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Learning, Reflecting, Provoking?

Axel Christophersen
Professor of Historical Archaeology
Director, Museum of Natural History and Archaeology
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
Erling Skakkaes gt. 47b, N-7194, Trondheim, Norway. Email:


This article discusses the need for an overall museum university museums strategy aiming at spreading knowledge and research results to the public, thus showing that the university museums are capable of being powerful links between the universities and the surrounding community. One of the big challenges for the university museums is that it is neither the museums, nor the universities that are the premise provider, but the international mass media cooperation's. So how do we attract interest and engagement from the public? Are the university museums neutral institutions spreading "neutral scientific facts" or should we develop an active and responsible role within meaning production and social debate? Should we annoy, challenge and provoke? Are we capable of doing that, and with what consequences?

1. University museums as a "social enterprise"

One of the most frequently discussed questions amongst UMAC members when meeting is "what is a university museum?" Posing the question is of course highly alarming, but it is also an indication of an alert and critical approach to what university museums are doing or not doing, and what should be the main objectives. A major part of the articles in Museologia vol.2, 1-2/2002 touched upon this strategic set of problems through various approaches, for instance Fernando Bragance Gil's editorial on University Museums (Gil 2002) and Peter Stanbury's introduction A panoramic view of university museums (Stanbury 2002). Marta Lourenço addresses the question from an historical point of view, which always is very clarifying, but in my opinion focusing too much on their historical functions as teaching and research institutions (Lourenço 2002). Another, but not contradictory, approach is demonstrated in Peter Tirrell's article The university museums as a social enterprise (Tirrell 2002). Here, he states that "... museums are 'social enterprises' that have as an ultimate operational objective a positive social outcome." I think that Peter Tirrell's point of view, which he in fact in various ways shares with many others contributing to the volume, is rather crucial: university museums are not involved in what traditionally are defined as pure academic activities, it is also a part of the community outside the university, and thus have obvious obligations to a non academic population group (fig 1). Besides, university museums are managing vast resources of knowledge necessary for people to take part in the public debate and to be qualified in decision making (Johansen 2000 (a)).

Figure 1: children outside a museum
Figure 1.

2. The Role of the University Museums As Disseminators of Knowledge

Let me develop this subject further from a quite different, but still relevant angle: In Oslo September 2000 the five university museums, which are amongst the largest and most important museums in Norway, sponsored a seminar on the theme "Do we need the university museums?"1 The participants represented all from politicians and bureaucrats to science journalists and academics. Not surprisingly all the speakers concluded with a positive answer "yes, we do need the university museum", but they concluded from very different argumentation, depending from which sector of society they represented. This shows clearly that the question "what is the role of university museums" is more complex and embedded in social and cultural realities reaching far beyond the encapsulated academic world. The museum in which we are now, is a standing evidence of this fact, and it is not incidental that Peter Tirrell, to whom the existence of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History owes much, convincingly expresses this problem as a question of strategic choices: "In the case of university museums of natural history in the US, they may see the choices as becoming either museum with collection and a research and teaching function or a public education museum with a vastly reduced collections and research and teaching function." (Tirrell 2002). Tirrell emphasizes the need of research and teaching as a fundamental basis for the absolutely necessary public education activities: "The academic research drives the exhibits and public programs" (Tirrell 2002). Coming from this, the role of university museums can not be limited to traditional academic activities, but to a range of more or less well defined public needs of substantial knowledge deriving from academic enterprises. This corresponds very well with what can be stated as the main conclusion from the seminar in Oslo: One of the most important challenges for the university museums is to assert ourselves in a new in a completely new information and communication system (Johansen 2000 (b)). According to the international media critic Neil Postman2, this is not as much a question of introducing new IT- technology in the museum exhibition, as it is to understand the role of the museum as "institutions of dialogue", that is arenas or meeting places where the lexical monologue (represented by the researchers) meets the wondering and inquiring monologue. The university museum should be arenas encouraging interrogation and were answers are not provided in an authoritative way, thus underpinning the traditional and outranged image of knowledge as "facts" or "truths", but answers stressing the ambiguity and manifold of interpretations in scientific results and thus creating a basis for individual reflection and pensiveness (Forr 2000) (fig 2) (DSCN 2200).

Figure 2. A visitor to the museum ponders.
Figure 2.

3. Disseminating, but how?

We are into the heart of this conference's theme, Engaging the Community. As outlined above I strongly want to emphasise the university museum's need of a strategic choice putting disseminating knowledge derived from a wide spectre of research activities. In fact this is not a revolutionary point of view, because most of the university museums have their exhibitions and more or less processed (or developed?) public program. But this is not at all an obvious activity within the university itself, and neither particularly well understood nor appreciated. In Norway, the Ethical rules for university museums states shortly that university museums are "units within the universities aiming at protecting and develop the collections in advantage of research, teaching and information activities" 3. In the strategic plan for The Norwegian University of Technology and Science, of which the Museum of Natural History and Archaeology is a part, it is stated that the university "will emphasise dissemination of knowledge and research results to the public, and take up complex problems of common interest."4 This framing is next to nothing compared to the fact that many university museums are in need of effective strategies for being visible and present in the local community. In my opinion, there is an urgent need within this gathering to discuss the need for an overall museum university museums strategy aiming at spreading knowledge and research results to the public, thus showing that the university museums are capable of being powerful links between the universities and the surrounding community. The next question is what are the challenges we meet in a field ruled by highly professional mass media companies? What do we want to achieve in this matter? And what consequences are we willing to accept?

