Are universities ‘museums of knowledge’?

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.