The 2002 Conference

The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.

The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.

The Dutch Approach, or how to achieve a second life for abandoned geological collections

Steven W.G. de Clercq


The "life-cycle" of the geological collections from the Dutch universities is described against the background of the development of education and research. The shift in both education and research from the field to the laboratory, combined with massive reorganisations, led to many orphaned collections, in total some 2 million objects. Sponsored by the government, the five old universities engaged in a collaborative action to tackle this problem with the aim to improve the over-all quality and accessibility of the collections, as well as to intensify their present and future use through selection, de-accession, collection mobility, or even disposal. Some experiences, pitfalls and recommendations will be discussed.


From late Renaissance onward, natural history, including geological, palaeontological and mineralogical samples can be found in the Cabinets of Curiosity all over Europe. Usually they are referred to as "fossilia". For example those of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1527-1603), now beautifully displayed in the Palazzo Poggi Museum of the University of Bologna, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (1683) based to a large extent on the objects gathered earlier in the century by father and son Tradescant and the recently restored Kunst- und Naturalienkammer of the Franckischen Stiftung (1698) in Halle, Saxony.

Apart from their botanical gardens and anatomical cabinets, most universities in the Netherlands and abroad did not, until the late eighteenth century, own natural history collections of any significance. In early seventeenth century at Leiden University, a number of "fossils" were kept in the Ambulacrum of the botanical garden and in the anatomical cabinet. Most anatomical and natural history collections were the private property of their professors. Their appointment often even depended on the quality of their collections. To some extent these collections - which often contained both minerals and fossils - survive up to the present day in the collections of the universities. The close connection between mineralogy and pharmacy is evident in the "materia medica", and one could find fossils in the comparative anatomy collections. Probably the most important surviving early natural history collection in the Netherlands is kept in the Geological and Mineralogical Cabinet of Teylers Museum in Haarlem. In the years 1782-1826, its first keeper, Martinus van Marum (1750-1837) devoted much time and money in amassing a considerable collection "fossilia", including crystal models by Romé de l"Isle and the Abbé Haüy and the famous "Homo diluvii testis", a fossil found and described by Scheuchzer (1726) as the sinner that was rightfully drowned by the biblical Flood, but later (1812) identified by Georges Cuvier as Andreas scheuchzeri (Holl, 1831) a giant salamander.

The first ever geological map of a country (England and Wales with a part of Scotland) was published in 1815 by William Smith (1769-1835). He was also the first to discover that fossils were not mere beautiful and curious stones but that they could be used for the identification and relative dating of strata (= stratigraphy). His collection is now is in the Natural History Museum, London.

Although such collections were instrumental in the birth of geology as an independent discipline, a university degree in geology was not possible until the second part of the nineteenth century. In fact, the word geology is first mentioned in the Fourth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1810).

The emergence of geological university collections

The first formal reference to geological collections for educational purposes in the Netherlands is to be found in the post-Napoleonic law on higher education (1816). This law prescribes the establishment of a "geological cabinet", and hence heralds systematic collecting of palaeontological, mineralogical and geological samples and of casts and crystallographic models for educational purposes. All along many, if not most of the objects in these collections were in some way or another related to research. However, until the 1876 law on Higher Education, research as such was not formalised and as such recognised as one of the two academic core-tasks.

As a result of this law, chairs in geology were established at the universities of Groningen (1877), Leiden (1877) and Utrecht (1879); in 18.. the Technical Highschool in Delft appointed its first chair in mining engineering. During the first decades, the number of students was low, but there were funds for the formation of collections. Gradually we see the emergence of two types of collections:

* Systematic collections for education in each subject (mineralogy, petrology, geology, palaeontology, stratigraphy). The desired objects were often purchased from renowned houses like Kranz and Stürtz, which flourished in the 2nd part of the 19th century, or they were obtained during field trips and through exchange.

* Regional collections for research. This material was usually collected in the field during field trips to classical locations or as a result of participation in exploratory expeditions.

In the years around 1900 various major scientific expeditions were organised to the former colonies. The aim was to survey the natural treasures (flora, fauna, geography, geology and minerals) of the hitherto unknown interiors of the territory. The Geological Survey was often charged with the organisation and logistics in the field. On some occasions, a duplicate collection was made to be kept overseas in the country of origin. On return to Europe the collections could be split for further research over the universities according to local specialisations. Illustrating the international character of research, this was not necessarily restricted to the Netherlands.

