It throngs with visitors in the summer, director Duncan Robinson assured me, but the Fitzwilliam Museum was deliciously empty on the day I went just before Christmas. It was one of those visits where you play hide-and-seek with the (impeccably uniformed and uncontracted-out) guards. Since you are the only person gazing at the Nubian figures or the Dutch oil paintings, you feel that it's you and you alone they are keeping an eye on.
Empty or not, the Fitzwilliam is a magnificent collection. It is traditionalist in the way exhibits are presented - the only buttons to push are the time switches lighting the illuminated psalters and missals. Older than the National Gallery, home to treasures as ancient as any of the British Museum's, the Fitzwilliam Museum sits in Neoclassical splendour in the centre of collegiate Cambridge, an adornment to both the city and the university. With its Titian, its pharaoh's sarcophagus, its Tudor armour and fine collection of 18th-century porcelain figures, it is not only a major local tourist attraction - it will be pushing hard to rank as a "designated" national collection in the contest being organised by the Government.
For all that, the Fitzwilliam is both more and less than a museum. It is an integral part of Cambridge University, expected to contribute to the university's scholarly life. For example, it recently offered a joint fellowship with Wolfson College in numismatics which involved working in the museum's coin room. Mr Robinson extols his outreach programme but you have a sense that the academics would not be too keen on the kind of gimmicks and "edutainment" initiatives that some curators have gone in for in the bid to boost attendances and fees.
There is, in other words, a question of identity begged by the very idea of a university museum. University museums are neither fish nor fowl. Most of them connect with academic programmes (John Ruffle, curator of Durham's Oriental Museum, has a heavy schedule teaching students). But some, such as the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, with its fine collection of Turners and textiles, might conceivably fare better as a regional stepchild of the Victoria & Albert. In some places, the university connection has recently started to be viewed as a barrier to a museum or gallery's expansion.
Generalisations are dangerous. In Cambridge, the Fitzwilliam is a relatively prosperous institution, backed by substantial trust funds and a university that still has money at its disposal. John Ruffle in Durham, by contrast, gives the impression that he could do so much more with his collection of Egyptian artefacts and Japanese porcelain if only if he had some spare cash.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England earmarks an annual grant for 23 museums and galleries at 13 universities, ranging from the local, such as the Holburne Museums and Crafts Study Centre at Bath, to Oxford's world-renowned Ashmolean Museum. This money covers roughly about two-thirds of running costs.
But what, asks Manchester University's vice-chancellor, Martin Harris, about a sudden hole in the roof of the Whitworth art gallery? Such a calamity would not just threaten a precious collection of English watercolours, let alone wallpapers old and new, the cost of repair would have to be met from equally precious university funds. In today's climate, if the choice were a chemistry laboratory or the Whitworth, financial logic dictates that the former gets precedence.
The Whitworth has considered charging for admission, but its director, Alastair Smith, notes that its annual visitor figure of 120,000 a year is probably too low to bring much in, especially since 40 per cent of visitors are either students or university people whom the HEFC insists should be admitted free.
Most universities with museums or galleries are in the business by accident. Durham University's Oriental Museum was set up in the early Fifties on the basis of a small collection of bits and pieces put together by teachers on its East Asian and Islamic studies programmes. The chance acquisition of the Duke of Northumberland's spectacular collection of oriental antiquities made the whole lot "too good" for students alone in John Ruffle's words: it was therefore turned into a public facility. But now that the museum is one of the City of Durham's attractions, perhaps it has outgrown its academic origins. John Ruffle agrees to the extent of wishing the local authority were willing to chip in, but also speaks warmly of the museum as "a site where the university meets the public" - who are charged pounds 1.50 to visit.
Recently university curators have sniffed National Lottery money; some are salivating over the Department of National Heritage's stated intention to "designate" a number of museums outside London as national collections (despite Virginia Bottomley being coy about how much extra money such a move might involve).
But the question of identity remains pressing. At Durham, the Oriental Museum has been opened out to local schools. Yet it remains a vital part of Durham's academic identity. As Mr Ruffle puts it, "How can you teach art and archaeology without artefacts?" Modest bequests and donations recently allowed him to purchase a collection of South-east Asian ceramics, for what museum can ever stand still conserving only what it has got, he asks. But he adds sotto voce, how can the museum fulfil its academic role when there is only him curating the exhibits when he is an Egyptologist and needs a further four or five specialist curators to help run the place properly?
A similar story is told at Reading, where the university - deeply involved in agricultural education - supports a rural history centre containing the prestigious Museum of English Rural Life. It is more than just tractors. The museum shows dairying equipment from the 18th century, older styles of farm machinery, examples of rural crafts - as well as a Massey Ferguson or two.
The complaint by its director, Professor Ted Collins, is similar to his colleagues'. HEFC money provides some pounds 186,000 of the annual cost of pounds 270,000. The university makes up the deficit. Where the shoe really pinches is in the lack of money for developing the collection, bringing in information technology, better cataloguing. "Farming keeps changing: we need to keep up by taking in new `old' objects," Professor Collins says.
For the past decade or so, the university museums and galleries have had a lobbying group making their case through the Museums Association, the Department of National Heritage and university bodies. Such museums are part of the national cultural patrimony, they say, but the Government is unwilling to meet the full cost. Some vice-chancellors have recently drawn a radical conclusion: if these are genuinely national collections, then they should be paid for and cared for nationally, outside the ambit of the universities altogethern Britain's finest university museums and galleries
Oxford University: Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology
One of the oldest museums in Britain. Scholarly collection of artefacts from the ancient world, also papers and drawings (for example, Ruskin's sketches).
Cambridge University: Fitzwilliam Museum
Endowed in 1816. Antiquities and applied arts, coins, manuscripts and paintings including masterpieces by Van Dyck, Constable and Renoir.
Reading University: Museum of Rural Life
Founded 1951. Dedicated to researching and interpreting material relating to the history of the countryside.
Durham University: Oriental Museum
Founded in the Fifties. Collection of Egyptian artefacts, Chinese and Far Eastern pottery and objects.
Manchester University: Whitworth Gallery
Specialist collections of English watercolours, ancient and modern textiles, wallpapers and prints.Reuse content