The University of Connecticut has violated the law in its recent relocation of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, said Jonathan Pelto, who co-sponsored the Senate Bill establishing the museum in 1985.
The museum, which was relocated from its former home on Hillside Road earlier in August, was established by Senate Bill 341 (Public Act 85-563) in 1985, as an act by the Connecticut State Legislature.
“What the University has done violates the letter and the spirit of (the law) we originally intended,” Pelto said. “It’s a problem that can’t be explained away by what the university has (previously) said.”
The museum was originally intended to prepare exhibits and education programs about the natural history of Connecticut. A board of directors was to be established and be in charge of the museum’s planning.
According to co-chair of the museum’s current board, Natalie Munro, the board of directors did not make the decision to move the museum – the UConn administration did.
“It wasn’t up to us,” Munro said. “We suggested a few alternatives to try to keep the building, but ultimately UConn made the decision.”
The museum’s relocation violated the law, since the decision to move it was not up to the board of directors, Pelto said, and because the museum no longer exists in a physical location.
University spokesman Tom Breen said the university owns the building on Hillside, and that buildings and resources are allocated by the university under its authority, based on its needs as a whole.
“The language of the law requires only that the museum be ‘within The University of Connecticut,’” Breen said. “At the time the law was passed, the museum wasn’t located in the old Apple Sales Building on Hillside Road, and it moved more than once before arriving in Hillside Road. Like other programs contained within the university, the State Museum of Natural History has been allocated resources to help meet its responsibilities and fulfill its mission, and the university remains committed to that.”
Though the museum no longer has a physical location, it still exists as an institution, running programs and exhibits throughout the university, according to UConn Today. The museum’s relocation involved moving it to the Office of Public Engagement where the museum will focus more on public relations, Breen said.
“With so much of the museum’s work involving public education and community outreach, it made sense to house it in the relatively new Office of Public Engagement,” Breen said. “The Office of the Provost, the Office of Public Engagement and the museum’s staff were all involved in the process of making the transition, with the goal of positioning the museum to successfully carry out its mission.”
Running programs simply isn’t enough to constitute a museum, Pelto said. It needs to have a physical location to fulfill its purpose stated in the bill, or there is no museum.
“Having programs isn’t sufficient to having a museum. The university is violating the law and either needs to stop that or be held accountable,” Pelto said.
The building on Hillside was home to the museum for 16 years. The museum was originally housed in several units by Horsebarn Hill before its relocation to the building on Hillside in 2000, according to its current director Leanne Kennedy Harty.
The building had potential, but required several renovations before it could be a displayable museum, including modifications to the second floor to make it more exhibit-friendly, Harty said.
Although the UConn 2000 (Now 21st Century UConn) plan included a $5M line item for the museum’s renovations in the early 2000s, Harty said, budget cuts left the museum without the promised expansions.
“(When) the project got cut, we were left in the building without the commitment through the capital project to expand,” Harty said. “So we just tried raise the money ourselves.”
About $500,000 in donated funds from museum supporters was used to renovate the second floor, Harty said. Lighting, displays, classrooms and other modifications were completed in 2007. The donations made up about half of the renovation budget, Harty said, with UConn paying for the other half.
Now that the museum has been moved, the building space is inhabited by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences administrative offices. The renovations paid for by the donor money can no longer be used by the museum.
“It’s hard,” Harty said. “I feel like we need to do right by the people who gave money… A lot of time and energy went into planning the exhibits.”
The museum’s relocation was a logistical decision, Breen said, due to the scheduled demolition of Faculty Row, which formerly housed several administrative offices.
“The decision to relocate the offices of the Museum of Natural History came out of the process by which the museum became part of our Office of Public Engagement,” Breen said. “With building space at a premium on campus, the university is always looking for the best ways to use our resources. The move…puts the CLAS Academic Services Center in a building close to the heart of campus.”
The loss of the building, however, meant an end to many potential plans and exhibits, Munro said.
“We were initially disappointed to lose the building, because we spent many years fighting to get a building, and working to raise money to get a building,” Munro said. “Ultimately we hoped to expand so we could better serve the needs of the museum. It took away our ability to have a real museum that had the collections and the public engagement space all in one location.”
There are still buildings around Horsebarn Hill, Harty said, where the museum keeps several exhibits and collections. However, the relocation from the Hillside Road building represented a loss to a public exhibition space.
Although UConn has the authority to the buildings, Pelto said, the university also has a responsibility to the museum to give it a permanent, physical building.
“They have an obligation to find an alternate location,” Pelto said. “They can’t not have a museum.”
Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.