Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Collective Interests Give New Purpose to Old Curiosity Shops

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Collective Interests Give New Purpose to Old Curiosity Shops

Article excerpt

University museums and galleries are enjoying a global renaissance, as Ian Wylie reports

Once regarded as the Cinderella of higher education, university museums and galleries around the world are in the spotlight again.

Whitworth Art Gallery, part of the University of Manchester, reopens this week after a £15 million facelift. And last month, the king and queen of Spain opened the Museum University of Navarra in Pamplona, another example of an institution undertaking a role as guardian of national cultural treasures at a time when governments, local or national, have neither the will nor the resources to do the job.

For universities it is an opportunity for high visibility in the battle to attract students and faculty while also ticking the civic engagement box. "This building tries to connect with the other buildings on campus," explains "starchitect" José Rafael Moneo on a tour of his e22 million (£16.7 million) museum. "This is one of the few landscaped university campuses in Spain, so it was important for me that this building established contact with campus buildings as well as those in the city."

The Museum University of Navarra is now home to the private collection of María Josefa Huarte Beaumont, the daughter of a local construction magnate, which includes works from Picasso, Rothko, Kandinsky, Tàpies and Chillida. It also houses the largest publicly displayed collection of photographs taken in Spain, including photographs by Ortiz-Echagüe and Capa.

Moneo has a reputation for weaving his buildings into their "context", and the university is keen that its museum is woven into the daily activities of its staff and students, so as well as the works themselves, the building contains workshops, a library, a classroom and an auditorium.

All money raised by the museum so far has come from private donors. "Our priority is the students," says Carlos Padula, a New York private banker who was the first to donate. "This is a university museum, so the priority is for students to do research on the legacy that we have received and also explore what the university can achieve through interdisciplinary collaboration involving different faculties."

The museum will be the base for a new master's degree in curatorial studies, and also for artists on short-term residencies. "We're offering a place where artists can come to study and meet with students, lecturers and the general public to discuss their work, whether that's an idea, a paper, a workshop or a complete piece of art," says Valentín Vallhonrat, who sits on the museum's artistic direction committee.

Natural allies

Universities and museums ought to be natural allies. Both have missions to examine, preserve and increase knowledge. Some claim that the oldest museum in the world was a university museum - the University of Oxford's Ashmolean.

University collections began life as raw material to support teaching and research, but as this became more theoretical, collections were neglected, regarded as little more than dusty cabinets of curiosity.

Faced with financial woes, several universities, particularly in the US, have considered selling off works or collections not deemed core to their mission. Last year, Randolph College sold Men of the Docks by George Bellows to benefit its endowment by $25. …

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