By Leonie Hannan, on 21 March 2013
Museums and universities teaming up to score shared rewards
In the autumn of 2012, Arts Council England funded University College London [UCL], the University of Arts London [UAL], and the London Museums Group [LMG] to investigate how those working in museums and universities could effectively team up in order to reap the rewards of collaborative partnership. With just six months to find out what kinds of collaborative work was already taking place across the sectors, identify new projects to launch, and provide practical guidance on our findings – we got off to a prompt start. From the outset the project team were aware of the big issues that affect grassroots work, such as the scarcity of funding across the cultural sector and higher education, the perceived inequalities in status, power and resources between museums and universities, and punishing schedules that make forging new working relationships a luxury rather than common practice. However, in a climate of funding cuts and demoralisation amongst the arts and culture, pooling resources and expertise seemed not only desirable but vital, and as far as our project was concerned, the opportunity to help bridge the divide between these two different but deeply connected sectors was hugely exciting.
Investigations revealed skill sharing opportunities
A series of investigative focus groups revealed a collective verve amongst museums for generating new collaborations with universities. Participants highlighted the scope of possibilities, ranging from encouraging original research on collections to opportunities for student internships. Specialist conservation techniques, new interpretations of artefacts, and audience-engaging digital technologies were all seen as potential gains from cross-sector partnership. Whilst museums have long been viewed as spaces primarily for school visits, local community groups, and the ‘general public’ we’ve uncovered that in reality museums professionals consider university academics and students as an under-developed audience with interesting potential. Moreover, the museums we spoke with were clear about the distinctive value of their spaces and objects as gateways to new ways of thinking for academia.
Conversations with academics and museum professionals also revealed current trends in collaborative work. After all, partnership between museums and universities is hardly a new concept.
Where would an archaeologist be without access to the collections that form the basis of their research?
How would an art historian teach their students without contact with the works of art themselves?
But these were by far the most obvious examples of cross-fertilisation and whilst some fields of university research and teaching were based on the material realities of museum spaces, their unique collections, and professional practices, others certainly were not. But therein lay the challenge!
Teaming up and shared rewards
The project kicked off with lots of conversations and then with practical projects, which tested out in real time the opportunities and obstacles inherent in cross-sector collaboration. For example, the UCL QRator project added a new level of interactivity to the Museum of Brands, giving museum visitors the opportunity to use in-house technology to actively engage with questions that are important to the museum, its collections, and wider society [see images above and below]. At the Cinema Museum, postgraduate students from Central Saint Martin’s [UAL] were given the chance to act as consultants to the museum, with the brief to develop ideas that could attract new audiences and improve long-term resilience.
A third initiative raised important questions about the role of museums both in academic research and in society. A three-year research project lead by academics at UCL had collected and analysed data on over 250 museum object handling sessions in a range of healthcare settings. The findings revealed that object handling increased feelings of positive wellbeing and enhanced communication between patients and carers. To date, no heritage-focused measure of wellbeing exists and the next step was for researchers to try out the wellbeing measures developed in healthcare environments within museums. The Islington Museum and UCL teamed up to carry out this research with the museum’s visitors. In the short term, the museum was keen to see how the sessions worked as part of their diverse programme of events. In the longer term, the research holds potential to clearly demarcate the impact of contact with museums and their collections on feelings of personal wellbeing, which could be a powerful tool for the sector as a whole. This research project simply could not have taken place without the collaboration of museums and, moreover, the project’s outcomes having tangible results for museums in terms of articulating the positive societal impact of the work that they do.
These are just a few examples of what partnerships could bring, but what were the stumbling blocks? Talking to people in museums and universities has clearly shown that practical barriers exist to collaborative work but that there is also great insight into the difficulties and, therefore, scope to resolve them. In general, raising awareness on both sides of the distinct institutional pressures, timescales and working practices would go a long way to overcoming these barriers. We identified that many relationships began in an informal or ad hoc way. Whilst this approach could offer flexibility, it might also lead to mismatched expectations and consequent disappointment. In addition to this, many museums and academics were eager to work on new projects that could push the boundaries of their current practice, but individuals found it difficult to identify suitable partners or have the confidence to approach new contacts with project proposals.
To help the two sectors uncover the synergies between them and overcome barriers, Share Academy is developing a series of advice guides on internships, identifying new partners, project planning, and memorandums of understanding for use across the sectors. We identified that whilst academics often have an easily searchable staff page detailing their research interests, individuals working in the museum sector did not. This situation made it more difficult for academics to find the right contacts in museums. To address this issue the project will develop a directory of London museums, which will be hosted on the London Museums Group website, providing a ‘one-stop’ web resource to discover museums and establish new partnerships.
Changing landscape | fruitful connections
So all of this begs the question, can a small project like Share Academy fundamentally change the landscape of collaboration between museums and universities? The short answer is: not immediately. But we can lay the foundations for new and innovative partnerships between the sectors. These foundations will contribute to a strengthening of existing relationships, better mutual understanding of the different priorities and challenges of each sector and, in the longer term, a closer and increasingly fruitful connection between museums and higher education.
If this project has one message, it is – go out there, network, get in contact with potential partners, and pitch your ideas! There is really nothing to lose and a new relationship is only an email away.
As this pilot project completes, we are hosting a symposium and networking event on 10 April 2013 to bring together interested individuals from across London museums and universities to explore the practical potential of forging a closer working relationship. To book a place please click here: http://shareacademysymposium.eventbrite.co.uk
This blog is co-published on the London Museums Group website: www.londonmuseumsgroup.org
Authors | Share Academy Project Managers
Dr Leonie Hannan is a Teaching Fellow in the Museums & Public Engagement department at UCL. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paddy McNulty is Director of Paddy McNulty Associates, a consultancy focusing on museums, heritage, and culture. Contact: email@example.com or find out more about his work at www.paddymcnulty.co.uk