INTERVIEW WITH DR. XA STURGIS, DIRECTOR OF THE ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM
By Saxton Bampfylde
Dr. Xa Sturgis discusses what makes a university museum tick; the challenges and opportunities that it affords both the museum and the Higher Education institution it exists within; and how it can change the way education is delivered by opening doors into new worlds.
A museum operating within the Higher Education environment – what does this relationship mean for both institutions?
Part of what it means for a museum is unquestionably a sense of security within a larger organisation. However, with that comes a degree of obligation on the part of the museum that might be different from that of a national, municipal or independent museum. For a university museum the particular areas of obligation are around the focus and emphasis on research and teaching. By that, I mean specifically teaching within a Higher Education context, as all museums see themselves as educational institutions. In a university museum there is more focus on teaching to students, undergraduate and postgraduates, within their institution and beyond.
A lot of university museums were not founded or developed specifically as teaching collections. Many were purely seen as part of a broader cultural focus for the institution. Our Raphael drawings for example, which form the core of our latest exhibition, were given to Oxford in the 1840s in the hope that they would improve the morals of the university students! Increasingly however, we are now looking at our collections and thinking about how we use them in teaching the undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum.
In an institution like the University of Oxford which is traditionally very text based this is a challenge, but one that we are rising to. It is an exciting challenge. We want to share how the extraordinary encounter with the many objects amongst these amazing collections can open more windows onto the past or onto ideas than any text book can. We are working hard to suggest different ways of thinking about a wide range of different subjects through these collections - helping to develop possibly more empathetic, more imaginative ways of thinking.
Looking at the other side about what museums offer universities, they are often the first door through which many people come to a higher education institution. They are an open door to the idea of higher education and the individual university. They are very accessible and museums are astonishingly popular institutions today. They have a broad, engaged public which is of great value to Higher Education institutions.
In Oxford, the university museums are particularly significant and the Ashmolean is one of four exceptional institutions. Collectively we provide different ways into the university, reflecting its intellectual life. We are here to demonstrate how thinking can reveal the world.
How does this impact on the operation and development of the museum?
There are obvious logistical and practical issues that relate to teaching and research. We need study rooms, space to store the objects and of course qualified museum assistants who can retrieve objects and bring them to classrooms.
We are also inviting the academics and lecturers into the museum, sitting them down and supporting them in ways to teach from collections. We are trying to do this across many areas and making links with many faculties including English, migration studies, geography, history and the business school. We are trying hard to support academics and enabling them to be comfortable working with objects rather than using a purely text based approach.
Our own Egyptian curator teaches the Egyptology course he studied when he was a student at Oxford University. However, at that time he sat in the school of archaeology, right next door to the Ashmolean, looking at photocopies of objects that we had in the museum; objects that he didn’t know were next door until he began working here! There is no denying these objects reveal more than a photocopy ever can. They provide a connection to the past and to people, and a window into another world.
We recently received an extremely generous grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation which is specifically dedicated to helping us develop the ways in which we collaborate and support teaching within the university. A key part of this is the development of a new programme called Faculty fellowships, which is geared towards ensuring sustained learning opportunities. This project involves us working very closely with the IT team here to develop better and more sustainable platforms for students to have access to and revise from. Whether it be 3D scans, better imagery or other information, by making all these files available online in addition to allowing hands on teaching sessions in our study rooms will, we believe, greatly enhance the student learning and also the wider teaching experience.
Together with the other museums at the University of Oxford we are also looking to develop a collections study centre; a space where collections from across the University will be accessible for teaching and research. Plans for this centre are currently being developed and we are very lucky to have identified a site right in the heart of the University – two large basements that used to be library stacks under the lawns in front of the Museum of Natural History.
If teaching brings certain operational demands the role of the Museum as a champion of research brings others. This not only involves making our collections accessible to researchers, both physically and virtually, but also revealing the fruits of this research to as wide an audience as possible. Our exhibition programme is critical here and looking at our programme going forward the intention is that it will always, or as frequently as possible, be backed by new research carried out in the University or beyond. Our recent Raphael exhibition is great example of this. The outcome of a Leverhulme-funded research project, it explored the way in which Raphael used the drawing process as a way of thinking and revealed him as a far more experimental and adventurous artist than he is often considered.
One next exhibition - ‘Imagining the Divine: Art and the rise of the world religions – will focus on the late antique period and establishment of the iconography of all world religions. It is an enormous subject and again the subject of a major research project involving Oxford University academics and the British Museum. Oxford is arguably the leading university in the world for the study of the late antique period and it is only right that we should highlight this strength in our exhibition programme.
Exhibitions are the most vital way a museum can communicate what it is. Looking ahead I hope the exhibitions reflect the huge range of our collections but also the range of the intellectual thinking around those collections within the museum, the university and indeed beyond.
What changes, challenges or opportunities are on the horizon for the Ashmolean? How will it continue to evolve in the next 5-10 years?
Thinking again about the Higher Education sector and opportunities arising I would say that the development of academic disciplines and the way in which universities are being encouraged to think about teaching and research is a hugely exciting one for us. There is a real focus on developing an interdisciplinary approach, with a real need to escape from silos of particular well-established academic disciplines. Museums are absolutely some of the best places in which this type of thinking happens almost as a matter of course. Museums by their very nature are interdisciplinary spaces, and I think there is a huge potential for us to play a key role in the development of this kind of thinking and working as well as disseminating the fruits of this working to a wider audience.
