Back to the future

University museums contain wonderful collections that are relatively little known. That needs to change, and more money needs to be invested, says Michael Worton
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UK universities are marvellous places, teeming with imagination and innovation and often led with vision. They can also be conservative and prone to blind-spots. One of these is, as a recent report* forcefully highlights, university museums and collections. These museums make up 4 per cent of the UK's museum sector. Some of them are small departmental museums located deep inside university complexes, while others, such as Cambridge's Fitzwilliam, Oxford's Ashmolean and the Manchester Museum, are renowned throughout the world.

UK universities are marvellous places, teeming with imagination and innovation and often led with vision. They can also be conservative and prone to blind-spots. One of these is, as a recent report* forcefully highlights, university museums and collections. These museums make up 4 per cent of the UK's museum sector. Some of them are small departmental museums located deep inside university complexes, while others, such as Cambridge's Fitzwilliam, Oxford's Ashmolean and the Manchester Museum, are renowned throughout the world.

What is astonishing, and almost completely unknown, is the fact that university museums represent 30 per cent of all collections designated by the Department for Culture Media and Sport as being of national or international importance. Why, then, are these significant collections unknown, and what can we do about this?

Due to the work of some far-sighted curators and managers, university museums are gradually raising their profile within their universities and within their local communities. Indeed, museums are ideally placed to play a major role in widening participation and outreach to the community, because children come in to look at and touch strange and wonderful objects enthusiastically, whereas they would show little interest in coming to hear lectures by academics, no matter how brilliant.

In addition, museums are increasingly sending colleagues out to the community. For example, at University College London we have devised a loan box for schools aimed at the Citizenship part of the national curriculum (the box contains materials from our Galton collection relating to fingerprinting, cranial measurement, and so on). Nonetheless, although outreach is extremely important, "inreach" is even more crucial, and we need to go beyond seeing our museums as providing added value and contributing to activities less central than research and teaching.

The main reason for the neglect may be that approaches to teaching and research have changed considerably over the past several decades. When the modern university was founded in the 19th century, much of the teaching was done using artefacts. However, in many disciplines, pedagogy has moved away from an object-based approach towards more theoretical and/or fieldwork-based practical approaches, and the collections have been allowed to slumber, die and even decay in dark corners. Yet clocks are turning back and pedagogy is coming full circle.

Indeed, due to the work of curators working with academics, we are growing to understand that in the electronic and digital world there is a need to juxtapose the physical with the virtual in our teaching and research activities. This is radically changing the ways in which departments conceptualise their teaching. Furthermore, we are learning that our museums are ideal loci for interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinarity is a major challenge for universities. We all want to achieve it, yet it is difficult to realise. But our museums are - in potential and in essence (if not always in practice) - extremely well placed to help universities take up this challenge. By their very nature they are themselves interdisciplinary; they are places that span time, geography, culture and prejudice. These often somnolent and neglected servants of universities can be major agents of change in our pedagogical and research thinking, just as they can change our relationships with the communities in which we are sited.

The University Museum's Group (UMG) report is a significant step forward and wakes us up to the value of the collections hidden within our walls. Much remains to be done, though, to modernise and enhance the infrastructure of many of our museums. This will cost money. Universities need to learn to value their museums and to invest in them. No vice-chancellor is going to divert money from, say, research into cancer relief or teaching business studies to improving the physical and contractual position of university curators without being convinced by a strong academic and business case. The UMG's report does, however, provide a reason for at least considering such transfer of resources as well as providing many examples of exciting practice throughout the sector.

More important, the funding councils need to consider seriously the low level of funding they give to university museums and galleries. In the case of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), this is in the order of £9m. These funds are distributed through the Arts and Humanities Research Board, one of the most effective advocates of museums in the UK, but it distributes these funds on an agency basis for HEFCE and does not determine the level of funding.

Our curators and academics have started a slow but real revolution in pedagogy as well as in community relations. Let us now lobby the vice-chancellors and the funding councils to invest significantly in our museums.

As we in universities struggle to position ourselves in the new global economy, our main challenge is how to define our missions and to answer the question: "What is a university?" Whatever the answer, it must refer to knowledge and to knowledge transfer. In these respects, our museums are ideally placed to help us in the process of redefinition. We cannot afford not to promote them vigorously.

The writer is vice-provost of University College London

*'University Museums in the United Kingdom: A National Resource for the 21st Century', published by the University Museums Group UK, is available online from www.umg.org.uk

SOME UNIVERSITY-AFFILIATED MUSEUMS

* The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Britain's oldest museum, is part of Oxford University. The museum has an Antiquities room, a cast gallery, an Eastern gallery with Chinese ceramics and Japanese paintings, the Heberden Coin Room and a Western gallery. One well-known work in the museum is Uccello's Hunt in the Forest, in the Western gallery. Currently, there is an exhibition entitled "600 Years of Oxford College Silver" that contains pieces never before seen by the public.

* Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum has five departments: Antiquities, Applied Arts, Coins and Medals, Manuscripts and Printed Books, and Paintings, Drawings and Prints. Picasso's Cubist Head is one among the many famous names and works in the museum. Influential pieces by Renoir, Monet and Degas also appear, as well as Titian's Tarquin and Lucretia, which was painted for Philip II of Spain.

* Affiliated to Manchester University is the Manchester Museum, which focuses on artefacts and living history. It houses some of the oldest fossils known to man, including prokaryotic bacteria, which is 3.5 billion years old. Visitors may also see the "Riqqeh Pectoral", a beautiful amulet from Ancient Egypt. The museum also features minerals, rocks, botany and living cultures.

Zachary Mesenbourg

education@independent.co.uk

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