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A Merger That Worked — Museum + University

Inside Higher Ed took up the subject of financially weak museums who’ve looked for salvation at universities in a recent article. It’s a good subject. In New York, we’ve tried some partnerships and mergers that haven’t worked — most recently, the Museum of the City of New York gave up its management of the South Street Seaport Museum, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy last fall and was already struggling to stay alive and vibrant.

The IHE article, cryptically headlined A Home for Artifacts, begins be setting the scene: institutions of higher ed may be worrying about their long-term financial viability, but that hasn’t deterred museums, which are in worse shape, from looking at them for help — “…and that’s likely because many of them face larger existential threats than their counterparts in higher education.” The upsides: economies of scale, potential new donors and security for museum, and new expertise for their curricula for the universities. The downsides: a loss of independence and the potential for getting lost in a larger organization for museums, new obligations for the universities.

As examples, the writer uses the Corcoran Gallery’s tentative pact with the University of Maryland; the Textile Museum recent union with George Washington University; the Jewish Museum of Florida’s leap into the arms of Florida International University, and most prominently Drexel University’s 2011 acquisition of the Academy of Natural Sciences in downtown Philadelphia.

Here’s a bit from the report:

…the process of incorporating the museum into the university has at times proven difficult, but that it has benefited both over all. The merger created a new biodiversity, earth and environmental science department within Drexel composed of 20 faculty members, including 13 academy scientists. The academy gets a new source of revenue in tuition from the academic department.

Drexel gained 13 faculty members — seven of whom are already tenured — in areas in which it did not previously have expertise, particularly environmental science and environmental policy. The university has already started offering courses in those areas. The affiliation has also opened up new potential co-op and internship opportunities for Drexel students.

The museum also cut its costs by about 5 percent as part of the affiliation with the university through shared services. Gephart said that some positions were eliminated, but that the academy was able to find jobs — either inside the university or elsewhere — for every employee who wanted one.

Gephart {president of the Academy] said the partnership with Drexel has been a boon to the museum’s fund-raising….

ETC.

I realize that this is a science museum, but there are parallels with art museums in certain cases. To me, it’s an example that, while a last resort for struggling museums, is worth knowing about.

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