In Musuem Anthropology 38.1, co-editors Maxine McBrinn and Tony Chavarria conducted interviews with museum anthropologists working within the university setting. This web-exclusive content adds to their collection of interviews published in the journal.
This interview is with Dr. Jill Minar, Instructor of Anthropology/Archaeology in the Anthropology, Economics, and Geography Department, Social Sciences Division at Fresno City College in Fresno, California. This Part 1 of 2.
1. Describe your job.
I am primarily a community college instructor of anthropology. At our college, the normal teaching load is five classes per semester. Because I am also responsible for our small museum and archaeological curation facility/archives, I am relieved of one class per semester.
2. How does being associated with a university assist your job and institution?
Mission – associated with education – having a built in community of learners every semester. Facility bills are paid by the college: we don’t have an electric, water, or trash bill for example. We can hook in to the campus outreach programs and advertising.
Museums associated with colleges can provide a unique setting in the academic world. Our museum, and I would assume most others associated with colleges and universities, provides a physical place where our community of learners can interact with each other and with faculty outside the classroom. This extracurricular contact provides a connection between students, their peers, and their teachers that stimulates engagement. Students find that their museum experiences are where the classroom meets the outside world. They see their studies actually applied and they see the results that happen with visitors to the museum. Students who participate as docents also have an opportunity to learn time management, collections management, educational tour development, as well as other job and life skills. In our department, we see that students who are engaged in this way have better success in the classroom and stick around to complete their degrees with actual plans for further education and career paths.
3. Does being associated with a university add challenges to your job?
The college is my employer and my primary job is to teach introductory level anthropology courses. It was assumed, when I was hired, that I would also be responsible for managing the Museum of Anthropology and the associated curation facility and archives. I was given release time from one class for one year to bring the museum and curation facility and archives up to modern standards of exhibit design and curation practice while at the same time revamping the college’s archaeological technician program. After one year, my teaching load returned to five classes per semester. It took seven years for the college to realize that this was unrealistic and I was given release time from one class every semester to manage the museum, curation facility and archives. Given that the museum, curation facility, and archives were very much ‘behind the times,’ the process of completely stabilizing collections, organizing the archives, and improving the museum exhibits is still on going.
It would seem that having a museum associated with a college or university would be beneficial to the museum and to the college. However, in our situation, the college has not recognized the financial and staffing needs required to run a museum and we struggle to keep the doors open. The college took federal monies to create the museum as part of constructing a new building in the 1970s and so realizes that it cannot “get rid of” the museum (though they tried to turn the space into a computer lab one year without even talking to the anthropology faculty), but there is little actual support.
In addition, the college staff, including senior administrators, do not understand the security requirements for museum and archaeological curation spaces. We have an alarm system, but the campus police regularly turn it off for anyone who asks. Recently, technology support staff entered the curation space without supervision and removed the computer with our collections data base on it to upgrade the operating system. It was not thought necessary to discuss this with me first. I simply received an email telling me the computer had been removed. Fortunately, I was able to stop the upgrade until we could make sure that our data base program was compatible with the new operating system. This could have been a disaster but was a blessing in disguise as it made me much more aware of how vulnerable our data and our collections are in the college as opposed to museum environment. Meetings with administrators and some changes to access policies will hopefully help.
4. How do university students interact with the museum?
The Museum of Anthropology has a docent program in which any student who has successfully completed at least one anthropology course may participate. Docents go through some basic training about housekeeping and maintenance, exhibit content, interacting with the public, and providing tours to visitors. The docents provide tours to visiting college students, faculty, and staff as well as visitors to the campus including grade school field trip groups.
Our anthropology majors have begun to use the museum as a meeting point since many of them volunteer as docents. This has created a space for community to develop and as such has been extremely important in our efforts to improve student success and retention.
Some faculty (anthropology, history, American Indian studies, among others) utilize the museum, having students come to visit the museum to complete various assignments.
5. Do you think students take full advantage of having museums on campus?
No. On our campus most students are not aware of the museums on campus and so do not frequent them. In trying to resolve this issue, we had a mural painted on the outside of our building space, added two large signs, one on the campus mall side of our building and one on the museum wall. Since then we have had an increase in the visitors to the museum.
6. Does the university have a Museum Studies program? If so, how does that influence your answers to the above?
No, we do not have a Museum Studies program. Fresno City College has tried to have some museum courses (in anthropology and art) as we have several museums/galleries on campus. The need to have very small class sizes (low interest combined with hands-on instruction) made this impossible in these days of strict budgets.
7. Do you reach out to students outside the university?
Fresno City College has an active outreach program to the school districts in Fresno and the surrounding communities, working to bring young people from preschool through high school to the college campus. We are in a community that suffers from high dropout rates in high school, families who have no experience with college education, and high poverty levels. The goal of the outreach program is to give young people a chance to see what a college is like and to become acquainted with the campus with the hope that they will see a college education as part of their future. As part of this outreach, various departments on campus provide tours to the visiting students. The Museum of Anthropology participates in this outreach by providing tours of the museum to visiting school groups throughout the school year. Currently, given our lack of paid staff and low budget, these school group tours already stretch our ability to meet the need and so no further outreach is done by the museum to the community on a regular basis. The museum has held open house events, workshops, and tours for special occasions for which we do advertise to the greater Fresno area. We have been featured in the local paper and had a television program broadcast from the museum in the past few years.
8. What do you see in the future for university associated museums?
In my opinion, there is a very strong and vibrant future for university/college associated museums especially if museums focus on engaging students in the functioning of the museum. Important connections can be made when students are able see their academic studies in action and where they can actually participate in making that happen. Even given all the administrative headaches, I see that our museum provides something that is lacking in other areas of our campus: it provide a place where students connect with each other and with faculty. They are engaged in, are connected to and are part of, a community. According to our campus basic skills faculty, these are important to student success. On the museum side, having a steady stream of engaged students who want to work or volunteer keeps things lively. In recent years when budgets were slashed, our student docents pitched in and helped to keep the museum open many more hours than would have been possible otherwise. They had learned the value of their contribution to our campus community and gave of their time and talents to keep it going. I expect that these students will carry their passion for museums on into the places where they end up living and working after college – they represent the next generation of museum advocates in our communities.