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.

A Renaissance of German University Collections

Cornelia Weber
Humboldt University of Berlin


German universities are the hosts of many remarkable collections. These collections range from those of local interest to those having immense academic value. In recent times the university collections have inspired considerable interest in both academia and in the broader public. This interest has been highlighted by well-attended exhibitions and well-funded projects for the utilization of the collections. A central role in this process of renewed interest has been played by the so-called "new media", which provide new ways to access collections worldwide as resources for research and teaching. This paper presents a first overview of the collections of German universities and introduces various projects involving digital media.


Many German universities are the possessors of a considerable academic and cultural heritage in the forms of collections and museums. Often assembled over a number of centuries, these collections and museums are of great value as resources for research and teaching and as monuments of scientific endeavor in themselves. Quite often they are also valuable in a monetary sense. Nevertheless, university collections have not played an important role in the intellectual life in Germany during the last decades. Only recently, after drawing attention to and publicizing the subject in various ways, one can observe that university collections are becoming an object of general interest both in academia and in the broader public. We are now experiencing an exciting renaissance in the realization that our collections are the most effective instruments for the promotion of the sciences and the bringing of these sciences to the layman.

The following examples are illustrations of this renaissance: The universities of Dresden, Güttingen, Greifswald and Münster have published books about their collections1; Berlin initiated an all-encompassing project funded primarily by the Volkswagen foundation for making its collections accessible2; Halle and Berlin exhibited parts of their holdings with great success among the public3; and lastly, Halle4, Freiburg5, Berlin6 and Rostock7 are currently in the process of creating distinguished university museums.

Although German universities are well known for their exceptional collections, when the research began no comprehensive overview of these collections existed. There are, of course, many individuals who are experts on the collections relating to their own specialized field of research. University museums in Germany as a whole, however, are not yet interconnected or represented by any official association.

A starting point

On the occasion of the first UMAC conference in 2001 in Barcelona a working group of "directories" has been started to list and accumulate basic information concerning existing directories, catalogues and inventories. As a member of this group I decided to set up a directory for German university museums and collections and to publish the result on UMAC's Web page (

The project was started at the end of 2001. First, a questionnaire was sent to all German universities, of which only a few replied. One apparent reason for this was that many university collections do not yet have a defined place within the university administration. The central university administration simply does not know the extent of their own collections. In some cases only a small group of insiders in their respective institutions, such as departmental heads, professors or curators, are cognizant of the collections' very existence. Fortunately these persons often already provide the information that we are interested in on the Web. Therefore, the next step was to systematically visit these Web sites. It took a long time, but it was well worth the effort!

The database

All the information was fed into a database8, which can be accessed remotely9. The user can receive the following data: the designated name, address and Web site of the collection, the subject of the collection, a person to contact, phone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses, the name, address and Web site of the university, a short description of the collection, its opening hours, and other matters such as guided tours, changing exhibitions, publications, lectures, and scheduled discussions. Wherever possible, there is a link providing a direct connection with the respective collection.

There are various possibilities to access this information:

  • The starting-page shows an index with all of the collections sorted by the host university.
  • A special "search" enables one to look for the collection's location, designated name, subject, contact-persons, university, or key word or words.


The database, which is still under construction, currently contains 318 academic museums and collections10. It is not nearly approaching completion and therefore the interpretation of the material now available should be understood as being preliminary. I expect however to be able to cover most of the German university collections within the coming year.

In order to analyze the results and the basic tendencies they reveal it was necessary to arrange the collections according to certain categories. Unfortunately, a thesaurus for university museums and collections or any other thesaurus that suits our purposes for that matter was not available11.

Therefore a simple list has been created, the main categories of which are the following: University History - Art & Humanities - Sciences & Technology - and Medicine. The subjects within these categories encompass the major fields of knowledge. The terms have been chosen to make a comparatively clear classification possible.

