Journalism in the service of society

Making a case for University Art Museums life

‘Campus museums offer an array of benefits, including serving as the primary gateway and initial point of contact for individuals outside the university community. This serves as an advantage for universities and colleges, as it increases their public visibility and helps attract new students and faculty. Furthermore, it showcases their commitment to being responsible institutions that contribute to the overall development of society’

WHEN we initially proposed the idea of establishing an art museum at Pan-Atlantic University to the university authorities, I was unaware of the motto of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries: “Great universities have great museums.” If I had known, my presentation would have been more convincing. I was not prepared for the answer I got from the Vice-Chancellor. He asked me to justify the need for a museum on campus. While I believed the answer was obvious, it wasn’t apparent to everyone at the university. It seemed like a setback, but it sparked a reflection on the mission of Pan-Atlantic University and how a future art museum could support and enhance its commitment to serving the community. Fortunately, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, whose funding and artworks would later make the museum a reality, fully embraced the idea.

Yemisi Shyllon
OmoOba Yemisi Shyllon

In less than four years since the inauguration of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) in a new building on the Pan-Atlantic University campus, there is now widespread agreement among faculty, staff, and students that the museum is an important resource for both the university and society, extending beyond the boundaries of its campus in Ibeju Lekki.

There are many ways of looking at what universities are, but in broad terms they can be viewed as institutions that create and transfer knowledge, skills, and values in an organized way. Museums are also educational institutions that transmit knowledge, skills, and values, but they do it in a more informal way and mainly through experiential contact with objects. The case of university museums is special, they are educational institutions within larger educational institutions, the universities. Themes of experimentation, alliances, experiential and object-based learning, inter-departmental collaboration reverberate within the walls of university museums. While university art museums may not often possess collections of the same calibre and scale as national or large regional museums, they have a significant role to play. To fulfil this role effectively, university museums need to begin by identifying their own capabilities and resources, and then align themselves with a clear mission. It is crucial for a university museum to regularly assess its mission and guiding principles, to develop and maintain an identity that goes beyond the learning objectives, teaching methodologies, and disciplinary boundaries of any specific department within the university. By actively seeking out interdisciplinary initiatives and collaborative projects, a university museum can truly become an asset in service to the entire university community.

Are university museums different from other museums? I strongly think so. Museums come in various forms, each with distinct missions and objectives. For instance, the National Museum in Lagos plays a vital role in safeguarding significant artifacts representing Nigeria’s material culture, arts, and history. While university art museums may not possess renowned masterpieces like in the National Museum, they can still boast noteworthy collections of great educational value. By engaging with collections, students and faculty gain insights into key concepts, historical contexts, and diverse cultural perspectives. These museums contribute to the cultural vitality of the campus and the wider community, acting as informal educational resources.

Campus museums have a capacity to be more innovative and audience centred than other museums on the continent. They are in better position than most public museums to “experiment” and look for new ways to offer a valuable educational and developmental service. For university museums the pressure to constantly attract large numbers of visitors to validate their relevance is less strong than in other museums. They have the flexibility to curate exhibitions that may not fit within the highly commercialized art world, which prioritizes profit. This commercialization has limited the space available for non-commercial or non-tourism-focused exhibitions. However, some of these exhibitions can be fascinating, enlightening, and have a profound impact. University art museums can provide the much-needed space for such exhibitions. What better place than a university to safeguard a heritage that does not solely belong to us?

University art museums are unique institutions that hold the potential to be valuable resources for a diverse range of audiences. However, they also face challenges and limitations that impact their relevance to students, faculty, and the wider community. To unlock their full potential, university art museums must establish a clear mission, robust management and governance structures, and curate programs, exhibitions, and activities that are relevant and engaging. Additionally, forging stronger connections with communities beyond the campus and seeking innovative partnerships with art market stakeholders are crucial steps towards enhancing their impact and accessibility.

When we broaden our understanding of education to encompass not only the acquisition of knowledge but also the development of soft skills, character, and civic values, it becomes evident that university museums can play a vital educational role. They can contribute significantly to supporting and reinforcing their host university’s dual mission of serving both students and the community.

These campus museums provide distinct spaces for fostering interdisciplinarity, nurturing creativity, and cultivating analytical thinking within the university environment. They can be spaces for contemplation, inspiration, and aesthetic engagement, enhancing holistic education and nurturing creative capacities. They contribute to the academic, cultural, and social fabric of both the university and the broader community. Because they have the artworks and the people who know about them, university museums are probably, as Martha Lourenço says “in a better position than any other institution to reflect the complex issues of collecting, studying and interpreting” art and heritage.

Campus museums offer an array of benefits, including serving as the primary gateway and initial point of contact for individuals outside the university community. This serves as an advantage for universities and colleges, as it increases their public visibility and helps attract new students and faculty. Furthermore, it showcases their commitment to being responsible institutions that contribute to the overall development of society. In fact, an increasing number of university art museums worldwide perceive themselves not only as vehicles for the university to serve the community, but also as gateways for the community to engage with the campus. University leadership recognizes the potential of art museums to project their identity, connect with broader society, and enhance their brand, countering the perception of exclusivity and isolation often associated with “ivory towers.”

University art museums face a challenging situation that poses a threat to their primary objectives of scholarly research, teaching, and community engagement. This challenge primarily stems from the increased dependence on external funding sources that lie outside the academic community. This reliance introduces uncertainties about the long-term sustainability of university museums and their mission. Considering these circumstances, it becomes crucial, especially in the present context, for university museums to reaffirm their academic value and maintain a prominent role in the ongoing cross-disciplinary discourse within the university. In essence, university art museums hold significant importance for both the university and the community. They provide avenues for academic learning, research opportunities, collaborative platforms, social understanding, community engagement, and professional development. Additionally, they contribute to fostering creativity on campus and in the community. We need more university art museums in Nigeria and across the entire continent. And we need them urgently!

Dr. Castellote is the Director, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos

Comments are closed.