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The Future of the Campus Art Museum: Join the Conversation

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

The Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago just released “Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century: a Conversation.” If you work at or with campus art museums, or art museums, or non-art campus museums, you should read it. Oh heck, just read it.
Tom Shapiro of Cultural Strategy Partners, Peter Linett of Slover Linett Strategies Inc. and Betty Farrell and Will Anderson at the CPC recruited eight museum directors and five outside experts from the art/museum world to look at how the field of college and university museums is evolving. Now that the report is out, it’s my turn to “think out loud” about how to promote “healthy evolution” and ask “what can these museums do differently or better to bring about [an] ideal future?”
With the blessing of the authors, I’m going to highjack the conversation and continue it on this blog—first by sharing one thought and two questions I had upon reading the report, and then by inviting follow up posts from other readers. I’ll also be keeping my eye out for the Kress Foundation Campus Art Museum Study, which is forthcoming. 
Thought: The Future of the Campus
The first thing I want to do is to push campus museums to think on a longer time frame and a bigger scale. When we consider the future of the campus art museum, we need to consider the future of the campus itself. As a number of educators and futurists have pointed out (most recently the educational futurists at KnowledgeWorks Foundation in their new report, Reigniting Education) the school of tomorrow will be a very different place—when it is a place at all.
Mounting educational debt, uncertain prospects for employment, the outsourcing and devaluation of traditionally high paid career paths (law, medicine), and the rapid proliferation of low-cost or free, high-quality instruction via the Web is transforming the landscape of higher education, and the most fertile innovations are coming in the realm of virtual education. Established universities are offering courses over the Web (some for credit), wholly on-line degree granting institutions are springing up and many organizations are experimenting with how to create alt credentialing via instruction and experience collected from a variety of sources. This begs the question, what role will campus museums play in virtual instruction? Since museums overall are rushing to digitize collections and create ways for users to interface with their content via the Web, a college or university that relies heavily on on-line content could, theoretically, co-opt such resources from a wide variety of sources. How can the digital presence of a campus museum be tailored in such a way as to support the unique on-line brand of their parent organization?
While most agree there is a continuing role for the physical campus, this may take new forms. For example: Northeastern University is building a campus across from Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, and much of the instruction will be beamed in from the university’s home base in Boston. NYUis building degree-granting campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, and Yale is building a new campus in Singapore. If museums are a valued part of the social & education functions unique to a physical campus, will there be more pressure on campus museums to create satellites as well? With education increasingly unbundled and distributed, what is the role of museums in creating a sense of place?
Question 1: Abolishing Silos
Something bothers me about the way this question is framed, and to whom. The report itself notes that campus art museums battle the silo mentality that makes it difficult to create cross-disciplinary value. Why reinforce these barriers by limiting the conversation to art museums? We are, as a field, already too inclined to self-identify by our training and background. If one of the most valuable capacities of campus museums is their “capacity to do interdisciplinary work,” why not include other campus museums in the conversation from the start? I tried reading the report while mentally deleting “art” or “art historical” or “visual arts” throughout, and it seems to me it works pretty well. I’d be interested to know if people working in campus museums of anthropology, natural history or archaeology agree.
Question 2: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression
Participants in this report feel that that campus museums “have a greater capacity than their non-academic peers to be more experimental and innovative,” in part because they are protected by academic freedom and use metrics of success that go beyond attendance.
The fact that campus museums are not always firewalled from political pressure was brought home to me while I read the report by the controversy at the University of Wyoming over the deinstallation of the site-specific work “Carbon Sink: what goes around comes around,”  allegedly because of pressure from legislators and representatives from the coal, mining, gas and petroleum industries. The artist, Chris Drury, intended the work to provoke discussion about climate change—though perhaps not this exact discussion. Is such pressure from funders and influencers really more rare at a university museum than, for example, at the Smithsonianor a private nonprofit? And are campus museums, as a result, more innovative than their non-campus peers? I’d like to hear what you think.
Call for Comments
So, here’s yourchance to weigh in. Read the report and let me know:
  • Do you think it asks the most important questions about the future of campus art museums?

  • On which points do you agree with the participants and where do you side with the “counterpoints” offered by the authors? Or do you have a third point of view to share?
Skip over related stories to continue reading article

  • What hasn’t this report asked yet, that we should bring into the follow-up conversation?
Weigh in here, in the blog comments or contact meif you are interested in writing a follow-up post. 

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  1. Beth – Thank you for including this conversation on your blog. In large part, I agree with the questions you raise. My part in this conversation urged colleagues to transfer learning from an ownership of knowledge model to a facilitation model. What continues to energize my thinking around the notion of campus museums as centers of innovation is that learning [in museums]comes from left field. It involves a lot of different sensory experiences. The sage on the stage model does not pertain – which means that other, perhaps playful models can emerge, in which cross-disciplinary ideas are the given. Imagine engineers teaming up with journalists and musicians, let's say, to produce work about mid-20th Century architecture, or Cubism, or the theory of relativity. Educate through engagement; tie interaction directly to lessons. My hope is that the conversation begun through The Future of the Campus Art Museum will not only spur more conversations but implementations.

  2. As a brand new campus art museum employee (Kansas State University's Beach Museum of Art), I'm anxious to dig into this material.

    Obviously, campus museums aren't immune to being politicized, but I'm enjoying an atmosphere that is conducive to interdisciplinary partnership.

    I look forward to the conversations here surrounding this topic!

  3. Thank you for raising the issue of "other" museums on campus. As we work to digitize our art collection, I continually raise the issue of the need to find a common platform to digitize ALL collections on campus (from library special collections to microscopes, from anthropology artifacts to the herbarbarium) to make them searchable from a common site. If people can encounter the primary materials of research in their internet searching, they can begin to make connections across and among collections. Art is one kind of artifact, but the exciting interdisciplinary exhibitions engage many kinds of artifacts, sometimes as art-like objects, but sometimes as carriers of other kinds of meaning.

  4. Thank you for posting an article that really challenges and reactivates the ways in which community, students, and museum professionals think about the futures of campus museums. I coordinate education and public programs for the Art Galleries at Bucknell University. One of our biggest challenges was pointed out in this study- how to cultivate interdisciplinary interest across campus. And, offer programs that interest both our tech-savy student groups, and the more traditional audiences from our pasts. Lots to think about and share with our staff. Thanks for continuing this discussion!

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