Museums and collections on University History are rare in Germany: there are 13 collections in all (or 4%), including 3 collections on university detention cells, where students who broke university rules were once interned, and two collections of institutions which are no longer universities12.

General University History 7
Special Aspects of the University History 3
University Detention Cells 3

The category Art & Humanities is represented by 120 collections (or 38%), among them 50 archaeological collections, 26 of which are of classical antiquities.

Art Treasures 22
Architecture 2
Cultural History 7
Theatre Studies 2
Theology 2
Paleography 2
Archaeology [Prehistorical, Egyptian, Sudan & Orient, Classical Antiquity (including plaster casts), Christian Archaeology] 50
Numismatics 9
Papyrology 7
Ethnology/Ethnography 9
Music 4
Sound Archive 3
Museum Dedicated as a Memorial 1

The category Sciences & Technology contains 146 collections (or 46%), the most represented subjects of which are Geology/Mineralogy (40) and Botany (35), followed by Zoology (15) and Engineering (14).

Natural History 2
Zoology 15
Animal Sound Archive 1
Botany (Botanical Garden, Arboretum, Aroma Garden, Herbarium, Botanical Museum, Special Aspects of Botany) 35
Agriculture & Forestry 4
Geology & Mineralogy 40
Petrology 1
Geophysics 2
Paleontology 5
Geography 4
Oceanography 1
Astronomy 3
Mathematics 7
Physics 3
Chemistry 3
Computer Science & Technology 3
Engineering 14
Museum Dedicated as a Memorial 2
Other Collections 1

The number of medical collections at 39 (or 12%) is comparatively small, with 10 in the field of Medical History and 11 in the field of Anatomy & Pathology. Apart from medical history museums, most of the medical collections, in contrast to geological, mineralogical, botanical or archaeological collections, are usually not accessible to the public. Many departmental medical collections are privy to only a few insiders. Therefore, the following overview is far from reflecting the actual number.

Medical & Pharmaceutical History 10
Anatomy & Pathology 11
Anthropology & Osteology 5
Anesthesia 1
Dermatology 2
Physiology 1
Obstetrics 1
Forensic Medicine 2
Special Aspects of Veterinary Medicine 2
Dentistry 3
Museum Dedicated as a Memorial 1

Web-based sources usually don't provide the following information on the use of collections. Is the collection primarily used for teaching and research or as a display collection for the general public? Is it a specialized collection only for experts, or is the collection simply in storage? The next step will be therefore a focused questionnaire on the use of the collection, which will be sent directly to the people who are managing them.

Access to the collections is another important factor. At least 226 of the 318 listed collections, or just 71%, are accessible. Only 131 of these collections have regular opening hours, 75 can be visited by appointment and an unknown number exhibit in public venues only.

collections with regular opening hours 131
collections visited by appointment only 55
collection visits by appointment allowed for scientific purposes only 20
collections exhibited in public venues only 11
collections partially accessible to the public 4
collections temporarily not accessible to the public 5
collections not accessible to the public 12
collections whose state of accessibility is uncertain (for teaching or research purposes or in public areas only) 80

Novel ways to access collections

The application of the new media provides novel ways to access collections as resources for research and teaching worldwide. These applications encompass the presentation, publishing and management of digitized content in various electronic formats. Simply putting basic information on a Web page already makes its existence globally accessible. If a database with text-, picture-, video- and sound-files is developed, it can be used locally, by intranet or via the Internet. With the designing of a virtual museum a visit can be offered independent of time and place. Finally, the design of interactive pages with special contents can be an effective way to transfer knowledge.

As reported above, in Germany a renaissance of university collections has taken place in the last few years, and this renaissance can be directly traced to the application of the new media. Presentation and access are now independent of the extent of support provided by the university, its budget and staff, the state of the collection, and the place and time. We are all aware that viewing digitized items is no substitute for glassed-in showcases, but the new media provide important tools covering other kinds of information, convey this information to new target groups, and utilize a wider range of resources. Through the new media we can attract the attention that we need to promote our collections and provide a reliable basis for further projects.

