Paper presented at the ICOM International Conference in Barcelona on 3 July 2001.

Are University Collections and Museums Still Meaningful? Outline of a Research Project

Marta C. Lourenço1.
Assistant Researcher at the Museum of Science of the University of Lisbon


Perhaps there is a crisis in university museums. In Portugal, there are certainly signs of difficulties, but recently also a few signs of hope. Although it is tempting to focus on problems, in this communication I will try to avoid this temptation and to speak in more general, hopefully optimistic terms. I have always been captivated by the role of u-museums in contemporary society: what are their functions? In what way do these functions differ from past functions? In what way do these functions intersect those of contemporary universities?

These are complex questions, with such a considerable number of parameters that makes it impossible to provide any straightforward answer. Which does not mean of course that the reality of u-museums is unintelligible. On the contrary, we can and should do more in order to understand the nature of these issues. This Committee's role is crucial in this respect.

I have to admit that I consider university museums different from other museums2., although one may indeed argue that all museums are different. However, I do not think that u-museums are only different as far as management, organisation or exhibitions are concerned. Differences lay at the very heart of what a museum is - differences lay in objects. Although we can of course find apparently similar objects in other museums, they owe their existence in university museums to different reasons. Through time, u-museums incorporation policies and the use of collections were closely linked to the main mission of universities - teaching and research (De Clercq 2001). U-museums are the only keepers of the material evidence on how scientific knowledge was constructed and taught, and of how soon the physical archiving of nature started.

This specificity is also suggested by the creation of organisations such as the University Museums Group (UMG) and the University Museums in Scotland (UMIS) in the UK, the Council of Australian University Museums and Collections (CAUMAC), as well as the long desired creation of this ICOM Committee, UMAC. Issues in journals were devoted to the topic3. and a European project on Academic Heritage was designed and implemented and is currently in progress4. Specificity has also been the subject of recent papers on u-museums (e.g. Stanbury 2000, De Clercq 2001). These examples indicate that although very different among themselves, university museums share policies, methodologies, practices, and standards - they also have common aims, concerns and needs. They are united in diversity.

Specificity discourse, however, can be mistaken for arrogance - suggesting that university museums, being specific or special, are better than other museums. I do not share this view. On the contrary, I defend closer bonds between u-museums and museums. Museums are socially perceived as cultural institutions and universities as scientific institutions. University museums were always divided between these two worlds. Statements like "we are playing in the wrong league" 5. or "Sometimes I have the impression of being a tennis player lost in the middle of a rugby team" 6. are indicative of this 'divorce'. From my point of view, I see no particular advantage of deepening the abyss between u-museums and non-university museums or, more generally, I see no reason whatsoever to distinguish Science from Culture. When I use the word specific, I really do mean specific, as in distinct, peculiar, but without values attached.

This project is centred on the specificity of u-museums in Europe, as far as functions are concerned. In particular, I will focus on teaching and research for reasons I will try to explain in this communication. Generally speaking, the project aims at clarifying to what extent teaching and research activities in u-museums:

i) evolved through time
ii) influence incorporation policies
iii)determine the use of collections
iv) reflect teaching and research activities in universities.

Of course, I am aware that many u-museums and collections do not fit into this study. Some objects are incorporated for commemorative, decorative or ceremonial reasons7., which in itself is a sign of the complexity of incorporation policies - criteria other than teaching or research can lay behind the existence of u-museums.

Methodologies remain under discussion, but they are likely to include interviewing u-museums directors, collecting documentation, and site visits. At the moment, I am finalising a survey on Portuguese u-museums and collections and data are being collected so that they can be compared with other studies done elsewhere in Europe.

The need for more research

Since the 1960s, but with more global impact since the 1980s, much has been written about university museums, especially natural history museums8. - probably because these felt threatened more than anyone else by the so-called 'crisis'. Authors like Nicholson (1991), Albrech (1993), Seymour (1994), Birney (1994), Steigen (1995), Mearns & Mearns (1998), Mares & Tirrell (1998), Krishtalka & Humphrey (2000), among others, suggested new directions for natural history collections. Meetings like the "Natural History Museums: Directions for Growth", held in 1988 in Kansas City (Cato & Jones 1991) and "The Value and Valuation of Natural Science Collections", in 1995, in Manchester (Nudds & Pettitt 1997) contributed to deeper reflection on contemporary issues facing natural history museums, mostly university dependent. There is ample literature on the more general problems concerning university museums, e.g. Bass (1984), Armstrong et al. (1991), Stanbury (1993), Arnold-Foster (1994, 1999), Kelly (1998), Kelly (1999), Arnold-Foster & Weeks (1999), among many. In England, Scotland, Australia and the Netherlands, among other countries, governmental agencies wrote reports and issued recommendations which eventually resulted in policy change9. Although all these steps are instrumental to the reformulation of the contemporary mission of u-museums, I believe that there is also need for more in-depth research. Much more needs yet to be studied and published.

