Faculty Collaboration and the University Art Museum

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A review of The University Art Museum And Interdisciplinary Faculty Collaboration, by Barbara Rothermel

Barbara Rothermel’s dissertation explores interdisciplinary collaborative activity in university art museums, primarily in the United States of America. University art museums, as “repositories of visual evidence, dedicated to cultural and artistic knowledge” (p. 7), located physically and intellectually in the heart of the university, are uniquely placed to act as vibrant sites for interdisciplinary collaboration, with outcomes that directly benefit teaching, learning and research activity. Rothermel’s hypothesis is that “interdisciplinary collaboration results in exhibitions and programs that promote the interconnectedness of ideas and issues,” specifically “between the content of social, cultural, scientific, and historical perspectives and object-centered learning” (p. 21). The author asserts that “there is no better partnership for interdisciplinary collaboration … than between the university art museum and the university faculty” (p. 7), and proceeds to explore this idea throughout her dissertation through a variety of approaches, including a review of the existing literature, survey results, close case studies, and analysis, with a unashamedly personal conviction for her argument arising from extensive professional experience. With nearly one thousand academic art museums and galleries in existence the USA (at the time of writing of the thesis), Rothermel sees enormous potential for interdisciplinary collaboration between the museum and the academy, utilising the unique intellectual base of the university environment to create innovative and experimental exhibitions and programs.

While as a practitioner of tertiary museum programs Rothermel admits her pre-existing bias in favour of the effectiveness and utility of the interdisciplinary collaborations she is investigating, she asserts that the rigorous research and methodology of her study gives the project necessary validity. The author describes her approach and methodology in chapters 1 and 2. She seeks, in her thesis, to demonstrate the validity of interdisciplinary collaborations between university art museums and the academe, and, as a potential longer-term outcome, to establish theory through the generalisation of findings. Rothermel asks three key questions in her thesis: what relationships currently exist between academic programs and university art museums? What factors determine the success of interdisciplinary collaboration with the art museum at the heart? And what are the chief institutional structural barriers to success? She takes a research approach that primarily utilises qualitative investigations, driven by narrative inquiry and context sensitivity, through surveys across university-based art museums principally in the USA. Constructivist learning theory underpins the approach, with learning taken as both personal and social, and underpinned by interpretative communities. Rothermel asserts that museums can stand as great locales for interpretative communities, in the sense that they tell stories through exhibitions, with a multiplicity of contributing voices, from exhibition construction through to reception.

In Chapter 3, the author describes her personal experience at the Daura Gallery, Lynchburg College, where she has been Director since 1997. This institution commonly collaborates with the more traditional partners of art history and studio arts, but Rothermel notes that formalized collaboration with other non-art disciplines is “seldom explored” (p. 28). Nevertheless, the Gallery does provide exhibitions and programs that supplement and support requirements across different disciplines, such as environmental science and international relations. Rothermel describes a number of collaborative initiatives since the 1990s, with the most significant collaboration being between the Daura Gallery and diverse academic programs at Lynchburg College in a retrospective of the Holocaust in the year 2000 that included contributions from senior students, and collaboration outside of the College with the Holocaust Education Center of Central Virginia (p.51). In her analysis of these collaborations, Rothermel highlights some key lessons: she notes that it is important for the museum to make the connections to faculty, as if there is no direct curricular connection, faculty won’t be likely to initiate; that museums should endeavor to form strategic alliances with external bodies that will substantiate university partnerships; and the museum should consider inviting faculty to participate on the museum board, create events such as open forums for discussion, facilitate visiting artists or speakers to talk to students in specific courses/subjects, and hold receptions for faculty to introduce upcoming exhibitions and propose and discuss future collaborative projects.

Chapter 4 moves to consider the context for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Rothermel begins by recalling the historical precedents for an approach to education that develops the “whole person” through multidisciplinary learning, but observes that since the nineteenth century universities have organized themselves both administratively and scholastically through compartmentalized academic disciplines, and that these work against interdisciplinary activity. In championing interdisciplinarity in the university art museum, Rothermel notes that “rewards of an interdisciplinary approach include breakthroughs in scientific research and artistic creativity, reconsiderations of complex social and practical problems, and an expansion and unity of knowledge not otherwise achieved,” and that in the museum context, “this sanctions the approach to objects and exhibitions from many different angles” (p. 59). She argues the interdisciplinary collaboration initiated by the museum is not about breaking down boundaries, but rather about building mutual respect. Rothermel goes on to consider the most effective role for the university museum staff, noting that relationships are built most effectively when the museum personnel are educators “in the classical sense, following the precedents of Plato’s Academy and scholars of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in educating the ‘whole’ person” (p. 62). Museum educators must act as a “point of intersection between objects, theories, and audiences” (p. 68). Rothermel notes that “too often, the burden is put on the faculty to decipher how to use the collection and exhibition, however, collaboration develops a symbiotic relationship in which the museum learns what the faculty needs in its curricula and the faculty learn how to use the museum as a resource” (p. 77). Successful museum-to-university partnerships are also often the product of the new position of “academic liaison,” a museum staff member whose focus is always outwards into the intellectual community of the university, targeting faculty and identifying curricular ties, and showcasing the museum’s pedagogical resources.