Gradually the number of students increased, due to demand for geologists and mining engineers for the construction of railroads, bridges, etc., and from the emerging oil and mining companies. These students would get engaged in such expeditions and would later on contribute to the study of the material as part of their master"s or even PhD degree. In this way it became good practice that a considerable part of the training and education of geologists was performed in the field and on the study of the objects collected on such occasions. In this way, each student would make his "own" (student) collection, which would be added to the collections of the faculty when the student left the university.

The growing interest for geologists and mining engineers was reflected in the increasing numbers of professors and staff, and -in 1929- by the establishment at the University of Amsterdam of the fourth fully equipped geological institute in the country.

Professors continued to organise expeditions and extended field campaigns to areas of their specific scholarly interest. The character of these expeditions however changed as a result of the active participation of students. On the other hand, these students became involved in the research programme of the department, which was often closely related to the geology of a specific area. Over the years, this led to numerous publications and PhD theses, based on the collections amassed in that area. These combined research/education activities led to a considerable growth of the collections.

The roaring sixties

This practice continued more or less unaltered right up into the sixties of the last century. By then, the Netherlands had four fully equipped geological institutes (Amsterdam, Groningen, Leiden and Utrecht) for no more then some 50 first-year students and one school for mining engineering (Delft) with some 15 new students per year.

In 1965 this already extremely luxurious situation became untenable when the (protestant) Free University (also in Amsterdam) claimed - and got - the right to establish its own geological institute, on Christian principles. The four classical universities felt that they could not stay behind and came forward with claims for more money for modern equipment and for extra chairs.

This more or less coincided with a number of rather independent developments that had an enormous impact on the universities as a whole:

1. explosive growth of students, and consequently staff and housing

2. budget cuts for higher education

3. democratisation and reform of management

4. reorientation on research and education

5. expensive laboratory equipment.

In the earth sciences this led to the introduction of new fields like geophysics and geochemistry and a marked shift in research and education from the field to the laboratory, from macro to micro, from description to experiment. In the wake of this process it became fashionable to play down the status and importance of the collections: "we had by now sufficiently mapped the world and descriptive sciences were from now on out of date!" We all know the fatal impact this had on the collections. Stimulated by a dip in economic growth, these developments triggered our Government to initiate the process "Earth Sciences Reorganisation". This was the first initiative for the reorganisation on the national level of an entire discipline. As a student in geology at the University of Amsterdam, I have witnessed, and indeed actively participated in this process.

However interesting it may have been, I will restrict myself to the consequences for the collections. Generally speaking, they were disastrous: there was no general plan for the collections and they were hardly, if at all mentioned during the entire process. In other words the fate of the collections was entirely left to the personal engagement of a handful dedicated individuals.

The entire process lasted a dozen years between 1967 and 1979 and resulted in the following situation:

After the dust of the reorganisation had more or less settled, well over 2 million geological samples were left behind as orphans. Some still in the odd corners of the Institute, others however in an abandoned laboratory or temporary storage. As we have seen, the reason such collections became "orphaned" varies, but the results are always the same: gradually, the interest, attention and care diminishes, the collections are moved to the cellar or a remote corner of the attic, or just left behind. The collection may be split into different parts and the documentation gets separated from the collection. Apart from psychological (who wants to continue the work of his predecessor?) and political reasons (the abolition of the subject due to reorganisations and cuts in budget), the most important factor is probably the change in research methodologies and techniques, a shift from the field to the laboratory, from description to experiment. This shift was also echoed in a decrease in the use of the teaching collections.

A quarter century of despair

Most staff members were happy to survive this upheaval and to get back to work. They had lost all interest in the collections and struggled for life, because there were more changes and reorganisations to come.

Nevertheless, there were a few initiatives, like the establishment of the Geological Museum in Artis (the Amsterdam Zoo) and the - failed - initiative in Utrecht to transform the former Geological Institute into a regional natural history museum together with the likewise orphaned zoological collections. Although this latter initiative never materialised, it did cause pressure on the Board of the university to take care of its collections and both collections are now part of the Utrecht University Museum (with some collections transferred to Naturalis).

The instrument of questions put forward by Members of Parliament to the Government proved to be a rather effective way of building up pressure. With the help of a befriended civil servant, those questions would be formulated - and subsequently answered - in an intelligent way.

