The 2002 Conference

The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.

The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.

University Museums at the Crossroads

Sue-Anne Wallace
Queensland University of Technology Cultural Precinct

In my paper today I am going to focus on universities rather than museums because this is the environment in which we work.

The purpose of my comments is to put forward some ideas about university museums that I hope will be taken up in our round table discussion. I want to preface my remarks by noting that specific collections in university museums - whether natural history collections, medical collections, herbaria or art collections - do have different capacities to develop specific roles within their universities and relationships to particular faculties. With that caveat in mind, I beg your indulgence as I will refer to university museums as though all are the same with the same opportunities.

From my observations, we who work in university museums benchmark our operations against the museum sector. In this short paper, I propose that the university museum sector, while not ignoring the museum sector, should address the university environment as its greatest priority.

In Australia, universities are under review and higher education, to borrow the terminology of the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, is 'at the crossroads'. Hence my paper is titled University Museums at the Crossroads.

If the core function of universities, in Australia at least, is at the crossroads, so too, I suggest, is the core role of museums within universities. I will consider three aspects of the review of higher education in Australia and explore their relevance to university museums.

One of the issues that government in Australia is examining is the understanding that 'the critical role of universities in preparing a workforce capable of meeting the demands of the knowledge economy is now becoming more widely understood'1 . The report Striving for Quality, Learning, Teaching and Scholarship posits that the international demand for new skills and knowledge (much of the research being based on UK research and reviews) is expected to stimulate a surge in demand for adult education and that university education - that is traditional higher education leading to a degree - no longer has a monopoly over 'knowledge-production ... [and] ... certification of knowledge acquisition'2.

Should we be thinking that university museums are poised to 're-equip'3 - at least in part - the adult population by offering new learning opportunities to meet this new demand?

A second concern of the higher education review is 'effective and efficient learning experiences and environments'4.

In the letters page in The Australian Higher Education Supplement 25 September 2002, a banner caught my eye 'Pedagogy has a place in the reformed university'. The author, Bruce Williams, from the Department of theatre and drama, La Trobe University, raises the contentious issue of whether academics should 'learn to teach'. The territory this canvasses was reviewed in the federal government's higher education review. The report notes the 'shift in pedagogical theory and practice from a focus on improving teaching to a focus on improving learning'5. Where I believe this is relevant to university museums is the consequent adoption by universities of different learning methodologies, so-called 'student-centred learning' - problem-based learning, collaborative learning, experiential learning, adventure learning, reflective practice, learning circles and self-directed learning'6.

From my experience in both university and non-university museums, these styles of learning are what museums excel at.

How do we enhance flexible learning/delivery strategies in university museums? Are we signalling to our universities the value of the learning methodologies in university museums in fields of particular knowledge that relate to our collections - such as the medical sciences, biological sciences, creative arts or social sciences?

The third issue I want to address is the opportunity for universities and university museums to develop partnerships in community service that will 'contribute to a broader national and regional, social and cultural agenda'7.

The Australian report discusses the notion of 'academic citizenship', that is service to both the university and the wider community 'through one's discipline'. This can be called applied scholarship that 'involves practices of professional and community work, and social relationships which connect members of the scholarly community of the university with a wide variety of individuals, organisations and enterprises in the professions, business and industry, and government'8.

To have value in the university and broader community, such scholarship must derive from a particular field of study - which for university museums means the focus of our collections, built with great intellectual rigour over periods of time. Glassick et al have argued that serving the community 'is serious demanding work, requiring the rigour - and the accountability - traditionally associated with research work'9.

Within the museum sector - the so-called quadruple bottom line - the economic, social (including intellectual), cultural and environmental benefits of museums are key performance targets, driving museums forward in serving their communities.

That universities are identifying community service as a core role and responsibility should only enhance the value of university museums to universities, if we effectively promote such benefits to our universities. Yet there is a risk that community service may become dislocated from the university environment, that is we may project more of the functions of a community museum than a university museum.

The Australian higher education review suggests 'there is considerable scope for expanding productive partnerships with the community through student involvement in what is termed "service learning" ... [that is] ... experiential and active learning ... [that] ... links community service with the curriculum'10. It is suggested that to be successful - and significant - to the university, such 'real-life community-based projects' should be for credit in university courses, rather than isolated project-based events11.

Universities are changing and we must change with them if university museums are to have authority - and funding - to support their role in higher education. I have raised three issues for discussion today:

  • How can university museums better respond to society's need for lifelong learning?
  • How can university museums improve learning environments in universities?
  • And what is their role in contributing to universities' 'academic citizenship' and community service?

1. McInnes et al, 2001 in Striving for Quality, Learning, Teaching and Scholarship, p. 5. Canberra, Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, June 2002.

2. Striving for Quality, Learning, Teaching and Scholarship, p. 5.

3. NCIHE, 1997, 1.12, quoted in Striving for Quality, Learning, Teaching and Scholarship, p. 5.

4. Striving for Quality, Learning, Teaching and Scholarship, p. 34.

5. Striving for Quality, Learning, Teaching and Scholarship, pp. 34-35.

6. Ibid.

7. Varieties of excellence, diversity, specialisation and regional engagement, p. 59. Canberra, Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, July 2002.

8. Ibid.

9. Glassick et al 1997, p12 @ p59

10. Varieties of excellence, diversity, specialisation and regional engagement, p. 60.

11. Association of Commonwealth Universities, Varieties of excellence, diversity, specialisation and regional engagement, p. 60.

Copyright © 2002 Sue-Anne Wallace. All rights reserved.

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