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Inside the current issue:

University-Museum Collaboration:
The Opportunity and the Need

A Shared Passion:
Leveraging Resources Through Museum-University Projects

Polymer Power:
Partnering to Enrich an Exhibition

Where Past and Present Meet:
The Changing Role of the University Museum

A Bridge to Science:
Israel’s University-Sponsored Museums

Digital Strategies:
Partnering for Personalization

An ‘A’ for Service:
Tapping the Talent at Community Colleges


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: January/February 2005
  January/February 2005 Dimensions

January/February 2005
The Campus Connection:
Linking Museums with
Higher Education

University-Museum Collaboration:
The Opportunity and the Need

By Kenneth H. Keller

For those who, like me, grew up in New York in the 1940s and '50s, the American Museum of Natural Historywith its whale and its dinosaurs and its dioramaswas almost as familiar as our own homes. The Hayden Planetarium, where we touched the enormous meteorites and learned our weight on Mars and Jupiter, drew us into the world of science where many of us have spent our lives. That was its purpose, and it worked marvelously well.

We were less aware, then, that we were on the brink of an enormous expansion in the role of science and technology in our society. Spurred by Vannevar Bush's 1945 article, "Science—the Endless Frontier," the nation began to invest heavily in science, believing it could be as valuable in peacetime as it had been in wartime. That has surely proven true. But the very success has brought new challenges. In 1950 we spent less than $5 billion per year on research and development; we now spend $275 billion, with the federal government’s share at about $80 billion, 13 percent of the discretionary federal budget.

The price of progress has been specialization, and with it a diminution in communication between disciplines. And the shortened time span between discoveries and technical applications leaves little time to consider the social, political, and economic consequences of those applications.

Universities and museums must respond to these changes. It is not enough for museums to attract young people into science or for universities to train those young people and to carry out research. Both institutions must help the public to set priorities for investments in science, to understand the nature of scientific uncertainty, to see the interdependence of various fields of science and technology, and to become aware of the potential benefits and social challenges new knowledge can bring.

These are responsibilities that cry out for partnerships between universities and museums, linking those who specialize in discovery and formal education with those who know how to reach lay audiences through engaging exhibits and programs.

Partnerships are hard work. Even within the university, multidisciplinary efforts are difficult to initiate and maintain, separated as we are by the paradigms of our professions—different interests, ways of thinking, ways of communicating—and by chronic shortness of time. Add to this the complexity of reaching beyond our own institutional borders, and the challenge appears even more difficult.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities. Government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), now insist on (and fund) public education as part of many research grants, giving researchers both the means and the motivation to seek partnerships. And with the rapid pace of new discovery, museum professionals have more reason to stay in close touch with those at the forefront of science.

As need and opportunity converge, imaginative ideas will come from talented people in both institutions, but only if we get our strategies right. Here, experience provides guidance on what will work.

First, university and museum administrators have to formalize the partnership, giving it legitimacy and value in the eyes of the professionals and providing the formal mechanisms for sharing resources—people, money, and equipment—and simplifying contractual arrangements.

Second, people have to develop the habit of meeting regularly—in seminars, social functions, structured discussions, and informal exchanges. Through such meetings, over time, they can learn to bridge the communication gap, find common values and interests, develop mutual respect, and identify and respond to opportunities. When institutions provide for these interactions, collaborations will be born and good things will happen.

Finally, each ad hoc opportunity—each funded research grant with a public education requirement, each collaborative effort to develop a new exhibit—must be treated as a nucleating event, the chance to develop a new dimension of a productive and continuing relationship.

Thomas Jefferson argued that the best protection of a democracy was an "informed society." For that phrase to have meaning today, it must include enough understanding of the substance and process of science to evaluate the investments we are called upon to make, the regulations we choose to impose, and the expectations we can realistically have about science and its applications. Neither universities nor science museums can meet this need alone; but they can certainly do it together.

Kenneth H. Keller, a past president of the University of Minnesota and a former trustee of the Science Museum of Minnesota, is Charles M. Denny Jr. Professor of Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

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