Paper presented at the ICOM International Conference in Barcelona on 3 July 2001.
Are University Collections and Museums Still Meaningful? Outline of a Research
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
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
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
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
[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 [...]
[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
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
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
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 http://stars.coe.fr/museum/bulletin_e.htm
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
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
All rights reserved.