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The blurred distinction between research objects and museum artefacts in a university collection context

Posted Feb 02 2009 11:46pm

As a university museum, we are constantly thinking about how to use our huge collection of medical artefacts (est. 150.000-200.00 items) for research and teaching purposes.

I mean, using artefacts in exhibitions is not that problematic. Find them on the shelves, dust them off, and put them in some kind of orderly display, that’s it. Well, it’s a little more complicated (especially the orderly display part :-), but that’s the essence of it. This is what museums usually do.

Using collections for teaching and research purposes doesn’t come easily, however. Most museums don’t have to think about it because they are not involved in much regular teaching, and (sorry to say this) because most museums don’t do much research at all (despite their occasional self-understanding). They are usually tuned towards producing exhibitions for mass consumption.

University museums are in a somewhat different situation. They are also involved in exhibition making, of course. But, in addition, they belong to institutions that value research and teaching activities much higher than displays for hoi polloi. So university museums are supposed to engage in research and teaching to a much greater extent than their non-university cousins.

Now, for the benefit of all university museums around the world,  UMAC (University Museums and Collections, a subcommittee of ICOM) is organising its 9th international conference in 2009 around the theme ‘Putting university collections to work in research and teaching’, to be held at the UC Berkeley campus, 10-13 September 2009.

The conference theme interestingly takes the Polish Archival Dictionary’s definition of ‘archive’ — “an institution called upon to guard, collect, sort, preserve, keep and render accessible documents, which, although they are no longer useful on a daily basis as before, nonetheless merit being preserved” — as its point of departure:

It is worth considering the relevance of this definition to the status of university museums and collections. The archival role of public museums, their responsibilities to preserve the material heritage they contain, seems clear enough. In the case of university museums and collections, however, the description of being “no longer useful on a daily basis as before” is seldom accurate. Very frequently, the objects held in academic collections are still quite actively used in research and in the classroom. The dividing lines among the accumulation of objects in individual faculty laboratories, departmental teaching collections and fully-fledged university museums are blurry. Indeed, university museums are full of objects, specimens and artifacts that entered the university in the course of faculty research and teaching activities. In justifying the relevance (and in some cases even the continued existence) of university collections, their ongoing utility in relation to the teaching and research missions can be paramount (my emphasis).

The organising committee welcomes presentations from the full range of university collections:

Universities are very different from public museums in containing research materials that may be lodged in formal museums, departments, and individual faculty labs and offices, and that span the full disciplinary range of the university. This multiplicity of collections, and the slippage among them, has created challenges and opportunities that may be analyzed and even celebrated as part of the unique culture and history of university museums. How do collections respond to changes in their user communities, to conflicting demands by different user groups, or to changing research technologies? Collections of historical scientific instruments are good examples of artifacts that have shifted from being research tools (in the sciences) to objects of research themselves (in the humanities). How might these sorts of transformations be encouraged? What are some examples of renewed scholarly or scientific activity that have resulted from either new museum initiatives? How can preservation as a primary mission be balanced with active research and providing classroom access?

They encourage papers that give an historical perspective to these questions, papers that address instances of current programs, difficulties and successes, and papers that suggest new models for developing the research and teaching potential of museum collections for diverse user communities:

  • Where are university collections and museums placed within the administrative structure of the university? Are they allied to one particular department or discipline, or are they freestanding in their research affiliations? How has administrative placement affected research uses, demands by different user groups, and other functions of the museum? How can collections make themselves more visible to new scholars and students so that they can maximize their research potential?
  • All disciplines change over time, asking new questions, employing new methods and exploring new objects. Inevitably this means that the relationships of material collections to their disciplines also shift. How have these changes affected the research potential of collections? One dramatic instance in recent decades has been the emergence of increasingly sophisticated forms of DNA analysis, which have changed not only the nature of cladistics but also transformed the relevance and viability of natural history collections.
  • Interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary collaborations are now at the forefront of most research, even in the humanities. How have such collaborative research programs affected the use of collections?
  • How are collections used for teaching? Are there accessibility issues that must be solved? In particular, how are they made available to undergraduates for research as well as teaching or display purposes? Are there instances where public or community groups become involved in the teaching or research functions of the museum? How can university museums and collections best convey the findings of current research to students and the general public? Can and should the research mission of a museum be integrated into its public mission?

You have to observe a host of rules if you want to submit an abstract before 31 March; see the call for papers here. See also the UMAC’s website.

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