Museums and universities can make an impact - Museums Association

Museums and universities can make an impact

It could lead to a future of co-produced research
Henry Chapman
Before we can address how museums and universities can work together to develop a mutually beneficial relationship, we have to ask what universities actually do.

Two of the keystones of university business are delivering teaching and undertaking research.

For many academic subjects focusing, for example, on heritage, archaeology, museology or history of art, this includes teaching through access to museum collections, visiting museum stores, studying content, conservation, exhibition or curation and student placements.

All enhance the learning experience and address key areas in employability. Research activities are equally broad. In the UK (and increasingly elsewhere) the success of
a university’s research is measured in relation to the production of high-quality output such as publications, but also to a growing need to generate high-quality impact outside of academic confines.

The devil is in the detail when considering research and the study of subjects such as heritage, archaeology, museology and history of art.

There is a natural and established relationship between many museums and museums studies disciplines at universities. However, one key and growing area where partnership with museums can be of fundamental importance to many academics is through providing pathways for achieving, demonstrating and measuring impact.

This new opportunity expands the academic breadth with which museums can engage, encompassing not just the arts and humanities, but areas such as the sciences, engineering and medicine, all of which can interrogate collections from different perspectives and bring in new and diverse user groups for universities and museums.

From my own experience of working with Birmingham Museums Trust, our research partnership is based on its staff providing incisive and insightful questions to academic assumptions.

In a recent project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, entitled CoPs (Communities of Practice) and Robbers, experiments around the use of objects involving participants from universities, museums and creative businesses showed how innovation in research could be augmented through collaboration.

In addition to demonstrating different language use and working practices in various sectors, the project highlighted how challenges in one sector could more imaginatively be addressed by practitioners from another.

They were thinking “outside of the box” simply because they were unaware that there was a “box” to constrain them.

Greater collaboration is needed throughout the teaching and research processes with museums, aimed at addressing shared problems and those unique to each sector.

Understanding one another is part of this, and is part of the huge cultural shift that will enable greater resilience by sharing approaches, practice and research application.

In doing so, we increase audience diversity and expand the range of ways in which they engage with the sector.

This could provide mutually beneficial opportunities for universities and museums, establishing a foundation of collaboration.

It could also lead to a future of co-produced research that combines academic rigour with museum expertise, resulting in a vastly improved and relevant breadth, reach and depth of impact for both parties.

The public has changing expectations of academic institutions, as well as of museums. By sharing our opportunities and challenges, we have an opportunity to engage with new audiences, for museums and universities.

Henry Chapman is senior lecturer in archaeology and visualisation at the University of Birmingham

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