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Museums and Academic Values

January 29, 2009

Arts advocates have been outraged this week by Brandeis University's plan to sell all of the art in its museum as a way to raise money for the university. It turns out Brandeis isn't the only university where critics are questioning the university's commitment to important values for academic museums -- although many may be relieved to know this other controversy does not involve a university selling off a collection. (Update on Brandeis: Its president on Wednesday indicated he might go along with keeping some of the art, but was committed to shutting the museum.)

The University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology -- long considered one of the leading institutions of its kind -- last month told the 18 research specialists who make up the research division of the institution that they would all lose their jobs in May. Those laid off include many leading scholars, some of whom have worked 20 or more years at the university, managing research expeditions around the world, running labs at Penn, and publishing widely. These researchers are not tenured faculty members, however, so their positions can be eliminated with relative ease, which is what the museum is doing.

While these jobs are being eliminated, the museum is also considering ways to attract a bigger name for itself, and more visitors. The new director, citing budget constraints and changing museum priorities, wants research focused on the collections, not on scholarly inquiry broadly related to the museum's fields, as the researchers have been able to do.

And the museum sees fund raising as key -- whether in the idea of adding an upscale restaurant for visitors or in encouraging researchers who want an affiliation to raise their own funds through grants or other sources. Indeed those whose jobs are being eliminated may be able to stay if they can raise money for their costs. This more entrepreneurial approach isn't flying with many scholars.

"We would like to remind the administrators that universities are not for-profit businesses, rather they are institutions of research and teaching whose component parts need to be supported and protected, especially in tough financial times," says an open letter circulating about the situation at Penn, and signed by more than 3,300 people, many of them professors from all over the world. Noting the museum's "unique status as a research institution that has carried out many historically significant archaeological projects, most notably in the Middle East, the Mediterranean World, and Mesoamerica," the letter says that the "dismantling of the research infrastructure" is "a drastic surgical gesture, a decisive act that will discontinue the possibility of future archaeological research.... "

And noting some of the scholars who will lose their jobs, the letter says: "We feel that the firing of these researchers in this financially strained environment is unfair since they may not be easily employed elsewhere at this time with their laboratory and facilities needs. Additionally, the administration's financially motivated decision not only violates academic ethics of respect to such scholarly accomplishments and intellectual labor, but also ignores the institutional memory of the University Museum all together."

The Penn museum was founded in 1887 and boasts that it has sponsored more than 400 expeditions around the world. The museum has a curatorial staff of about a dozen, many of whom also hold faculty titles at Penn and teach and are tenure eligible. The curatorial slots aren't being touched. It is 18 research scientists who work on anthropology and archaeology, conducting original research all over the world and publishing the results, whose jobs are being eliminated.

Richard Hodges came to the museum as director in 2007, moving from Britain, where he was director of the Institute of World Archaeology at the University of East Anglia. He repeatedly described the changes he is leading as being about moving the museum "into the 21st century." To do that, he said, the museum needs both money and a change in attitude.

"What we hope is that as a museum we will focus not on the personal research of the range of individuals, but essentially concentrating on the museum's extraordinary collections and getting those out to a world audience," he said. By eliminating the salaries of the 18 researchers, the museum will save about $1 million a year, he said.

Told that some of those whose jobs are being eliminated have said he is trying to run the museum like the Wharton School, with the assumption that anyone good can find money, he doesn't balk at the comparison with Penn's acclaimed business school. "Why not?" Hodges said. Many scientists of course must win grants to cover salaries if they want to win tenure. Hodges said that in his position in Britain, if he didn't land grants, his team members would lose their jobs.

Of the prior approach at the Penn museum, he asked, "Why are we sustaining a tradition that believes that all we do is go out and do research for our ends?" He said that the current researchers "through no fault of their own" have been working in an outdated model of following their research interests and not raising money. "They have been in a different kind of institutional structure," he said.

He added that "the critics are saying we should be frozen in time, speaking a language which is different from the language I speak."

One idea being discussed -- and much criticized by the scholars angry over the job eliminations -- is adding an upscale restaurant to the museum. Hodges said that people are making too much of this, and that the changes he is pushing involve a commitment to high quality research and outreach -- just funded in a different way. But he said that given poor financing of museums in the United States, and the reality that Penn can only pay for about 40 percent of the museum's budget, there is nothing wrong with considering the amenities at museums.

"You need to get the right kind of people to take a genuine interest in the place," he said. "We have a perfectly serviceable canteen at the moment, but wouldn't it be better to have a better place and then [would-be donors] would support us more wholeheartedly?"

To many scholars, such talk of fund raising and priorities masks what they view to be really going on at Penn: an unceremonious dismissal of scholars who have done outstanding work. One Web site that has been created features links to letters about the work of some of those who would lose their jobs.

One of the scholars whose position is being eliminated after more than a decade and who asked not to be identified for fear of offending potential employers said the problem is one of differing perspectives over the role of a scholar at an archaeology museum.

"I think archaeology is a not-for-profit enterprise. Given the way archaeology is underfunded, to expect it to produce income like the medical school produces income is unreasonable," the scholar said. Museums like the one at Penn have three missions, the scholar added. "They have stuff to care for, they have outreach through exhibits and education, and they have research -- and not just research on existing collections. I do not understand why the people who run the university do not appear to value the research that many of us do."

Gunder Varinlioglu, who finished a Ph.D. at Penn last year on the art and archaeology of the Mediterranean world, is one of those who have been involved in organizing to protest the changes at the museum.

"They say research will continue at [the museum], but research has so many components. Of course certain types of research will go on, but the people they are laying off are scientists, working on scientific archaeology, and their labs are being dismantled. The scientific component is being murdered," said Varinlioglu. "Yes, there will be nice collections, but does that mean the museum is becoming an art museum rather than a museum of archaeology and anthropology?"

Tom Berger, who teaches museum studies at George Washington University, said that while the Brandeis and Penn situations are different in many ways, they may also point to a common need for university museums. Berger, who has worked on the finance side of such museums as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said that a museum may be vulnerable financially whenever its supporters' sense of its mission differs from that of the leaders of the university. At Brandeis and Penn, what some view as an essential role others see as something that may not be essential, at least if there is not a budget for it.

"Everything starts with the mission of the organization," he said. At Brandeis, everyone at the art museum and many others saw its role as a key part of the liberal arts environment. At Penn's museum, the scholars whose positions have been cut saw their wide ranging studies as essential to the university's research mission. "I think it's incumbent to understand clearly how the museum's role fits within the context and mission of the university," Berger said. "Is your view in congruence with the university's view?"

 

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