campus museum week: pros & cons

Not only is it Campus Museum Week but I’m also in Portland, Oregon, attending my first Museums & the Web Conference. The two events actually dovetail quite nicely as I’ve already had a couple of mind-bending conversations about museums embedded in larger systems and the potential for smaller museums to model for larger institutions rather than the other way around. More on that once my brain settles down next week! 

Today I’m sharing a response I received to the question, “What do you think of campus museums?” from Amy Smith, Geology Collection Curator at the Central Michigan University Museum of Cultural and Natural Sciences.

The current museum that I work at as well as the previous museum that I worked at are both campus museums. The previous museum, the Museum of Geosciences at Virginia Tech, is essentially a single room within the building that houses the geology department. The Central Michigan University Museum of Cultural and Natural History occupies an entire half of a building on campus, the other half of which is occupied by Human Resources. Both of these museums are fairly small, but can be just as effective as their larger counterparts (at the end of my stay at Virginia tech, I wrote a grant proposal that later awarded the museum over $120,000).

Ways that I find that small campus museums hold their own among standalone museums: 

1. Grant awards are not affected by size of the museum nor by its affiliation to a university, but rather by the community impact and application of the museum’s plans for the funds.

2. At both museums, I integrate state-level Science Standards of Learning for pK-12 students and educators. The CMU museum leads tours regularly, and includes interactive exhibits in the overall suite of exhibits.

Advantages of being a campus museum include: 

1. As a worker at a campus museum, I also the ability to match content to the needs of university students, faculty, researchers, and to specific university courses. I am currently creating a a geology teaching collection at the CMU museum that will support several Michigan Standards of learning, as well as supporting various CMU courses such as GEL130, GEL102, etc. Exhibits and collections at campus museums also provide possible homework or projects for faculty who want to send their students to the museum to fill out a worksheet, draft an educational resource, and so on. During my first semester teaching at CMU, I actually had roughly 70 introduction to geology students (some were geology majors, but most were non-majors) visit the museum exhibits pertaining to Michigan geology and create educational resources in the formats of their choosing (worksheets, brochures, webpages, posters) that could be contributed to the museum. The majority of students did very well with this project, and so as an added bonus, they gained experience that could be listed on their resumes as contribution to museum outreach.

2. I get to facilitate the professional development of undergraduate volunteers and independent studies within the geology collection at the museum at CMU. Due to the museum’s affiliation with the school, training and supervising student workers is a largely seamless process. The major of the student is also not a barrier, as the volunteer whom I am training is not a geology major (in fact, she has never taken a college-level geology course), and my independent study is a geology major. Both workers are constantly demonstrating their grasp of new skills within collections management.

3. A campus museum is another opportunity for faculty, postdocs, and other researchers affiliated with the university to showcase their latest research. Museum workers can collaborate with researchers to interpret scientific progress performed by people in their local area to the various members of the museum audience. Such a a contribution could in turn help the contributing researcher apply for grants and funding, as a museum contribution of their work would be a clear example of community impact.

The only tricky things about campus museums are:

1. It has been my experience at both campus museums that I have worked at that 9 out of 10 people, especially university students, had no idea that these museums even exist.

2. Faculty are so busy with the work they are hired for, that it is often difficult to entice them to work with the museum in addition to their established responsibilities.

Amy’s response hit on a topic key to my work: customization. Can campus museums react more nimbly to the emerging trend of personalizing museum interaction for multiple audiences: general visitor, scholar, arts practitioner, etc.?