Museology provides the context for this research. Studying the functions of museums or the specificity of collections does not fall under the umbrella of subject-matter disciplines, i.e. the disciplines represented in the museum. It is not the object of study of archaeology, anthropology, or physics. It is one of the objects of study of museology. Although this plain statement requires justification, I will not try to do this here and instead accept it as an axiom.

Let us now look more closely into the importance of teaching and research in u-museums. I will also briefly discuss some aspects related to a possible museology that is specific to the u-museums' context and finish with discussing several issues arising from these reflections.

The Functions of U-museums

According to ICOM's definition, museums in general have 5 functions - collecting, research, preserving, interpreting and exhibiting. According to Warhurst (1984) this definition, in essence, applies to u-museums as well, although they might place different emphasis on different functions. However, university museums are functionally special in two different aspects: they have an extra function - teaching- and they establish a different relationship with research.


Education has always been one of the main purposes of all museums. As far as general museums are concerned, education is a term used in its broadest, even 'potential' sense. As Richard Grove (1984: 16) puts it, "museums have the power to quicken the mind and make it work in new ways, to exalt the spirit, to open avenues of perception and discovery". Needless to say, this statement also applies to university museums. However, in university museums education is frequently used in a more precise and determined sense - it means teaching and learning10, formal university training (with classes inside the museum facilities), professor-curators, laboratories and collection-based curricula. Indeed, undergraduate teaching was one of the original functions of university collections (Warhurst 1984).

One of the aspects that increase the complexity of university museums is terminology. UMAC has an important role here as well, probably together with ICOFOM. As far as 'teaching' is concerned, it is crucial to distinguish between 'teaching collections' and 'collections of teaching objects'11. Actually, the same goes for research but we will come to that in a minute.

I would dare to say that objects were always used in teaching and learning. No doubt that looking at a functioning steam engine or handling a skin of a swallow is considered to offer more insight than looking at drawings in a book. Therefore, objects are particularly important when learning a subject - whether Astronomy, Physics or Zoology. In Physics or Chemistry, instruments are supposed to work well and to be modern and in Zoology or Mineralogy specimens have to be representative and in good condition. Moreover, Zoology teachers do not want just one swallow - they want several: young and adults, collected at different times of the year, different locations, etc. In a similar way, the same applies to Physics: teachers have to guarantee the widest range of equipment on a given topic.

Through time, these objects became the university collections that we are familiar with. With a difference - an assembly of Physics apparatus is only considered 'a collection' once the material has become obsolete or out of order; it is only then that instruments are incorporated in the local department or faculty museum12. Zoology material, on the other hand, is considered a 'collection' right from the beginning. The former are 'collections of teaching objects' and the latter 'teaching collections'. The importance of the steam engine - or, say, a thermometer - for teaching and learning activities declines with time once more modern equipment fulfils the pedagogical mission better while the importance of the swallow remains as time passes - or even increases in the case of rare or extinct organisms.


Similar to teaching and applying the same reasoning, we could speak of 'research collections' and 'collections of research objects'. As well as with teaching collections, we are more likely to find research collections in Archaeology and in Geology than in Physics or Astronomy. This happens because the epistemological significance of the swallow to Biology is different from the importance of the obsolete steam engine to Physics. In other words, while the swallow conveys scientific information13. to Biology, the obsolete steam engine does not convey any scientific information to Physics. This is a particularly interesting aspect - worth of more research - because the obsolete steam engine does not have epistemological significance to Physics but indeed it has to the History of Physics. The distinct nature of these collections leads to 2 consequences: i) distinct views of research within different university museums (e.g. natural sciences and "exact" sciences university museums); and ii) a functional shift, with the transformation of some museums into history museums, once their collections stop conveying scientific information, due to lack of use.

Apart from the need to clarify research philosophies and methodologies between different university museums, another level of understanding is required. Since ICOM's definition explicitly considers research as functionally intrinsic to all museums, the next question worth asking is: what type of research and in what way are university museums specific?

