wanted: your opinions on campus museums

beach museum of art. personal photo by adrianne russell.

Kansas State University’s Beach Museum of Art. personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

Since starting my new position at the Beach Museum of Art, I’ve had some time to ponder the unique challenges and benefits of working in a campus-based museum. Considering the studies recently released by the Kress Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, and a thought-provoking series of posts via the Center for the Future of Museums, I’m obviously not the only one giving this topic some serious thought.

Although the Cultural Policy Center’s study focuses on art museums, I believe these challenges are universal and it’s important for us to learn from all types of museums. The focus could actually be expanded to include any organization that houses and manages material culture collections such as libraries or individual departments like anthropology, biology, geology, etc. 

During the month of April, I’m featuring posts discussing this topic. So if you’re a current employee, former employee, student, instructor, administrator or anyone who works with or in with these organizations, I want to hear from you!

Some questions to consider:

  • What are the pros and cons regarding campus museums?
  • How can campus museums raise their profiles?
  • What should be done to engage students, staff and faculty, and the community at-large?
  • How are they succeeding?
  • How can they improve? 
  • How can they respond to changes in how university and colleges are structured? (online classes, satellite campuses, commuter students, distance-learning, etc.)
  • Are campus museums necessary?

If you’re interested in contributing a post, please contact me via comment to this post, Twitter, russell (dot) adrianne (at) gmail (dot) com or this form. Thanks in advance!

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11 thoughts on “wanted: your opinions on campus museums

  1. Hi all, while one goal of a university museum is to educate, I agree that there are some politics involved with university museums. It is difficult to make the university officials understand the mission of the museum. Sure, the museum may want to be innovative and create stimulating dialogue for the students. However, the funders and president of the university may have a different idea. I just wrote a paper on an issue that came up last year at the University of Wyoming Art Museum.The university president told the museum to destroy a public sculpture (dealing with global warming) after the energy industry threatened to withdraw donations. It seems like the museum was just passed over by university officials and had no say in the matter. They of course destroyed the piece like the President asked but, was it right? See the link below,

    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/10/carbon_sink_sculpture_at_university_of_wyoming_mining_and_energy_donors.html

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    • I followed that story at University of Wyoming with great interest. It was a sad state of affairs, in my opinion. I think it’s important to be mindful of the fact that you’re part of a larger institution but still maintain some autonomy in terms of your own mission, brand, and vision. Having the university administration on board with the museum’s goals is very important.

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  3. I suspect that running a college museum is a balancing act. Firstly the museum must have relevance to contemporary thought and culture. If it doesn’t it will remain or become a dinosaur or relic. Shows need to be alive and make sense to the people who may wander in, to those living in the immediate area. If the collection is based solely on history the museum will lose relevance. Money will dry up. You need to get folks in your area invested in the museum’s direction, raison d’etre. Host focus groups for this purpose on different issues that may be relevant to the population. Find out like you are doing here what they think. Get them invested in the museum.

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    • Collection rotation is a huge issue that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. Many campus art museums have large collections but little space to show it. If the work doesn’t rotate often enough, there’s the impression that the museum is stagnant and visitors won’t return.

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  5. A University Museum is extremely important. I was on the ground floor for the start of the Saint Louis University Museum of Art and the renovations of a 1900 building housing the University collection. So depending on where you are on the timetable of the museum is important in knowing how other campus museums function within the community. This topic is very important. I do feel it is important to connect the museum with the education system. Rather it is art history classes or developing a program such as restoration and conservation degrees and art classes. Connection to the campus is important. I initiated a program called the SLU Community Galleries which would exhibit art works from faculty, staff, and alumni in these galleries and also student art exhibits. And pushed for a degree which was part of the museum. As other have mentioned, getting students in the doors is a tough one. We were fortunate the exhibition space was large enough that some programing was dedicated to develop exhibits that went along with department and colleges area of expertise.
    The cons of a campus museum, fund raising has be decided upon in terms of who get to approach a funding source. Budgets are small. Staff is small. Advertising was small.

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    • I love the idea of a community gallery! Lack of physical space for programming is a challenge, but I’m enjoying developing collaborations with departments across campus and having programs in other locations. So far it’s raising awareness of the museum which is definitely a good thing!

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      • It totally helps! The only down fall are standards. I know this sounds mean but everyone thinks they are a curator and know good things. Even us curators and artist and art historians! (I joke but be aware of what you can and can not do for your community prior to opening your doors. But also be open to their ideas!)
        So having a section for this helps. I was fortunate our exhibition space was about 30,000 sq ft for exhibitions so was able to place special galleries for such a thing, another was the CPG – Contemporary Project Gallery, so it would not affect the larger programing. But there are tons of politics on a campus you don’t find else where. Okay, I mean to say, different politics.
        Supporting department programming with exhibitions is a plus and then word of mouth from the faculty helps too. Providing faculty a lecture venue for them to present their own ideas and research is a good one. Not only would it get the students whose mentors are speaking but then the presenting faculty members colleagues would come also. Making your University community feel welcome, at home, and at ease in your museum is an on going challenge. You could also invite faculty from the Humanities and also some science departments that support the arts, such as engineering, aerospace, math, biology, etc and ask what they would like from the museum and how can you connect with them to help support their educational programming is a good way to start the bridge towards the education side of the University. Oops! Don’t forget fine and performing arts!

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  6. I think campus museums are important for so many reasons. Thoughtful curations do much to expand students’ understanding of art and give exposure to working artists who are then able to expand their CV. Working in campus museums develops the skills of students, especially students of art history or curatorial studies. For applied art students, regular exposure to exhibitions on campus helps them understand all the considerations in planning for their own future exhibitions.

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    • Donna, thanks for your input! I agree that curatorial choices might be even more important in the university setting, as you have many more customization options and can tailor shows to student interest and instructor curriculum.

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