Getting the Balance Right; University Core Commitment Vs University Outreach

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SLIDE 1 – Title
“Getting the Balance Right; University Core Commitment Vs University Outreach”

The title describes one of the many dilemmas facing University museums in terms of meeting the expectations of University management and the challenge of addressing some of the questions in the theme, University Museums through the Eyes of Others – ‘Are University museums considered as financial liabilities or as ventures which may have beneficial flow-on effects?’

This paper moves beyond my topic for the UMAC Conference in Sydney, which explored the development of public programs in a University Medical Museum. The latter outlined the initiation, implementation, the rationale and the original goal to make it financially viable and cost effective.
SLIDE 2 – Rationale for Establishment of the Museum of Human Disease
To recap, the founding of the Museum of Human Disease in 1960 resulted from the desire to have a high quality Pathology teaching collection available for the education of its newly enrolled Medical students and this function continues to the present day. Collection, curation, conservation/preservation, administration, and some research were constant elements in these times. Medical specialty training and other postgraduate student research and learning also took place. 1995 saw the start of photography and subsequent digitization of selected specimens (as a result of a Commonwealth grant) contributing to a CD Rom to assist student learning. Since 1995, the photography has progressed to encompass all specimens and these are currently being digitized as part of now accepted museum best practice as well as for further educational and research purposes.
Since 1996, at the instigation of Professor Denis Wakefield, now Head of the School of Medical Sciences, the Museum expanded its role to encompass the teaching of University Science students and this now forms a significant part of the teaching and learning within the University Medical Faculty. In addition, with the aim of communicating the principles of maintaining good health to the broader community, the public programs (marketed to high schools and community groups) began. Initially these were regarded as a financial drain, although the initial cost input was low. The “brief” was to run the community programs “like a business” and aim to make it at least cost effective, if not with complete cost recovery. The Pathology department gave its full support to the Museum Community Outreach programs and took full responsibility for the program’s operations. “We wanted to increase awareness of disease…. We also wanted to enthuse the youth of our community to get involved in research and medical activities…. It’s important that the University is seen as part of the community it serves; that it is not just an educational institute but also involved in research that impacts on our society” (Wakefield, 2004). Although uttered recently as part of the launch of an exhibition, these statements reflect the sentiments and rationale from the beginning.
SLIDE 3 – The Journey – Visitors
The growth in usage of the Museum precinct has steadily accelerated and because of the coincidence of activity-related peaks and troughs, there are some exciting periods of the calendar year that require precision in scheduling to achieve accommodation of all clients satisfactorily. Such is the current level of room usage in the Museum precinct that 2005 will herald the introduction of an online booking system to streamline and alleviate some of the administrative burden for Museum staff.
SLIDE 4 – Museum Staff
Staff increases have been steady but conservative and the volunteer program remains of enormous value to the smooth running of the public programs.
SLIDE 5 – Current Hurdles and Threats
1. Apart from the increasing competition for space (in an area that in 1996 was grossly underutilized) there are a number of other hurdles and threats that have begun to impinge on the current operation of Museum activities.

The overlap of the outgoing medical course coupled with a new, vertically integrated medical course will test the accommodation of all University Science and Medical classes in 2005. This will be a critical year and thereafter, the accommodation of the new medical course remains somewhat unpredictable at this stage due to the different and more scattered learning style proposed.

2. A relocation of the Museum to different premises in another building with an unspecified refurbishment schedule has recently been proposed. Issues arising cover:

  • Spatial implications to allow for both accommodation of museum artifacts and functionality for learning activities

  • Transport of specimens to widely dispersed classrooms and the concurrent risk of damage to them

  • Downtime, loss of income, uncertainty for scheduling

  • The fate and accommodation of donated and sponsored Museum items – many only received in the last few years

SLIDE 6 – Current Hurdles and Threats

3. A change in focus, emphasis and priority of the University or institution can have a significant impact on the direction of the Museum e.g. in the reconfiguring of the balance of Teaching Vs Research Vs Outreach. As indicated by Jane Legget (2004??) in her paper, what matters to academics compared to other stakeholders can differ markedly and vary with time.

4. The recent requirement for detailed attention to OHS issues and risk assessment procedures place an extra role on museum workers and will impact on community stakeholders in addition.

