Are universities ‘museums of knowledge’?

February 29, 2012

If you are interested in the role and future of universities then I recommend that you read the recent essay in the Guardian by Stefan Collini. Trailing his new book, Collini makes some interesting and thought-provoking comments that are worth reading whether you agree or not.

There is one aspect of Collini’s arguments that I strongly disagree with – the notion that the central role of universities is as repositories and guardians of knowledge and culture.

Some, at least, of what lies at the heart of a university is closer to the nature of a museum or gallery than is usually allowed or than most of today’s spokespersons for universities would be comfortable with.

[Universities] have become an important medium – perhaps the single most important institutional medium – for conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage of mankind.

I believe that the idea of universities being primarily ‘museums of knowledge’ is both wrong and politically dangerous.

To cast universities as the repositories of knowledge ignores the complex and distributed way in which knowledge is now stored in the world. Through the internet codified knowledge is stored in many places and available in many more, so to suggest that knowledge is somehow associated with a particular set of locations seems strange. The distribution and access to knowledge also means that the guardianship, interrogation and use is not restricted, anymore, to the academy. There is expertise of all sorts to be found outside of universities, giving a collective aspect to the intellectual endeavour that extends beyond the campus or the quadrangle.

Take Wikipedia for example. Its authors are drawn from a range of backgrounds including, but not restricted to, academia. While Wikipedia is not without its problems, it is broadly accurate in capturing knowledge and ideas about the world, and has a responsiveness that more traditional approaches to the curation of knowledge can only dream about.

Linking the idea of the university to the idea of the museum is also politically dangerous. Collini himself mentions that this concept has a ‘backward-looking’ feel and counters that the idea also emphasises the importance of considering the university as an investment for future generations. But the idea of the museum raises a difficult issue for funding. While I accept that funding is not easy for universities, and that there is controversy around the idea of students themselves paying more of the costs, universities are much better funded than the museum sector. Casting universities as museums may make convincing politicians that they are worthy of public investment on a large scale even harder. The notion also risks reinforcing a stereotypical image of the university as a dry, out of touch institution. This is unfair to both universities and museums, but it is essential that the public and politicians see universities as they really are – progressive, up-to-date and outward-looking institutions with a strong committment to making a difference in the world.

The challenge is to communicate the reality of the modern university sector to politicians, policy-makers and the public. We need a new narrative that covers the diverse range of ways that our universities benefit society. This needs to include the very real economic benefits, but not be limited to them. We also need to make real for people the contributions that universities make to our culture, to the coherence of society and to the communities in which they are located. Celebrating the modern university is key to securing its future.


7 Responses to “Are universities ‘museums of knowledge’?”

  1. Interesting post – I agree that these games need to be played very carefully. However, Collini makes a reasonable point in the fact that the government assured us that national museums would remain without entry charge. Why them and not universities? What do people, or the government, feel they are giving society that universities are not? this argument is just one of many in the arsenal.

    I also wonder if your reading of this says something about views of museums as merely repositories. In fact, as Collini states, many are in the business of not just “conserving” but also “understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage of mankind”. And “heritage”, I would argue, includes knowledge and ideas being produced now, being made available to subsequent generations, as what was produced in the past.

    • stevenhill Says:

      Thanks for the comments. I completely agree that museums are not merely repositories. My concern is there are two inaccurate stereotypes we need to be wary of – museums as mere storage; universities as out of date, backward looking institutions. Linking the two risks reinforcing both stereotypes to the detriment of both types of institutions.

  2. Yes, I’m with you on that one Steven, for all the reasons you outline. It would be a very big mistake to sideline universities in that way. They need to be seen as more socially relevant, not less.

    Until recently I had very little knowledge or interest in Universities, other than a useless and very uninspired three years doing a degree in History of Art from Manchester (my fault, not theirs!) and a fabulous MSc at Bath – Anita Roddick’s alternative MBA. However I now interact quite a lot with academics and am now on the external advisory boards of the Institute of Innovation Research at Manchester Business School and the Risk Science Centre at the Uni of Michigan and have had my eyes opened. The work being done there is fascinating, original, relevant, useful, enlightening and valuable to their students and the wider world. The problem is that no-one particularly knows about it outside a very small and closed community. The, to me, totally bizarre reward structures which, to the exclusion of everything else, incentivises citations in academic journals with a small, narrow readership, are at the root of this problem.

    Looking at it one way – this is knowledge ‘I’ have helped pay for, it is really interesting, useful and can contribute greatly to the world in many different ways. I want it out there contributing, adding to the body of all our knowledge, not just a few other folks in the same field.

    From another angle, and I can’t resist surfacing my usual hobby horse against social science here, the wonderful work that is done in science, and particularly social science, very often doesn’t have the impact and influence it could do and in fact was designed for. This is because the academic journals are written in another language and the scientists rewarded for their ability to communicate in this way, which bears deceptively little resemblance to the language I speak. That doesn’t help train them or inspire them to communicate with those ‘stakeholders’, including but not focusing on the public, who may find the knowledge they impart valuable.

    This must also play out to be ineffective with students also, these are the very people who are teaching our kids how to think. Though more relevant to social science than the harder sciences, is it really helpful if a significant part of the first few terms is spent deciphering and then learning this bizarre new language? Neither is it perhaps inspiring to students to see the pathway that lays before them if they go on to further education which could look more like personal aggrandisement rather than making a significant contribution to the global knowledge bank around their chosen subject.

    OK I’ll stop now I’m getting carried away!

    • stevenhill Says:

      I think your point about language is a good one, although I suspect it can occur with all disciplines. And of course there are some academics who are brilliant at communicating in straightforward language we can all understand.

  3. If we think of a museum as a place of stroage of artifacts then it is not an approriate analogy but museums are a place of sharing. Artifacts are researched, displayed and made relevant to public audiences, frequently audiences of school aged kids. Museums are places of imagination for children – who hasn’t walked among dinosaur skeletons and wondered about like 45 million years ago! I believe the image of a university as a museum of knowledge is wrong because it is (possibly) presupposing the museum as a storage of artifacts. Universities have repositories of knowledge but they are primarily places where that knowledge is shared.

    To address Hilary’s comments, I agree that much of our academic knowledge is only shared on campus but there is an increasing movement to share knowledge and expertise between the academy and organizations from the public, private and community sectors. Check out some of our writing on this at Knowledge mobilization helps turn research into action and is the university’s contribution to social innovation.

    • Yes, you are right, I know that there are important things going on in this area @researchimpact, though I still see that they are significantly hampered by the funding imperative and continued focus on citations as the main reward criteria.

    • stevenhill Says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that there is more to museums than just storage – see my response to an earlier comment.

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