University challenge

Maurice Davies, 13.03.2013
Why university museums are thriving
The best place to try to work for the next few years could just be university museums. They seem quietly confident, clear about their role and keen to innovate.

They are finding themselves increasingly loved by their parent universities, who want to have things that distinguish them from the rest of the pack. As universities increasingly compete with each other, both in the UK and internationally, a high quality museum or gallery can give an extra edge that can attract students and staff.

Nick Merriman, former chair of the University Museums Group (UMG) reckons university museums are the healthiest they’ve been in the 25 years since UMG was founded. Then, they were in crisis, unloved by their universities, seen more as a problem than an asset.

Now, they are confidently serving university requirements and reaching ever-wider external audiences. The transformation in university museums is exemplified by the venue for last week’s sold-out UMG conference – the utterly transformed Ashmolean Museum.

Like many other university museums, the Ashmolean is more engaging than ever before for a wide range of visitors (it’s the most visited non-national museum in England).

It’s also supporting university teaching - it raised over a million dollars to fund its University Engagement Programme which uses museum collections to work with departments as varied as neuroscience, business and international development.

University College London’s Grant Museum has a team of postgraduates who increase public engagement - it’s good (paid) experience for the students and it adds to the visitor experience.

A key part of their work is simply to chat to people  – and the average length conversation is almost 15 minutes, which means visitors stay longer and think more.

The Grant Museum also has specialist staff to support UCL’s desire to widen participation, funded as part of the university’s access agreement, which is a compulsory accompaniment to £9,000 a year undergraduate fees.

Gently innovative work to better engage audiences exemplifies 21st Century university museums. The best are taking advantage of the opportunities universities offer to take risks and experiment.

Another host of the conference – the Pitt Rivers Museum– illustrates this. Alongside all manner of artist-driven and family-friendly activity, its new exhibition reports on a bold programme to take sacred (and very fragile) 19th-century native-American shirts back to Canada so they could be handled and used in a ceremony by members of the Blackfoot Tribe.

As long as university museums continue to prove their worth to their host universities, their future seems secure.

And all those student fees mean many universities in England are pretty well off.

They are one of the few parts of the economy that are prospering, according to David Sweeney, director of research innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

He told the UMG conference that barring unexpected cuts in government funding for universities, university museums shouldn’t panic. HEFCE’s funding for them is likely to be stable.

In times like these that’s marvellous news.


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16.03.2013, 12:45
Our latest exhibition 'The Weak Force' is a collaboration between several international artists. It began life in Nova Scotia. The exhibition in the Lewis Elton Gallery, University of Surrey is the second in a series of collaborations between academics and artists from different disciplines and countries. Each exhibition being specific to its site. It is part of the Guildford International Music Festival. visit for more information.
15.03.2013, 09:49
The Research Engager team at UCL have curated an exhibition interpreting items from the collections in the context of our own research. Please do pop by: