Gary Morgan wants to expand the museum’s reach and increase the scope and nature of the museum’s collections and exhibits.
Gary Morgan may need another hobby.
The native Australian has spent his life surfing and scuba diving. He moved to Lubbock in November to become executive director of the Museum of Texas Tech University, and there's not a wave in sight.
Of course, he knew this when he got on the plane to come here – a 37-hour trip from his hometown of Perth on the west coast of Australia – but he also likes hiking and bird-watching, both activities he can do in West Texas.
More than his hobbies, though, he's looking forward to working in a new environment and culture as unique as those he experienced in his home country as well as the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands, parts of Africa and Michigan, exploring what the Museum of Texas Tech can offer its community.
“It's not seen to just belong to the university,” he said. “It's owned by Lubbock, and that's the way we want it to be seen.”
Morgan, who also will oversee the Lubbock Lake Landmark, started his new job in early November. Though he is educated as a zoologist, spent his early career in marine biology and loves research, he also discovered a passion for presenting art, science and history in ways that interest and engage the viewer and inspire people to act. He's since found his home in museums.
He has grand plans for the museum, which is home to a diverse collection of regional artwork, textiles, dinosaur bones and pottery as well as a diverse group of educators and researchers who study paleontology, astronomy and education. Those plans include finding different ways to showcase available resources and acquiring new, definitely surprising, maybe a little disconcerting but ultimately mind-expanding exhibits to the Hub City.
He sees the invitation to broaden one's viewpoint through critical thinking as one of the primary purposes of museums.
“All universities, and Texas Tech very much so, see their role as much more than just vocational,” Morgan said. “It isn't just about making these young people highly trained, well-educated, very competitive people in the workforce, although that's very important. It's to make them effective, ethical, functional citizens for a very complex world.”
The importance of informal, self-directed learning
While the museum hosts lectures and offers a museum science degree, most of the education that happens there is less traditional. It comes less from reading the informational plaques at each exhibit and more from interacting with art, history and ideas in a museum.
“Formal education, as important as it is, is really only a small part of what defines us,” Morgan said. “Those informal learning experiences really shape us, and they shape us from a very young age.”
Morgan believes museums fill the gap between the layperson and a difficult topic. World-class art can be intimidating. Paleontology, scientific and medical research and human history can be hard to grasp. Frequently the explanations in books don't demystify these ideas.
A good museum will. Morgan listed two favorites in the museum world, which have dissimilar collections but serve to bring greater understanding to visitors. The Musee d'Orsay in Paris is a converted railway station filled with impressionist art – “just art to die for.” It's not a challenging experience, he said, but is a comforting space in which to soak up the art of the ages. Even people who are unfamiliar with the artists or uncomfortable with the abstract nature of some of the collection, it remains a pleasant, inviting place to be, thus making the art a pleasant, inviting experience.
The other is Naturalis in Leiden, the Netherlands, a natural science museum that up until a few years ago was not a public space at all but existed to house collections and conduct research. Scientists from throughout the world traveled there to use their facilities while the public walked past closed doors.
About a decade ago the museum opened to the public, with mammoth skeletons suspended from the ceiling, filling the cavernous spaces. A colorful globe brings Earth to life and exhibits based on the research that took place behind those doors for years fill the space and invite viewers to come in, learn and think. It makes science not only accessible but fun.
Morgan wants the Museum of Texas Tech to offer the same invitation.
“There's a whole discipline in that translation,” he said. “If you look at how modern museums are engaging with audiences, you just have to marvel at how museums have changed in the last 50 years.”
Part of his desire is to know what will encourage people to come in and learn through the exhibits the museum offers. He plans to research how people learn and what goes into their interactions with the museum.
For instance, he wants to know how preschoolers interact with items in the museum. What do they learn when looking at art, bugs or dinosaur bones? How does wandering through a museum enhance a 4-year-old's understanding of his or her world?
Evidence also exists that engaging with museum settings can enhance the cognitive abilities of adults suffering from Alzheimer's or early-onset dementia. Morgan has already reached out to administrators at the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research in the hopes of studying how people with autism learn in a museum environment.
Asking the tough questions
Museums, especially university museums, should be a safe space for difficult ideas and potentially uncomfortable conversations. He doesn't necessarily want to change people's minds, Morgan said, but he wants them to think.
Sometimes that means debating current events, but it also may mean facing the dark moments in history. The most controversial exhibit the museum has hosted thus far is a traveling collection from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It didn't inspire debate, but the images and stories that describe the Holocaust are disturbing.
