On Aug. 24, the University of Connecticut announced significant changes ahead for the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History. The museum, located adjacent to McMahon, will soon vacate its current building. The museum will no longer have a permanent exhibition space, according to UConn Today, though the staff will remain on campus (http://today.uconn.edu/2016/08/natural-history-museum-relocate-expand-public-outreach/).
According to the university, the former museum building “will now be occupied by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Academic Services Center, which provides support to faculty and undergraduate students in the form of training, outreach, advising, orientation, and other avenues.” These CLAS administrative officials were formerly located in Faculty Row, which is set to be demolished in the near future.
While the university must make unpopular or unorthodox decisions in order to accommodate planned construction and budgetary constraints, it is difficult to paint the dissolution of the physical museum in a positive light.
E. Carol Polifroni, the director of the UConn Office of Public Engagement, under which the museum will now operate told UConn Today “We’re going to be bringing the museum to the people, so to speak.”
Looking at this decision objectively, the decision to cease the maintenance of a physical exhibit space seems more related to the university running out of operating and usable space, and less to do with an effort at public outreach. Even though many students walk past the museum, never entering during their time in Storrs, the concept of a “museum” without a physical space is stretching what we can define as a museum.
The university, via UConn Today, argued “In the most important sense, though, very little will change for the museum…The museum’s collections will still be maintained at the University, and the independent governing board overseeing the museum will continue, as required by state statute.”
Though part of the university’s academic mission, the removal of the museum space on campus is undoubtedly motivated by cost-benefit analysis, with a focus on economics. Constructing new offices on an increasingly cramped Storrs campus would cost millions. Since the museum lacks the grandeur of other natural history museums, and does not draw large crowds, it appears the university has placed practicality and cost above the invaluable-nature of a public museum.
The university cannot be faulted for pragmatic decision making; however, it betrays students, faculty and staff to obscure this motivation. Moving forward, the university should seek exhibition space for the museum and the artifacts, both current and acquired by faculty and staff. Beyond this, the university administration must commit to transparency.