Museums can experience difficulties working with universities

Nicola Sullivan, 06.11.2015
Power struggles and funding complexities cited as problems
Partnerships between universities and museums are worthwhile but not without their challenges, agreed a panel of experts from both sectors.

Speaking during a debate at the Museums Association Conference and Exhibition on how museums and their visitors can benefit from collaborating with universities, Sophie Duncan, the deputy director of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, said: “Why an earth given partnership is so difficult do you want to work with a university? They are huge lumbering beasts, they are complicated and their processes are 20 years out of date, yet they contain some brilliant minds.”

Duncan also warned museum professionals to be wary of “power differentials”.

She said: “Your expertise is as valuable as theirs. I’m sick to death of seeing partnerships where the academic is somehow lauded as having the expertise.”

Richard Clay, the senior lecturer and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) commons fellow, at the University of Birmingham, also spoke of the challenges associated with trying to get EU funding.

“There are lots of museums who are engaged with universities and are accessing EU funding. But there are major challenges in getting hold of funding.”

The application process was complex and the “competition is fierce”, added Clay.

“Expertise and brokers are desperately needed. Very few museums are going to have on their staff people that understand what is needed and which boxes need to be ticked.

“Universities are more likely to have that expertise – that’s a good driver for collaboration, but there are really serious barriers to getting EU money for universities as well as museums – the bar is really high,” he explained.

During the debate John Orna-Ornstein, the director of museums at Arts Council England, said that the common perception that partnerships between universities and museums are all about the money is a “red herring”.

Orna-Ornstein said that although universities are viewed as “cash cows” they still experience financial pressures. Museums that work with them will also gain a number of non-monetary benefits, including expertise that’s relevant for the changing role of the curator and strong support shown by new universities for cultural projects.

But Sophie Duncan argued that funding was more significant than Orna-Ornstein had suggested and wasn’t always straightforward to secure for collaborative projects.

“I think the way funding flows through the system is really important and I think we really have to be innovative about how we use funding. Research funding will only ever be used for research – no matter how brilliant the project is,” she said.

Duncan also said that partnering museums and universities should explore “dual funding streams”, such those offered jointly by the AHRC and the Heritage Lottery Fund.