“Can we deal with topics and issues not only that we haven't dealt with before but which are fundamentally extremely difficult to deal with because of the nature of those topics?” Morgan asked. “I think that keeps us on our toes. It keeps us always thinking beyond the square.”
He's quick to add he never wants to offend museumgoers, but said he won't shy away from exhibits that discuss intellectually and socially challenging topics that present different worldviews. That is the one critique he had of the museum thus far – its exhibits tended to be safe and a little predictable. Museumgoers don't leave surprised. He wants to change that.
Morgan doesn't have a specific exhibit ready to shake West Texans out of their comfort zone, but as he mulled possibilities he tossed one such question: How would the community react to an exhibit on Hispanic migration into the United States? It's relevant, it's politically charged, it's divisive. It would prompt viewers to examine their ideas on the topic.
“If we're not doing a bit of that, we're not challenging people to think outside the square,” he said. “There's an expression about museums being safe places for dangerous ideas. What it means is it is an environment where people can challenge themselves and be challenged. The setting is not threatening, but the very themes themselves may ask us as an audience to question why we hold the values that we do.”
Reaching students and other stakeholders
The museum isn't just for the public, of course. Texas Tech is home to more than 30,000 students, many of whom have never entered the museum. He'd like to change that.
First, however, Morgan wants to know what students want in a museum. He'd like to talk to students about the exhibits they find interesting, the ideas they'd like to see presented and what they'd like to gain after an hour or two wandering the hallways looking at art and historical pieces. The student body has to be a key stakeholder group, he said.
What that collaboration looks like will take a little longer than a month on the job to coordinate, but Morgan already has a couple of ideas. The museum has a student association that includes its museum science and heritage management students, and Morgan sees that as one way to find out what would attract students to the museum and engage and excite students once they are inside.
“We really need help to do that, and the best help will come from people of their same generation,” he said.
He's also looking at other student organizations. Why not reach out to the Greek community? Morgan pointed out the sororities and fraternities are already in a community; they're more connected with each other and with the campus at large. Perhaps he can get members of the Greek or other established communities interested in the museum, who will then pull other members in.
Other stakeholders include community leaders, education leaders both on and off campus and the people in Lubbock and West Texas who already come to the museum and tell their friends about it. He wants everyone who walks through the door to be an ambassador for the museum.
At least one way Morgan plans to make that happen is tweaking the museum's image. He wants people to be surprised at what they find inside. He also wants visitors to expect more than relics of ancient civilizations.
“What we are trying to do is assist in some way society in exploring its own future,” he said. “Society is continually evolving. For museums to be relevant they need to be at the edge of the discussion. They need to be where the dialogue is happening. We're not just about explaining where we came from, as interesting and important as that is. But we are also engaged with exploring where we're going, and the very nature of exploring where we're going has some intrinsic risks. I don't want us to be so timid that we're not prepared to take a few risks.”
Expanding the museum's reach
Texas Tech administrators anticipate the museum will grow in the next few years under Morgan's leadership, Senior Vice Provost Rob Stewart said. It may not get physically larger, but it is going places.
“Gary is enthusiastic about enhancing the museum's national and international reputation as well as strengthening interactions with the community and local entities,” Stewart said. “He clearly understands Texas Tech's aspirations to be a leading research university and wants to partner across campus to highlight faculty and student research projects for better public awareness. He also envisions the museum as a value-added asset for the university in both faculty and student recruitment and retention.”
Two weeks into the job Morgan had a list of organizations with which he wanted to discuss a partnership: the National Ranching Heritage Center, the International Cultural Center, the Innovation Hub and Research Park. He wants to combine science, art and learning in ways only a museum can.
One idea is to take the museum to people. Morgan would like to create museum displays throughout the university, perhaps highlighting a college's research in the main foyer of its building. Museum staff would create an engaging display that makes the academic research, which can get technical and seem irrelevant to real life, understandable and interesting.
“There are ways we can do those displays which can be very eye-catching, very attractive, so we can get across information in user-friendly, aesthetic ways, and in the same process enhance people's understanding of really important but complex research,” he said.
“We can be a great place for some of these really interesting multi- and cross-disciplinary can be presented,” he said. “What I've found is those types of products, while some can be quite challenging and puzzling to people, can also elicit conversation and thought, and people have the opportunity to approach the topic, either through the science or through the art, and that's a very intriguing area.”
Given his background, Morgan also has museum and research contacts throughout the world, and he's not opposed to some international flair at Texas Tech. He'd like to look at international collections and see about raising the museum's status outside of the region and even the nation.
“I believe we are going to see a much more vibrant and engaging museum under the leadership of Dr. Morgan,” Stewart said.