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In defence of the university museum

23 April 2019

The following is the editor’s letter from the May 2019 issue of Apollo.

Every few years comes a perfectly confected storm about how much money university museums in the UK are frittering away on works of art. ‘Universities defy funding shortfall to spend millions on art’, the Observer trumpeted at the start of April. The ensuing article singled out the University of Cambridge, and namely the Fitzwilliam Museum, for its acquisitions of a ‘£1 million marble bust of Queen Victoria’ (as though the sculpture were made out of money) and a portrait by Nicolas de Largillière.

This was lazy headline writing, for sure, given that the acquisition funds for these objects consisted not of ‘central university funding’ but ‘donations and a grant’ – as the article sheepishly pointed out, in fact. But it is a sad state of affairs when the attainment of a restricted funding stream, at a time of more widely threatened resources in the higher education sector, becomes a stick with which to beat museums. In the context of universities, it is hard to imagine complaints being made about ring-fenced funding being used to furnish libraries or acquire new lab equipment (though not so difficult, in some cases, to conceive of complaints about the provenance of the donors). Unlike new squash courts, museums are not supplements at universities.

What is the collection of a university museum, after all, if not a type of laboratory for that university’s staff and students? It is salutary to read in this issue of the reopened Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where (writes Eve Kahn) ‘undergraduates in every academic track are required to take some art classes’. Its director, John Stomberg, has a wishlist of acquisitions that includes works by Matisse, Warhol and Jasper Johns, among others. Don’t tell the Observer.

Of course, university museums in America have a head start on their British counterparts when it comes to making acquisitions (because the philanthropic culture is more deeply ingrained) and performing an integral role on campus (because of their broader undergraduate curriculums). When I studied at Cambridge, nearly two decades ago, the Fitzwilliam was a hideaway for the art historians – I read English – and a good place to take relatives when they visited. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t reach Kettle’s Yard – another of the city’s great university museums – until after I had graduated. Things have no doubt changed (the Cambridge museums are far better at marketing now, for a start) but it is of course vital that such museums draw in their immediate constituency of students. How different fresher’s week might have been…

What the university museum is too, of course, is a place where the university and the wider public overlap – a place, that is, where the ivory tower should be comfortable at ground level. The leading British institutions of this type – among them the Fitzwilliam, the Ashmolean (Oxford), the Hunterian Museum (Glasgow), the Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester) and the Sainsbury Centre (UEA), to name just a few of the art galleries – attract tens and in some cases hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. ‘Impact’ is a toxic word for many academics, and with some justification, but the university museum is an arena in which the concept must be decontaminated and should flourish.

More than many museums in the UK, perhaps, university museums have space for focused, research-led exhibitions, and allow time for deep thinking about museology and collections. Take the display of George Loudon’s collection of 19th-century life-science teaching objects at the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester), for example, or the recent exhibition on the image of Antinous at the Ashmolean (though not its current Jeff Koons extravaganza).

University museums have vast holdings. In the UK, according to the University Museum Group, they are stewards of some 30 per cent of the objects deemed of national or international importance. In a sense, these collections ought to be more open than those of other types of museums: they are best positioned to be accessible for research and debate. Being open also means looking to grow, and aspiring to make acquisitions – and being able to boast about them, too, when they happen.

From the May 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.