In 1984 the keepers of the collections of most Dutch universities joined forces and established a working group "LOCUC". Their first - and most effective - action was to draw up the first comprehensive inventory of existing university collections. The Ministry of Culture sponsored the initiative and published the report. A total of some 224 collections were spotted, ranging from huge collections of well over a million objects to just a handful items. One of the questions referred to the future of the collections as foreseen by the responsible keeper. Eighteen collections were reported to be "threatened", among them the geological collections from the five old universities! Embarrassed by the outcome of this report, the Ministry of Culture asked the State Advisory Committee on Museums to look deeper into these threatened collections and to come forward with suggestions how to tackle the problems and what to do with these collections. Their report confirms the situation and comes forward with recommendations and suggestions for the future of each of these collections.

The result of all these activities was that both the Government and the universities felt uneasy, perhaps at times even uncomfortable with the situation. Although massive loss of the collections was prevented, it did not lead to a solution.

It is interesting to find out why these efforts had so little effect.

Apart from the well-known arguments such as "low priority" and "lack of money", etc., two reasons really seemed to matter:

A change in climate

The funding of all Dutch universities is based on the egalitarian principle of output in research and teaching. This system does not take into account the responsibility of the classical universities to keep up their museums and collections, their old libraries, botanical gardens and monumental buildings as well as a range of small but expensive disciplines like Icelandic language or ethnomusicology. As a result, the "classical" universities find it increasingly difficult to resist pressure to invest in modern equipment in order to keep up the competition with the "young universities" which are not faced with such traditional responsibilities.

The cultural responsibilities of universities are explicitly mentioned in the Magna Charta of Universities. These include the care for the "academic heritage", both material and immaterial, the collections as well as the traditions. In the Netherlands, the accumulation of problems around collections, the growing awareness of the unique and often irreplaceable resources they contain, and the conviction that action had become inevitable, finally led to the establishment by the five "old" universities of the -recently formalised- Stichting Academisch Erfgoed (= Foundation Academic Heritage).

In 1995 the Ministries of Education and Science and of Culture were merged, laying the responsibility for the academic heritage at national level in the hands of the minister who is also in charge of higher education. The classical universities seized this opportunity, and drafted a "rescue-plan" in which they claimed extra funds for their endangered collections, which would otherwise get lost. In reply, the Ministry ordered a detailed inventory of the collections in the care of all Dutch universities and related scientific institutions. This survey confirmed that the five "old" universities, together with the national museums in Leiden, keep the overwhelming majority of the Dutch academic heritage. Many of these collections still serve as active resources for teaching and research and will continue to do so. Furthermore, they act as unique and irreplaceable historical, cultural and scientific records and they contain material of (inter-) national importance. In many cases they are kept under poor conditions and conservation is urgent. The survey makes two more points:

  1. Not all collections are worth being kept.
  2. "Orphaned collections" have ceased to serve the primary functions of the faculty due to changes in research activities or teaching programmes. The fact that such collections are now "worthless" for the faculty, is no measure for their intrinsic significance.

These observations, in combination with political pressure, and a growing awareness of the cultural role and responsibility of universities towards their heritage, have led to the establishment of the already mentioned collaborative, the Stichting Academisch Erfgoed.

In 1996 the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science decided to sponsor this initiative with a once-off budget of 6 million Euro for the period 1997-2000. One million Euro was allotted to each of the five participating universities for the improvement of their most important or endangered collections, whereas the remaining one million was divided among three "national" projects: the botanical gardens, the geological collections and the medical collections. In each case all relevant university collections in the Netherlands were involved in the project.

In April 2000, museums of twelve of the oldest and most renowned European universities decided to set up the Network "Academic Heritage and European Universities" - now known as Universeum - and drew up the "Declaration of Halle". Universeum aims at projects to stimulate the public access to the academic heritage of their universities.

In July that year ICOM agreed to the formation of an International Committee on University Museums and Collections. In September, during the seminar "Managing University Museums" organised in Paris by the OECD, that Committee was "baptised" UMAC and an Interim Management Board was set up to prepare the inauguration of UMAC during the ICOM General Conference in Barcelona, 2001.


All involved were thoroughly aware of the fact that the mere number of objects was such that we just could not take care of all of them in a proper way. We were also convinced that there were many duplicates (for example in the mass-produced medical instruments of the 19th and 20th century) and collections of little or no real use for the current research and teaching in the faculty, such as geological student collections, but also the "orphaned collections", which were so to speak left behind after the faculty had decided to stop that specific field of research (vertebrate palaeontology), no longer use specimens in teaching (anatomy, pathology) or even close down an entire faculty (dentistry, geology).