In Chapter 6, Rothermel examines survey results that underpin her arguments, including a comprehensive survey that sought information on university demographics that characterize their environment, the university and museum missions and operations, educational role of the museum, exhibitions, and interdisciplinary initiatives; and a supplemental informational survey of relationships and constraints within the university-museum relationship. The comprehensive survey data represented 92 colleges and universities from 18 US states, and five from countries outside of the US. The survey results suggest that while the organizational culture of a university is comprised of many sub-cultures, both administrative and academic, the art museum is one of the few vehicles through which institutionalized interdisciplinarity may be achieved by providing exhibitions and educational programs that serve and involve diverse academic disciplines, thereby becoming an institution-wide catalyst for cross-disciplinary engagement. In terms of attitudes of the museum staff, Rothermel found it “extremely significant that a full 100 percent of the 69 respondents to the final question on whether interdisciplinary collaboration between the museum and faculty enriches teaching pedagogy responded in the affirmative” (p.100), the author concluding that a segment of the university museum community is “both interested in and supportive of collaboration in an effort to facilitate the process of making meaningful connections between academic disciplines” (p. 99).

Rothermel used information gained from her survey results to target outstanding examples of interdisciplinary collaboration to explore her topic more richly in a case-study format. The case studies are selected to represent a range of distinct demographics, including student population, geographical environment (urban/rural), private vs. public governance, and museum collection size and chief designation (museum or teaching collection). Through chapters 7 to 10 Rothermel examines in turn her own institution, The Daura Gallery at Lynchburg College, the University of Virginia Art Museum, the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art of Art and Print Study Center at the University of Richmond, and the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College. In each case, Rothermel discusses the challenges that each institution faced, including internal power struggles, and lack of recognition for the innovative developments by the university. Crucially, she finds, success was often dictated by the parent institution being receptive to imaginative and creative approaches that break traditional boundaries and philosophically support new ways of thinking. Perceived and real barriers to collaboration in each case study included faculty from disciplines not traditionally linked with the art museum “thinking they don’t have much to offer an art museum,” “faculty fear of a ‘committee’ approach in which much is discussed and debated but no results are forthcoming,” and mutual concern over budgetary aspects covering research and faculty involvement (p. 131).

Rothermel closes her dissertation by summarizing what relationships exist between academic programs and university art museums, what makes collaborative relationships thrive, and what barriers must be overcome to initiate and sustain relationships. Key aspects for success that Rothermel identifies include the university museum addressing the question of whether interdisciplinary collaborative exhibitions are ‘one-off’ or ongoing and integrated into all programming; the acquisition of administrative support for museum operations; museum staff building networks and being proactive in breaking down boundaries with faculty; and breaking down internal reservations regarding implied ownership of collections and, hence, exhibitions (“letting go of control” (p. 181)). She recommends a team approach, with museum staff honing skills as facilitators and as investigators in their own right, and building a climate of “respect, responsibility, and trust on the part of all collaborators” (p. 182).

Barbara Rothermel’s thesis is principally located in the area of museum studies, and specifically in museum education. Her unique contribution with her dissertation is to expand the more commonly analyzed aspects of museum education, in the areas of primary and secondary schooling, into the tertiary sector. A parallel focus of the study is to examine the role and benefits of collaboration between tertiary art museum professionals and their multifariously disciplinary academic colleagues, specifically in the creation of engaging exhibitions and programs. Rothermel effectively conveys her personal passion for the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration in tertiary art museum activity in her dissertation, providing valuable examples of case studies and substantial statistical data to underpin her argument. The author approaches a topic that is very pertinent in this current period of the university art museum’s increasing engagement with higher education teaching, learning and research strategies. In particular it builds upon a culture that already champions the use of art museums in diverse educational engagements, promoting a deeper and more collaborative approach at the core of the museum’s programming. One of Rothermel’s key contentions is that university museums must move beyond the utilisation of existing exhibition and collection resources for teaching and learning purposes, to the collaborative research and development of the exhibitions and programs themselves. This approach ensures that the museum will remain a multivocal environment, building on the strengths of disciplinarity and acting as a locus for integrating these in an interdisciplinary way.

Dr Heather Gaunt
Curator of Academic Programs (Research)
Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne
heather.gaunt@unimelb.edu.au

Primary Sources
Surveys and questionnaires (included, as well as their analysis and evaluation) of university and college art museums and galleries in the USA
Case study of The University of Virginia Art Museum
Case study of The Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art of Art and Print Study Center at the University of Richmond
Case study of The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College.
Case study of The Daura Gallery, Lynchburg College.

Dissertation Information

The University of Leicester, 2013. 244 pp. Primary Advisor: Suzanne MacLeod

Image: Divine Rhetoric: Medieval and Renaissance Art as Communication and Expression, exhibition brochure cover, Daura Gallery, Lynchburg College, 1999.

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