Next Generation Museum-University Partnerships

20150120 perspectives nextgenmuseum

January 20th, 2015

This article was co-written by Emlyn Koster, Director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Adjunct Professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU), and Jason Cryan, Deputy Museum Director for Research and Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Adjunct Professor at NCSU.

Collections-based museums of nature and science [1], as one of their defining features, employ research scientists and curatorial professionals who specialize in the basic disciplines of taxonomy and systematics, evolutionary and ecological investigations, geology and mineralogy, paleontology, and the history of science and technology. Additional fields are increasingly represented in museum research, including astrophysics, genomics, microbiology, and veterinary medicine.

Types of Museum-University Collaborations

Traditionally, museum scientists aspiring to build research programs struggled with a sense of isolation without consistent access to the undergraduate and graduate student populations, and the network of established research professors, available to university-based researchers. In part to alleviate this isolation, museum-based scientists have sought adjunct appointments with affiliated departments at partner universities. In what we here consider first-generation connections, museum scientists establish basic links with academia that may yield opportunities for collaborative research projects with university scientists and open potential avenues for university students to be mentored by museum researchers. In this model, museum scientists voluntarily participate as lecturers in campus-based, formal education, but those activities are not typically considered as a part of their official job expectations. Such associations benefit the university departments in that they gain expertise in scientific sub-disciplines that may not be strongly represented by their full-time faculty, thereby expanding the potential breadth of their academic portfolio for little or no cost.

In what we call second-generation affiliations, university faculty seek more formal associations with science museums. These are often predicated not only by the need to work with natural science collections, but also to develop outreach and educational opportunities to augment the broader impacts of their grant proposals. Museums represent a unique conduit for researchers to translate their science from the laboratory to the public, typically offering a staff of educators skilled in public science communication, daily visitation by schools and the public with a predisposition to science curiosity, and the ability to accommodate new outreach initiatives. In this model, the involvement of university researchers in the museum sphere can open avenues of research collaboration and greater participation with museum scientists. To promote and facilitate such associations, many museums now have policies to accord adjunct or affiliate status to university scientists.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) is an example of what we consider a third-generation of association between museums and academia. On its staff are seven scientists jointly appointed and co-funded by the NCMNS and partner institutions in the University of North Carolina System. Recruited by the NCMNS and the affiliated university department, these positions operate with a mostly 55% museum and 45% university commitment ratio. At the museum, they coordinate publically viewable research laboratories, participate in science outreach and education programs, deliver frequent public presentations, inform exhibit developments and updates, and are key players in special events, including those for fundraising. At their partner universities, they have formal teaching responsibilities, advise students, and participate in departmental committees, meetings, and other administrative functions.

Although there are challenges associated with these joint-appointment positions, including having dual administrative reporting structures, the emergent benefits of third-generation partnerships are exciting because they solidify the bridge between the museum and academia. Researchers in publicly viewable research laboratories at the NCMNS experience a more engaging position than they imagine would have ensued in a traditional academic career: the numbers and diversity of new staff, research students, and citizen science project volunteers who are drawn to their opportunities have been rising. Their research topics have high public interest with a more newsworthy flair, and their media-generating research accomplishments are highlighted by both the Museum and the university. These opportunities also raise the profile of broader impacts within grant proposals.

An example of a citizen science project at NCMNS engages the fascination of visitors about microorganisms living on their faces, in their armpits, and the impacts of soaps and deodorants.


An example of a citizen science project at NCMNS engages the fascination of visitors about microorganisms living on their faces, in their armpits, and the impacts of soaps and deodorants.

Citizen science projects are a growing manifestation of museum-university partnerships with strong potential to increase the volume and variety of ways for the public to engage in research opportunities.

Recent Programs and Events Linking NCMNS with Partner Universities

In the three years since the NCMNS opened its new wing, the Nature Research Center, jointly appointed research staff have made substantial impacts in the museum, university, and public domains with several high-profile discoveries, research innovations, and participation in organizing and hosting major scientific conferences. Examples include:

  • A NCMNS researcher jointly appointed at North Carolina State University was recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of State, in association with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), to initiate a camera-trapping research project with natural history museums in Guadalajara (Mexico) and Mumbai (India), with the goals to identify local wildlife, improve community awareness of it, and promote cultural exchange.
  • Last May, NCMNS hosted the first “Symposium on Animal Movement and the Environment”.
  • In March 2014, NCMNS hosted the 111th meeting of the North Carolina Academy of Science with a theme of “Applying Evolution to Medicine and the Environment”.
  • Last June, NCMNS co-hosted the Evolution 2014 conference–the joint annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Society of Naturalists–with the NSF-funded National Evolutionary Synthesis Center as well as Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, attracting nearly 2,000 evolutionary biologists from around the world.

Enhancing this third-generation form of association, NCMNS has a co-chaired informal advisory body called the University-Museum Science Forum (UMSF) comprising administrators and researchers from the Museum and several North Carolina universities as well as representatives from other research-related organizations. The UMSF is an effective vehicle for inter-institutional communication and it functions as an incubator for ideas and strategies to plan, add to, and improve cross-functional and collaborative research and educational programs.

The Resulting Big Picture

With a growing emphasis on science literacy and an appetite for STEM training and meaningful interactions with the scientific community, it is society-at-large who is the ultimate beneficiary of deepening museum-university partnerships. While universities generate the vast majority of new scientific information, museums – especially those with the second and third-generation types of academic affiliations – are adding to their research acumen by attracting faculty, student, public and school partners.

[1] This article refers to government, private and not-for-profit science museums, or hybrids of these. University-based museums differ in that, typically, their curatorial staff are university faculty.

Photo credit: Lea Shell, M.Ed. Curator of Digital Media Your Wild Life Team | Rob R. Dunn Lab North Carolina State University