Against this background, the aim of the projects was twofold:

For each of these three projects we worked more or less along the same lines:

  1. Because of the complexity, the size and the novelty of the projects, they were split in two phases:
  2. We set up a working group composed of the keepers of the collections, with an independent chair , who understood both the subject and the role of collections. The project coordinator (Dr Diederik Visser) did most of the work and was in charge of communication, progress, etc.
  3. In order to be able to cope with the enormous number of objects involved, we decided to work on a higher level of abstraction: we introduced the concept "sub-collection".
  4. An inventory of the sub-collections, including general information on the type of the collection, its origin, a valuation of the quality, and suggestions for possible future use and action, was entered into a simple database.
  5. We carefully checked the legal status. Sub-collections on loan (and no longer in use) are returned.
  6. We developed a "protocol of de-accessioning" describing the lines along which we would offer our collections to new owners, or decide in case more then one candidate would show interest. Institutions that intend to keep the collection together and use it for future research are given a higher priority then exhibition material for local museums; even if this means that the collection will go abroad.
  7. Along the way, second opinions were sought by consulting specialists from a.o. the national museums, the Mondriaan Foundation and the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage.
  8. We acquired the approval of the Boards of the universities to act according to these lines and procedures.

Results: what happened to the geological collections?

Let me now concentrate on the geological collections. Together, the universities of Amsterdam, Delft, Groningen and Utrecht kept perhaps two million objects. These have been grouped into 842 sub-collections. Roughly we could distinguish three categories of sub-collections:

  1. those, which remain in use by the Faculty for education and research;
  2. those, which no longer play a role in present-day education or research of the Faculty, but which are considered of such scientific and/or cultural importance that they should be kept as (inter-) national "Academic Geological Heritage" (the "orphaned collections");
  3. those, which are considered to be of no or insufficient importance.

The sub-collections mentioned under 2 and 3 were put on the website of the Museum of the Technical University Delft and were subsequently offered to a broad selection of universities, museums and geological surveys, both in the Netherlands and abroad. These institutions were selected based on the origin and composition of the material and on the character of the institute.

Although we did get reactions, the final result is not very impressive. Nevertheless it is encouraging that the Geological Surveys of Indonesia, France and Spain have expressed their interest for material collected during field campaigns in their respective countries, and we hope that part of this material will indeed get a second life in their respective countries of origin. We must however remain realistic and face the fact that only a small number of collections will be transferred in this manner. In fact, only very few collections will finally go abroad. Unfortunately, France and Spain were not willing to share costs. Finally Naturalis decided to acquire selected specimens from all PhD related collections.

This left us with the question what to do with the remainder, mainly at the University of Amsterdam, where the faculty had been closed down a quarter century ago. The easiest part were the collections we judge of little importance (category 3), notably those with poor or no documentation and the so-called "student-collections". We decided that these could be disposed of. Before disposal, we just carry out a very superficial selection of objects that can be used either for exhibitions or for educational work with schools etc.

The orphaned collections belonging to the Academic Geological Heritage (category 2), however, were a serious matter of concern. We regard these collections as of national or even international quality because they have been extensively studied and the results have been published, often in internationally renowned journals. Many of these collections can be regarded as reference collections in their own right and quite a few may even contain type specimens.

Although it is evident that the decline in interest in the collections is by no means a measure for their intrinsic quality or potential meaning, the question remains whether such collections should be kept, and if so, by whom. A frequently used, but easy and most unsatisfactory answer to that question is: "the collection is only worth keeping if someone is willing to pay for it". On the other hand, as museum professionals we must acknowledge that we ourselves have so far failed in producing a satisfactory answer, as well as the necessary tools how to tackle this archival function.

We are fortunate that Naturalis, our National Museum of Natural History in Leiden agreed to participate intensively in the discussions that led to the final result. First of all, the loan of about half of the Amsterdam collection to the geological museum of the Amsterdam Zoo Artis was converted into a gift. Naturalis decided to store all remaining orphaned collections of national importance for which we did not find a new owner in what might once become the "National Geological Archive". Selection criteria were set up in close collaboration with the staff of Naturalis. Some collections will be entirely kept because of their provenance; removing the bulky objects and concentrating on thin-sections will reduce other collections; whereas in some cases keeping only a representative selection is deemed satisfactoty.

The geological collections must be de-contaminated before they are transferred to the museum, because this also holds important and fragile biological collections.

This exercise, which should lead to an over-all reduction in volume by around 30-35%, is evidently both expensive and time-consuming and can only be carried out by well-trained geologists. Furthermore, the job has to be cleared before the end of this year and within a fixed budget. Nevertheless we are confident that we will be able meet our targets.