4. Provoking or Dying?

First of all, it is absolutely vital that the university museums need to attract the general public's interest, and that the museums become visible in the public area. A newly issued whitepaper dealing with the development of the Norwegian museum sector now and in the future, declares that the museums in general provides the community with too many "safe facts", they are places where the world is presented without conflicts and controversy, and they are rarely dealing with current topics important for the society. They are unable to annoy, challenge and provoke, and therefore lack the possibility of engaging the community5. This is even more true for the university museums. We have to face the fact that we are competing within a "mass media market" in attracting the public and the sponsors. One of the big challenges for the university museums is the international mass media cooperation's, and they do not necessarily follow academic norms and concepts for handling and spreading information. An important strategic question then, is that if we want to play an active and important role as communicators of knowledge and scientific results, and I think we should, then on what terms? It is no doubt that academia's demands for level-headed , reflected knowledge are conflicting with those demands ruling the mass media market. One obvious way out of this is to say that we do not want to reach far out of academia; on the contrary, we concentrate on a small spectre market allowing us to ignore the mass market, which in fact is not a good idea! We do have to depart from academic norms and concepts in this matter in order to break through in the competition with competing mass media such as TV, video, newspapers and cinemas. What are our possibilities? First of all we should assert the unique qualities in our museum collections, which are the authentic objects and the long time span dimension. These are qualities that we do not share with anybody else, and our comparative advantages we do have to develop in our exhibitions and public programs. Secondly we can challenge the traditional concept of knowledge of putting signs of equality between facts and truth, and instead stimulate the public curiosity by pointing to the ambiguity and manifold possibilities of interpretation in scientific results. We should not be pedagogic and tell people "how it is", but encourage to pensiveness and reflections, activity, involvement and by providing them with "surprising" but still relevant knowledge, new themes, perspectives and stunning news. One last, and maybe provoking, point of view: do not think of new communication and information technology as the "deus ex machine", or the ultimate rescue for museum exhibition and public activities in the mass medial times of today. The entrance to the public consciousness and engagement is, in my opinion, not in the use of advanced digital solutions, but rather in being relevant and up to date in what people experiences as important for their lives here and now. Thus, digital solutions are important as means, but not as a goal.

5. Conclusions

The university museums have to acknowledge their fundamental responsibility of being visible, important and unique institutions for disseminating knowledge and insights from a wide range of research activities. As academic institutions their primary task should be to challenge the established concept of knowledge and thus capture and influence the public engagements in matters important to them (we have to discover!). From this come our possibilities to develop the public from a passive recipient of authoritative knowledge to active participants in questions that directly or indirectly are important and relevant to their present lives as social and cultural beings. The university museums should emphasise authenticity as a unique quality in every museum exhibitions. Authentic objects are the museum's first and foremost comparative advantage. And when it comes to digital solutions, we should handle them as tools to facilitate educational tasks, and not as the answer to the university museum's marketing challenges outside as well as inside the world of academia.


1. Trenger vi universitetsmuseene? Rapport, dagseminar 21.09.00, Universitetet i Oslo - Blindern

2. Quoted in Forr (2000)

3. Nasjonalt utvalg for universitetsmuseene. Rapport nr. 2/2000, p.6. Etiske retningslinjer for norske universitetsmuseer. Nasjonalt utvalg for universitetsmuseene.

4. Creative, Constructive, Critical. Strategic plan for NTNU towards 2010.

5. St.melding. nr. 22 (1999-2000), Ch.6, pp-74-76: Kjelder til kunnskap og oppleving ("AMB-meldingen")


Etiske retningslinjer for norske universitetsmuseer. RAPPORT nr. 2/2000. Nasjonalt utvalg for universitetsmuseene - juni 2000. Universitets- og høgskolerådet.

Forr, G. 2000: Utfordringer for universitetsmuseene. Trenger vi Universitetsmuseene? Rapport fra dagseminar, torsdag 21.september 2000, Universitetet i Oslo-Blindern: 15-19. Oslo.

Gil, F.B. 2002: University Museums. Museologia - an international journal of museology 2, (1-2): 1-7. Universidade de Lisboa.

ICOM's museumsetiske regelverk. Norsk Museumsutvikling 2002. Oslo

Johansen, A. 2000 (a): Museumsforskning som museumsutvikling. Norsk Museumsutvikling 6:2000. Oslo.

Johansen, A. 2000 (b): Femti års forsømmelse. Trenger vi Universitetsmuseene? Rapport fra dagseminar, torsdag 21.september 2000, Universitetet i Oslo-Blindern: 9-14. Oslo.

Lourenço, M. C. 2002: Are university museums and collections still meaningful? Outline of a research project. Museologia - an international journal of museology 2, (1-2): 51-60. Universidade de Lisboa.

Stanbury, P. 2002: A panoramic view of university museums. University Museums. Museologia - an international journal of museology 2, (1-2): 9-10. Universidade de Lisboa.

St.meld. nr. 22 (1999-2000): Kjelder til kunnskap og oppleving. Det kongelige kulturdepartement. Tirrell, P.B. 2002: The university museums as a social enterprise. Museologia - an international journal of museology 2, (1-2):119-132. Universidade de Lisboa.

© 2003 Axel Christophersen