5. The issue of travel and cost involved in attending museums and other excursion venues is an added factor of difficulty for many, particularly those at distance and in financially disadvantaged circumstances.

6. A societal perception in many quarters, and particularly amongst youth, of museums as mausoleums (after Nargis, 2004) or boring places, is a challenge to be overcome even before getting people to come through the main door. Once inside, it is important to stimulate and enthuse an audience in order to dispel this pre-conception where it exists. If audiences go away planning to re-visit or tell others to come, then an important degree of success has been achieved.

7. The mention of a worldwide crisis for University museums by Peter Tirrell (2004) is a concept recognized by museum workers on many Australian University campuses, including that of UNSW, with a declining emphasis by management, for the most part, on striving for excellence and viability in their museum sectors.
SLIDE 7 – Survival – Internally / SLIDE 8 – National Science Week Events
* To survive, it is necessary to take both internal as well as external action. Internally, one can look at new directions or activities e.g.

- Promoting University scientific and medical research to the community

- Cross Faculty collaborations with units such as Biomedical Engineering, the

Arts, Architecture and the College of Fine Arts (COFA) and alluded to by F.

Pugnaloni (2004) as “partnership with Faculties”. A recent suggestion to

combine the Biological Sciences and Medical Museums has been receiving


- Stimulate greater research and usage options including active participation in

new approaches to student’s University experience (for both undergraduate and


* Inclusion and/or maintenance of a museum precinct in the relevant Faculty and University’s strategic plan and Annual Report is of great importance as it legitimizes or embeds the role of the Museum into the fabric and function of the University master plan. It is then harder to remove without losing face.
* Finally incorporating a monetary value into the budget on some of the more intangible benefits has been a recent introduction including assessing the time and labour of volunteers and guest lecturers, free publicity which entices visitation, and the promotion of interest in research and education in the sciences – often “turning kids onto science”.
SLIDE 9 – Survival – Externally / SLIDE 10 – Exhibitions/Collaborations
* A University museum does not exist in a bubble. It must be conscious of external institutions with which it may be possible to undertake collaboration e.g. for University Science and Medical museums, this constituency may include hospitals, research institutes, industry, other museums, professional bodies and government departments. For the Museum of Human Disease, involvement and collaboration with all of these sectors has occurred in some form over the last 8 years. The demand for museum linkages and services from such organizations with spin-off benefits for the University, further enhances the estimation of the value of the museum enterprise.
* The specialized and often historical nature of many University museums, frequently promoting new and cutting edge ideas, may provide a springboard for their re-emergence as leaders at the coal-face, particularly in the category of niche museums – a venue type now finding increased demand from a knowledge and enlightenment-seeking community, particularly among retirees. Life long learning is a concept which has received much discussion and with the added impetus of the internet age, it will not go away. Museums are an ideal setting for this demand for informal learning with the possibility of stimulation at the visual, auditory, olfactory (even taste) and touch levels. Each learning experience is enhanced and made more memorable in proportion to the number of senses employed.
* Apart from the more tangible value of student recruitment, visitors often comment during evaluation about the intangible value of “lifting educational horizons” for disadvantaged or marginalized groups who visit a campus. The museum-on-campus experience can allow for the opportunity of interaction, both physical and personal, with the tertiary institution and the impact can be very high, and, in the long term, beneficial for society as a whole.
SLIDE 11 – Other Examples
In conclusion, despite the concern about the viability and the worldwide crisis in many University museums in recent times and the often dire predictions, there are cases of exceptional outcomes for some, particularly in the Art and Natural History domain. In terms of University Science and Medical collections, more work is needed to allow for sustainability. Lateral thinking about how these collections can be relevant, attract new patronage and elevate the museum’s academic mission, in a climate of changing institutional goals is required as part of the strategic planning process in such museums. Relevance, as demonstrated in the following institutions dealing with different approaches to their collections (some of which contain sensitive material), is a key consideration:

  1. The National Museum of Health and Medicine, Washington, USA

  2. The Hall of Health – Berkeley, California USA

  3. The Royal College of Surgeons, UK

  4. Melbourne Pathology and Anatomy (Australia)

  5. Medical History Museum, Berlin, Germany

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