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Unlocking The Vault; Making the Most of Scientific Collections

Sian's Blog Scientific Collections

Unlocking The Vault; Making the Most of Scientific Collections

On the 26th and 27th June I had the pleasure of attending the ‘Unlocking the Vault’ conference hosted at Manchester Museum. Over the two days, there were three sessions discussing three different topics:

  • connecting collections and breaking isolation
  • reaching new audiences
  • new meanings through art, history and research


Speakers came from across the UK and Europe and this was my first taste of a multi-country conference. Although aimed at scientific and natural history collections, many of the issues discussed could apply to any collection, in any museum. I have selected some of my favourite ideas to discuss them here.

Sian's Blog on Scientific Collections

Conference Booklet (photo taken by blog author)

Object Lessons

The inspiration for this conference was the museum’s current temporary exhibition ‘Object Lessons’ inspired by the book of the same name written by George Loudon. Loudon curated this idea from his own personal collection back in 2015 and this is the first time it has gone on public display. The museum describes it as “a unique opportunity to view the natural world through the eyes of a Victorian scientist.” (http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/upcomingexhibitions/objectlessons/)

It is a fascinating exhibition and certainly brings a new perspective to objects that one wouldn’t normally think to display. A theme which was carried through the conference.

Sian's Blog Scientific Collections

Photo (taken by blog author) of a Turkey Model from the Object Lessons exhibition

Useful or Curious?

Dr Caroline Cornish of Royal Holloway, University of London posed the question, ‘useful or curious?’ It was in relation to her work with Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany and its collection. The collection in question is currently without an exhibition area, which has driven this idea of a mobile museum. This I found particularly interesting as I am working on a pop-up museum concept for Kettering museum as part of my internship.

Dr Cornish spoke of the founder of the collection, and the first director of Kew, William Hooker’s philosophy on collecting and it was all around this idea of objects being useful or curious. His intention was to bring specimens to the museum that could not otherwise be present at Kew. He collected for two audiences; scientific botanists and for the commercial appeal. Dr Cornish’s work has focused around the ideas of utility and provocation, but her conclusion was that they should reclaim the idea of wonder along the way.

Not Real, Not Worth It?

This was the question Mark Carnall of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History asked. He discussed the models, casts and diagrams that are associated with natural history collections, which are often not accessioned as they are seen as ‘third class objects’. He then drew a modern parallel to 3D printed objects. Are accurate records of their production being kept in order to study this process in the future? Or are they seen as gimmick objects, to make and then leave on your desk as a talking point?

There is such a huge potential area of research around these objects that could unlock information relevant to many fields and yet these items remain less thought of, as they are not considered the ‘genuine’ article. This may be the case across other collections too, but is it right to divide objects into these classes? Carnall’s conclusion was quite simple but effective, there needs to be a way to display these objects in a different way, then there is potential to build an audience for them and then hopefully some curious enough to research them.

A Sense of Wonder

This was an idea portrayed in several talks and I believe that this is something museums should aspire to provide.

My main example here will be Teylers Museum, Haarlem in The Netherlands from a talk given by the museum’s director, Dr Marjan Scharloo. After some audience evaluation at the museum, it became apparent that the visitors were confused as to what the essence of the museum was. It was established by Pieter Teyler in the 1700s and has barely changed since. Due to the nature of the space, it was used for experiments and research, the collections are varied and in large quantities. Therefore, the museum took a step back to its origins. The decision was made to write labels saying how and why the object came to the museum as opposed to what the object is and how it was used. Replica scientific instruments have been sourced and placed in laboratories, so that groups can conduct experiments, precisely the purpose of the space.

These new stories are being told and at the same time, the museum is staying true and authentic to its purpose, I can’t think of anything more wonderful.

Sian's Blog Scientific Collections

Manchester Museum

‘Object Lessons’ is at Manchester Museum until 20th August 2017 and is a free entry exhibition.

By Siân Fox, Resilience Syndicate Intern

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