed, complacent, dismissive of innovative approaches to "their" collections and neglectful of the professional skills central to the health and contribution of a well-run museum. In the context of the best university museums, however - and "best" does not inevitably imply only those possessed of the most outstanding collections -this perception is not simply outdated, but untenable. In a very few cases, scholarly attainment alone remains a sufficient condition for appointment to the leadership of a publicly accessible museum (occasionally with alarming consequences for collections and staff management) and, in some, staffing structures may lack clarity in terms of the division between a post-holder's academic and public responsibilities.

But, collectively, such museums have never been better positioned to serve their universities and the wider community.

Universities' genuine recognition of, and pride in, the achievements of the sector's museums and galleries is desperately needed. In these times of ever more thinly stretched resources, it would be unrealistic to expect substantial increases in funding; but what all, from the smallest departmental museum to the well-known "high-street" institutions, have every right to expect is their university's informed involvement and support both within and, increasingly importantly, beyond the institution.

Only then will it be possible to make a case to the government for the appropriate recognition of university museums as central both to the national education strategy and to cultural life.

Nichola Johnson is chair of the University Museums Group UK and director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. University Museums in the United Kingdom: A Resource for the Twenty-first Century is available by contacting Angela Larke, a.larke@uea.ac.uk or, from June 1, at www.umg.org.uk

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