Sunday, July 31, 2022

Why Are University Museums Different?

Why are University Museums different? Frankly as an art dealer I never thought of them as different. After all, they may vary in respect to size and quality of their collections, but they have curators and directors with whom I was friendly, and they bought from our gallery for their collections just like any other museum though often their budgets were smaller.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) there are 35,000 museums of all types in the United States and only 680 University museums and art galleries. The distinction being that a gallery will just have rotating exhibitions while the museum includes a permanent collection. Yet in an Artnet News op-ed column Christina Olsen, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, claims that “Museums Need to be Braver” and learn from their smaller brethren.

Michigan University Museum of Art

Olsen believes that campus-based museums play “an outsized role in making the visual-arts ecosystem more equitable and accessible”. I started to think about that and realized that it is true that it is always easier to maneuver a smaller institution than a larger one where bureaucracy and fiefdom politics are endemic. So, what can they teach the big guy on the block?

Of course, the University Museum has the goal of teaching it’s student body. Olsen sees the classic museum as there only to collect and store art. That is pretty cynical, but she has a point. And from this point of view, they put the collection first and people second while the University Museum does it the other way around. The larger institutions do educate however, they have collections spanning large periods of time through which they can convey a broader understanding of the time and culture of works of art. Also, special exhibitions allow a curator to be more specific to the process and docents and/or curators add insight beyond the signage.

It is true that the Metropolitan Museum does not have students on governing boards with decision making power. Further members cannot take objects home on long term loan as from Olsen’s Museum and the Univerity of California, Berkeley. That again is the advantage of a small museum that has a better handle on its audience.

It is easier to find an enrolled student than the thousands of strangers who are members of the Met.

The University of Michigan Museum let the public vote on 1,000 photos available to the Museum and they received a hundred thousand votes and selected 250 for the collection. I hope those photographs were first vetted by curators who understood the history of photography and who printed the images and when. I hope that the objective of this exercise was not to just have a bunch of interesting images on the wall with no thought of what the students would learn about the art of photography. It might not be a bad idea for an exhibition but to make those 250 photos part of a collection seems like a waste of space to me.

I am going to muddy the waters just a bit by saying that University Museums are analogous to the definition of a small museum as opposed to a large one. A museum wishes to enlighten and educate its public no matter what the size.

In her article “Mini but Mighty” Ashleigh Hibbins, in Museum Hack, calls smaller museums “superheroes”. She cites, among their advantages, being able to target their audience directly and speak to local issues. They are de facto more intimate and comfortable for the visitor.

In a University of Toronto blog, we learn that Justine Lyn, who was finishing her under-graduate work, was trying to decide in which direction she wished to continue in the museum world. Having interned in both, she points out that in a smaller institution you have to work in multiple areas as a “Jack of All Trades” while the large institution allows a specialist to work in a single department.

Every individual or institution can learn from the other but I believe neither has exclusive claim to knowing the right way.

1 comment:

  1. At Harvard's Fogg Museum this year I viewed an exhibition of drawings by architect Elliot Noyes made in 1935 at Persepolis. It's a wonderful, small-ish display without blockbuster pretense that I doubt would ever grace the walls of New York's MET. But what a thrill to see the work, and to imagine Noyes at work on site with his pencil!