University museums have a long tradition in fundamental and applied research. Research objects - say, archaeological artefacts or fossil bones from a given excavation - are systematically collected, incorporated and studied with the purpose of improving our understanding of the world we live in. These objects owe their sometimes ephemeral existence as 'museum objects' to research - not to aesthetics, not to rarity per se (although this can coincide). In universities all over the world, thousands of objects are abandoned once they gave to science all they could. Or even destroyed while studied! As Steven de Clercq puts it, "De-accessioning is [...] an exception in any well-run general museum. By contrast, in many research collections, selection and de-accessioning should be part of the professional practice of curators" (De Clercq 2001)14.

This transient relationship established with objects indicates that research is highly valued in university museums, even more than the eternal preservation of objects (De Clercq 2001), with type natural history specimens being exceptions, obviously. Whether this research is the functional research ICOM's definition refers to remains uncertain and subject to intense debate15. As if things were not complicated enough already, some people believe that research should not take place in [general] museums, but in universities - a statement that grants u-museums a special role, yet to be fully understood.

As far as a specificity of u-museology is concerned, more has yet to be studied. As seen above, university museums have specific aspects related to their functions. Eventually, the answer is likely to depend on the approach we take towards Museology - whether institution-oriented, object-oriented or function-oriented. Museology itself is still far from being accepted as a theoretical-synthetical science, with its own body of knowledge and its own derived methodologies. A specific terminology, however, is a sine qua non condition of a possible specific museology. There are signs that museology in the university context assumes a specific terminological body - a set of common concepts difficult to find elsewhere. For instance, expressions like 'scholar-curator' (as opposed to 'professional curator'), 'faculty-curator' or 'curator-professor', 'study collection', 'reference collection', 'research collection', 'teaching collection', 'public exhibition' vs. 'reserved exhibition', just to mention a few, are long-established within the u-museums community. Nevertheless, we should try to understand if this set of words is the expression of a specific terminological body or if they merely stand for professional jargon.

Some of the many questions left unanswered

In short, u-museums are functionally specific: they have at least one more function than other museums - university training - and they consider research intrinsic to their mission. However, more investigation has to be done on this matter, because the term research has its own pitfalls and is often used with different meanings. Some topics still to be developed as far as these two functions are concerned are:

1. The distinction between research in the museums and research of the museums and their functions - we should be more aware of the subtle differences between the two. We should also have a better understanding on how to cope with ICOM's definition (or specify the definition as far as u-museums are concerned?)

2. A problem related to the previous is that a clearer distinction between subject-matter research and museological research is also required. Both develop a specific relation with the museum collections and the museum as an institution and their purposes are frequently confused. University museums, at least in Portugal, tend to consider fundamental and applied research in the subject matter disciplines as the only research that can be called 'research'. Around a year ago, a university museum director in Portugal was complaining of not having qualified staff for 'museum' [sic] purposes. Understanding that he meant public exhibitions, I asked him why he did not hire education officers, or museologists. He answered plainly: "Museologists?? With this shortage of staff? Never! Whenever I have an opportunity - which is rare - I hire researchers [sic], not museologists. Museologists are a luxury I cannot afford. At this pace, we will not have a museologist within the next 60 or 70 years!".

3. Furthermore, due to lack of conditions and resources, many university museums are neglecting teaching and research in the subject-matter disciplines. The Natural History Museum of the University of Porto abandoned the word 'research' from its mission statement in 1995. Between November and December 2000 I asked 39 university museums and collections from Belgium and the UK whether there was any research happening at the time on their collections. I received 17 positive replies (out of a total of 30), but only one from a natural history museum. Among some of the answers were16:

[Just] Students' studies. No real scientific research as such (there has been in the 19th century).
[Belgium, 6 December 2000].

[Only] Occasionally, due to lack of researchers interested on.
[Belgium, 8 December 2000].

It has been. Presently not.
[Belgium, 11 December 2000].

There has not been any research done on the collection. It is a teaching and learning resource, and as such it is in constant use by academic staff and students.
[UK, 14 December 2000].

Research has been done in the past on some of the vertebrate material though who by and where published I do not know.
[UK, 15 December 2000].

No research. Unfortunately, the situation of the invertebrate collection in [...] is dramatic!
[Belgium, 26 February 2000].

4. The role of university collections on teaching and learning is also changing. In the University of Lisbon, the disciplines of Systematics and Taxonomy were eliminated from the graduate studies curricula in the 1980s, and are at the moment significantly included under the broader designation of "History of Biology and Systematics". A museum director confessed that he now regrets having promoted this state of affairs by orienting students towards Ecology and Genetic studies. Although this trend is likely to be reversed in the future, it endangers collections putting them at risk of dispersion and neglect.

5. A more general issue is directly connected with the changing mission of universities, and how it is influencing u-museums. Universities are very dynamic institutions, suffering constant change due to internal and external social and economic pressures. Museums, on the contrary, are by nature institutions of permanence and they tend to resist sudden transformations. This apparent 'conflict' is of great interest because it is unlikely to happen in other museums.