Every museum institution will tell you there are financial challenges but again there are particular forces at play in the Higher Education sector, not least because of Brexit. It appears Brexit could hit the sector very hard in terms of research funding, but also about the potential restrictions on access for international students. There is also an impact expected on partnerships, particularly those linked to funding. This creates a challenge for university museums.
The Ashmolean is in a very privileged position of being not only a university museum, but also a great public museum. We do have a mixed funding model which makes us more robust than some, but we are looking to diversify, for example through building a strong institutional endowment fund. Until this point I think it is fair to say that university museums have been somewhat protected from funding cuts, but there is no denying there are storm clouds on the horizon and we need to be ready for this.
Finally, a major challenge, but also a much-needed change, is in the digital arena. If we are to truly be a great teaching and research museum, we must make our collections as accessible in many ways. That needs to be online as well as physically. I will admit we are coming a bit late to the party, although in sunnier moments I tell myself that this is an advantage as we can learn from others. Although we are looking closely and developing ways for mass digitisation in the end there is no escaping the time that collections’ curators need to put into the process of data entry and information checking, which is challenging in a collection of over a million objects.
“THERE IS A REAL FOCUS ON IMPROVING THE INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACH. MUSEUMS ARE ABSOLUTELY ONE OF THE BEST PLACES IN WHICH THIS TYPE OF THINKING HAPPENS ALMOST AS A MATTER OF COURSE.”
What skillset or mindset is required at a senior and leadership level within the Higher Education sector at the Ashmolean? Do you consider this to be reflective of that affecting leadership in the wider museums sector?
On the whole I don’t think the skillset differs dramatically to that required of leaders in nationals or independent museums, although I do think that council run museums present rather different leadership challenges.
One of the main challenges of leading a university museum is getting to grips with the larger institution in which we operate; understanding the priorities and objectives of the University in which we sit and, as importantly (but more challengingly), understanding how and where decisions are made within this larger institution and how to influence them. Oxford is particularly, and at times proudly, complex in this regard and even after three years I still have much to learn!
Otherwise, as everywhere, the leadership challenge is about persuading people of your vision and the direction of travel. As just one example the persuading of curatorial staff to devote the necessary time and effort towards digitisation requires motivation and the ability to communicate its importance and the benefits this work will bring.
Are university museums facing similar challenges to generate more commercial revenue or streamline operations compared to others in the wider museums sector?
Yes, of course they are. Some have more of a challenge than others. Commercial revenues depend largely on visitor numbers and the institution’s buildings and surroundings, which might for example make it an attractive wedding or party venue.
Space is always a challenge because you need the space to generate the revenues. To that extent the Ashmolean is in a strong position – it has huge visitor numbers, wonderful spaces, galleries and a rooftop restaurant. Even with those assets, the challenge is always there. We cannot rely on any single source of funding, and commercial revenue always has to be an important slice of one’s revenue cake. For the Ashmolean it definitely is. We are relatively fortunate however, there are other university museums where the challenge is greater, but this does not prevent us from always looking at ways to develop our commercial opportunities further.
How do you continue to keep such a breadth of collections, like that which exists at the Ashmolean, interesting and appealing to current and future visitors?
I think we couldn’t fail to keep this collection interesting. One of the great joys of the Ashmolean is the breadth and exceptional depth of its collections. They allow us to explore all the great themes of human existence and open doors in so many different directions. The excitement of museums is in what they offer, the immediacy of connection to the past, to other individuals, to other concerns. There is no better way of opening a door onto the history of humanity than through museums and their collections.
One area we are developing and considering is in the contemporary arena. We are a universal, as well as a university, museum and so we do need to address modern and contemporary art better and more consistently and seriously than we perhaps have done. To develop this we have just appointed a modern and contemporary curator. This will allow us to shift our thinking about how we address this area, both in terms of our collections and our programming.
“WE ARE A UNIVERSAL, AS WELL AS A UNIVERSITY MUSEUM”
Are there other countries/institutions where museums exist within in an HE setting that you admire, and why?
Yes, there are obviously significant university museums in the US and Europe and it is unquestionably interesting and important to learn from them. The new Harvard Art Museum has a wonderful new and carefully considered building. It has very real strengths in the way it has thought about servicing the work it does with students – beautiful study rooms with ready access to stored collections, galleries devoted to particular taught courses and so on. Similarly, the Yale University Art Museum has developed very interesting ways in which it uses and trains its students to deliver its education programme. Conversely Harvard (and to a lesser extent Yale) very much faces the University rather than the public and I do think something is lost in not actively seeking and developing a broad and wide public. This is around their founding purpose, funding, mindset and more obviously, their geography.
Every university museum is different and the challenges they face are often around their founding purpose. Some have grown specifically from research collections, some have grown from teaching collections, still more from donations of collections with the broad aim of expanding the horizons of their students. They all have slightly different stories and this is often reflected in their individual approaches and priorities today.
The Ashmolean is the oldest surviving purpose-built public museum. Welcoming the public was one of our founding principles. We have obligations to the university of course, but our greatest value to the university is that we are, and will remain, a great public museum.
DR. XA STURGIS - BIOGRAPHY
In October 2014 Dr Alexander Sturgis became the Director of the Ashmolean Museum having had a distinguished career as the Director of the Holburne Museum, Bath, since 2005. Whilst at the Holburne Dr Sturgis oversaw a renovation of the Museum that included a £13 million extension. Prior to becoming the Director of the Holburne Museum Dr Sturgis worked at the National Gallery, London, for 15 years, in various posts including Exhibitions and Programmes Curator from 1999–2005.
Dr Sturgis is an alumnus of University College, Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.