Finally, Naturalis will take care of the registration and access to the collections according to their procedures. Most material is described as sub-collection or coherent unit; only type-material will be described at the object-level. The results will be published in order to inform the international scientific society on the whereabouts of these collections.

Experience, pitfalls and recommendations

Thinking about selection and de-accessioning is a neglected aspect of the museum profession. Disposal is generally considered not done in any well-run "normal" museum, where the collection policy aims at adding objects, which are felt to be missing. This is - and should be - fundamentally different in our field of university museums and collections with objects, which were primarily gathered as "just another tool" for the purpose of teaching, learning and research. This is by no means a legitimation to dispose of all collections after they have ceased to be used. On the contrary, many objects only derive their significance from the fact that they have been studied and published (type specimen), whereas others have become worthless (demagnetised palaeomagnetic samples). In other words, thinking about selection and disposal ought to be part of the professional practice of those in charge of university museums and collections. These curators are continuously faced with the question as to which objects or collections should be kept for future use, once the question is solved and inquisitiveness has driven the discoverer to new hunting grounds. Ideally, selection and subsequent de-accessioning should be the final stage of each research programme. This implies an archival function. So far, this function has not yet been thoroughly defined. There is no doubt that we can learn tremendously from the experience of professional archivists. Archives are meant to kept and used. We must therefore also think clearly about the potential users of the collections we want to keep. In the case of type collections -and to a lesser extend reference collections- this is relatively evident, because of the international conventions on that mater. But what about the potential new use for fields that have hitherto not been explored, for example because of limitations of the laboratory equipment. These can be purely scientific (the discovery of a new species), but also highly practical. Samples from abandoned Cornish coal mines were for example used to study the contamination of the groundwater in order to prepare a rescue plan. And finally collections have a historic dimension, they can tell us about the history of research and teaching.

The potential future users of our collections are therefore scholars, students, historians of science and even the industry. Ideally, all such considerations have to be taken into account whilst performing an exercise as we did. This should not only be true for the participating universities, but just as much for the potential new owners.

Generally speaking I think all involved agree that this major operation worked out well and can even serve as an example. It is very satisfactory that new owners are willing to take on board quite a number of the orphaned collections, pay for their maintenance and are eager to use them; in other words: given them a second life.

However, there are one or two pitfalls I would like to share with you. The most important relates to the consequences of the division into sub-collections. Again, this was a necessary step. For 20 years, we had failed to find a solution for the collections as a whole, and it is obviously impossible to take a decision on some two million individual objects. Therefore splitting - or if you like reducing - the whole into 842 sub-collections was an essential step in tackling and solving the problem. The reverse of the medal however is that we did not always pay sufficient attention to the collection as a whole, to the context, to the added value of the sum of collections. Let me illustrate this with the collections of vertebrate palaeontology. Due to reorganisations a group of 4 specialists was closed down and their collections orphaned. The evolution of island faunas was one of the specialisations for which they were known worldwide; consequently their collections contained material collected from all over the world. The basic registration of these collections was based on the location where the material was collected. However, the interior logic was directly related to the possibility to compare species (or even individuals) from various localities. Splitting up such a collection in its original geographical components evidently destroys the internal logic and relevance.

In hindsight we must acknowledge that we did not pay sufficient attention to such situations. But we must also realise that it is not at all evident who should have raised that question. And even if someone had come up with it, it would have been unclear when question should have been raised, to whom it should have been posed, what action was required and who was in the position to make decisions.

The project is now coming to an end, which allows me to summarise some general reflections:

• the set-up of the project worked relatively well:

the concept of sub-collections proved essential to break a 20 year deadlock;

• decision making takes much time;

• approaching potential new owners takes even more time;

• 40% government sponsoring triggered > 60% own input

Finally, the "Dutch Approach". The willingness to look at your own collections against the background of the National (and indeed International) Academic Geological Heritage is the essence of the "Dutch approach". This is neither self-evident, nor philanthropic, but a pragmatic approach: how can we do more with less? After all, we all have to cope with the same basic problems: a shortage of time, staff, money and space. Collaboration and a division of tasks is one possible solution, which allows us to specialise and - as illustrated above - has proven to be quite successful. Specialisation raises the profile, but is only possible if we make clear choices regarding the identity of our institution, and this requires an engagement, not only by your own institution, but also by the professional community at large.

Although there remains much to be improved, looking back we all realise that we would not have achieved these results without this collaborative effort and an initial government funding.

Copyright © Steven W.G. de Clercq 2002.
All rights reserved.

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