6. One last aspect related to the relationship with the university. In this paper, I focused exclusively on research and learning related to collections. Yet, another interesting aspect to be clarified in this project study is related to exhibitions. Many u-museums participate in the promotion of scientific literacy by producing exhibitions that present research carried out within the university (De Clercq 2001). Exhibitions in u-museums would require a separate study but I would like to shed some light in their role as carriers of scientific research to broader audiences.

This project aims at looking deeper into and clarifying the specific functions of teaching and research in u-museums and collections. In spite of all the differences, all collections are academic heritage because they provide material evidence of the long-lasting human quest for knowledge. However, a Zoology u-collection is different from a Fine Arts u-collection. Or, to use Steven de Clercq's expression, "a Bird of Paradise is very different from a Stradivarius" (De Clercq, 2001). Generally speaking, we could perhaps divide university collections into 2 major groups, according to their role towards the subject-matter discipline: a) collections that are - or have the potential to be - epistemologically representative to their subject-matter discipline (where I would include Mineralogy and Geology, Zoology, Botany, Anthropology, Anatomy and probably Archaeology) and b) collections epistemologically representative for the history of their subject matter disciplines (Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Fine Arts, among others). The nature of these differences, among other factors, determines the way collections are used, known, and ultimately, protected.


I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Peter Stanbury and to Joana Sousa Monteiro for the thoughtful comments that greatly improved this manuscript. I also thank those who responded to the inquiry on university museums and collections, even though most of the information provided could not be incorporated in the present paper. Finally, I am grateful to Kees Hazevoet, for our many stimulating conversations and for the inspiring comments on the manuscript.


1. Marta C. Lourenço is assistant researcher at the Museum of Science of the University of Lisbon. Address: Museu de Ciência da Universidade de Lisboa, Rua da Escola Politécnica 56, 1250-102 Lisbon, Portugal. E-mail:

2. I include under the designation of 'other museums' all museums that are not university dependent.

3. See, for instance, Museums Journal No. 86 (1986) and, more recently, a double issue of Museum International (2000 and 2001).

4. The European Network "Academic Heritage and Universities - Responsibility and Public Access". For details on the project itself and on partners, see:

5. Anders Ödman, Director of the History Museum of the University of Lund (Sweden), quoted in the Bulletin of the European Museum Forum (January 2001). Consulted in 4 June 2001, in

6. An anonymous museum curator quoted in Weeks (2000: 10)

7. James Hamilton, quoted in Kelly (1999: 20) groups u-collections into 4 groups: ceremonial, decorative, commemorative and learning.

8. I am including under the designation of natural history: botany, zoology, mineralogy and geology, palaeontology and anthropology.

9. E.g. the direct non-formula funding in the UK and the museological policies of the University of Macquarie, Australia, approved by the senate and the Council of Vice-Chancellors of New South Wales (reference).

10. Cf. chapter 17 - Museological Functions, in Peter van Mensch (1992). Towards a methodology of museology. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Zagreb.

11. Clarification on the term 'collection' itself is also important, particularly in the u-museums context. Although requiring adaptation to the u-museums context, some insight could probably be drawn from material culture studies.

12. This is not completely precise. Physics teachers do not acquire instruments by chance - they systematically select objects in order to cover the explanation of a given topic. It depends on what we consider a collection, but in view of this process an assembly of Physics instruments is, at least, a proto-collection. For more on this, see e.g. Turner (1995).

13. Scientific information is a concept introduced by Ivo Mareovic, as opposed to 'cultural information'. According to Mareovic, quoted in Peter van Mensch's PhD thesis, the disciplines represented in the museum make use of scientific information, while museology makes use of the cultural information drawn from objects.

14. Incorporation policies and de-accessioning are crucial and make all the difference. While other museums may incorporate objects for reasons depending on their scope and mission they always do so because the object has an intrinsic 'museological' value: the object should be removed from its environment and be preserved for the benefit and education of future generations. The concept of 'museological' value in u-museums is not always the same, and is perhaps associated with the concept of 'public' or 'exhibitional' value. Professionals from other museums have challenged u-museums to "stop being behind closed doors and open to society". Such criticism assumes that all is to be exhibited and, in my point of view, demonstrates lack of understanding of this "museological value" problem in u-museums.

15. Cf, for example ICOFOM Study Series 1 and 12.

16. I'll keep the names of the museums concerned confidential, although I may disclose the country and that they are all Zoology museums.


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Copyright © 2001. Marta C. Lourenço
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