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The Interdisciplinary Campus Museum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
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Last week I bloggedabout the newly released Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century report, produced by the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago with the support of the Kress Foundation. Evidently, the report struck a chord (major, minor?) with a number folks who have volunteered to expand the conversation. First up, John Weber, Dayton Director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, but soon to be (as of Jan 1) founding director of the Institute of Arts and Science, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Art is a great starting point for forays into other areas, and personally, I like working with art. But at times, if you want your campus museum to really be interdisciplinary you will have to show objects that are simply not art, and do shows that do not behave like the shows at art museums. That will mean behaving more like museums of material culture, science, anthropology and archeology, and history. To me, that openness and uncertainty are an automatic way to force curatorial creativity, but it does mean going outside your comfort zone. I’m not saying art museums should turn into science museums, or history museums, or whatever. But if they want to be more successfully interdisciplinary and harness more energy from faculty and students, looking regularly beyond art is a way to accomplish that.
Being something more than an art museum enables you to work effectively with campus constituencies—faculty in particular—for whom art is an afterthought, a diversion, or an intimidating challenge. In many cases, art simply does not fit in the syllabus. The smartest thing Skidmore College did in founding the Tang was to call it the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. It’s a mouthful, but calling out the pedagogical function and promoting the museum to faculty, staff, students and alums as an interdisciplinary teaching museum “about ideas” has been crucial. Faculty approached the Tang early on with proposals for shows about maps, chemistry, and other topics that they were interested in. I’m not sure that would have happened if they had seen the Tang as a straight up art museum. Happily, nearly all of those faculty-originated topics actually turned out to be good homes for art. And one of the things I’ve learned here is that art, as one English professor noted, is profoundly interdisciplinary at its core.
One of the potential stumbling blocks college and university art museums face in trying to play a broader and more meaningful role in academics beyond art is staff history and attitude—a point that wasn’t raised in the Campus Art Museum report. Art museums tend to be staffed by art museum people. No surprise. But if you want to be interdisciplinary, it is a lot easier if you build a staff sharing that orientation from the ground up, around a museum concept that does not appear to limit itself to art. (That’s what University of California, Santa Cruz is doing in creating a new Institute of Arts and Sciences, which I will join as founding director in two months.)    
Doing genuinely interdisciplinary programming means working with people who know things you don’t know. If you really want to address areas of the curriculum beyond art, you will need to share control with faculty who are not art people. You will need to learn about other subjects. That may make some staff members nervous. And if your org chart is filled with well-meaning professionals who, in their heart of hearts, would honestly prefer to talk mostly about art to people who are interested in art, then you willmeet with internal resistance as you try to re-engineer your organizational culture. Museum leaders and their parent institutions need to decide where they want to go, and then build staff who share their vision and are equipped to implement it.
Before signing off, I want to amplify the report’s assertion that campus museums should be aggressive participants in discussions regarding new pedagogies and new ways of learning. Agreed!  In particular, museums need to help the academy come to terms with the profoundly visual and multimodal nature of communication, learning, and knowledge in the internet age. College education remains deeply biased toward verbal communication and the written word. Yet much argumentation, information, and assertion comes to us today in visual, audio visual, or verbal-visual packages via the internet. More than ever, students need to unpack and critically assess what is being said via pictures, pictures-plus-sound, pictures-plus-words, and in video. I will argue that they also need to be competent producers of such entities by the time they graduate, just as they need to produce competent written documents. Yet where do such competencies live within college curricula, and which departments, programs, and offices are responsible for delivering and assessing them? 
Good news:  museums can help. We can’t do it alone, but we can be part of an exciting larger movement to accept the challenging of educating 21st century students to be both critical viewers and critical producers of visual culture. The art we hold and exhibit is a tremendous resource in this effort, and our ability to create scintillating public exhibitions and attract audiences is a huge resource on and off campus. If we can add to that a capacity to work across disciplines with visual materials from other fields, college and university art museums can play a central role in meeting one of the most dynamic challenges confronting the academy today. If you love art, museums, and learning, I can’t imagine a better place to be. 

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