Today the simplest way of reaching the public is through the use of the Internet. Web sites impose virtually no constraints of size or content and there is no trade-off between popularized displays attracting the laymen and the academic sections catering to the professional. Moreover, an endless number of links can lead to related sites and supplemental information.

Our analysis of the German university collections shows that many of them, currently 216 (or 68%), are already utilizing the web for their purposes. Respectively, 19 museums have a page with basic information in order to enable a first contact, 138 have a description that gives a first impression of the collection, 31 provide a virtual tour through a digital museum and 10 contain a catalogue or a database providing further information. 18 university museums have even created separate homepages with special offers and services. When this survey was compiled 102 collections were still not accessible by the web.

The self-portraits of universities on the web illustrate the changing role of university collections in Germany. The homepage of the University of Bonn, for example, presents under the heading "The University" the directory "Museums and Scientific Collections" ( In this case each visitor of the homepage can learn something about the "hidden treasures" of the university and is not encumbered by an awkward search on the Web pages of numerous institutes.

Assembling and displaying hidden, dispersed or heterogeneous collections in a digital museum provides a great convenience for university collections. Application of the new media allows showing rare and perishable ancient objects, the virtual simulation of the functions of old machines and the performance of experiments with scientific instruments. Databases of digital objects support research and teaching. Standardized formats and simple interfaces allow users from every country in the world to find and display information without significant investment in hardware, software or training. Thus, the usage of the new media enables university collections to disseminate knowledge more effectively than by the displaying of exhibits in the traditional way.

Examining the university collections' Web sites reveals a variety of appealing and useful pages for different target groups. A real "pleasures for both eyes and ears" for example is offered by the Museum of Musical Instruments at the University of Leipzig ( Another exemplary page comes from the computer science collection at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg ( This Web site presents a reconstruction and simulation of the calculating machine of Wilhelm Schickard from 1623, with which the visitor can try to solve arithmetical problems. Ten university collections even have put object databases or catalogues on the web, which can be used for research. An example of this is the collection of the Archaeological Museum at the University of Halle-Wittenberg ( There are also many text-based pages with various essays and some truly wonderful tours through digital collections. A few universities are even selling replicas of their tours per Internet.

Fundamental to the international exchange of knowledge is the language of presentation. Although in Germany one can perceive that little by little universities are beginning to provide an English translation of their main Web sites, there are still only a small number of English language pages, at present 18, about the collections available. One might conclude that the people in charge of disseminating information consider the sometimes specialized areas of academic issues as not being of enough general importance. But this impression is wrong, as can be seen by international efforts in developing databases for academic matters, for example in the case of BioCase, a "Biological Collection Access Service for Europe". Such initiatives will, in the long run, guarantee the desired impact on the academic world.

A new role in university teaching

In today's world, and above all at the universities, competence in media techniques and applications is much in demand. Past experiences have shown that students often do not have sufficient media competence. Without further training they will not be able to prepare and present their results in multimedia. In response to the rapidly growing utilization of digital multimedia applications, the imparting of media competence would be a unique chance for the collections to play a novel and important role in teaching programs. A collection is a good place in the university for learning digital photography and digital video. The German ministry of education and research is currently supporting initiatives introducing the new media and the raising of competence in multimedia. This has allowed me to offer a student course entitled "The Application of the New Media in Opening Up and Presenting Collections". For me it is an exciting experiment and I look forward to presenting some of my experiences during the next UMAC conference.

1 Sammlungen und Kunstbesitz der Technischen Universität Dresden (Dresden, 1996); "Ganz für das Studium angelegt". Die Museen, Sammlungen und Gärten der Universität Göttingen (Göttingen, 2001); Kulturbesitz und Sammlungen der Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald (Greifswald, 1995); Museen der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster (Münster, 1993).

2 Cornelia Weber, "From independent university collections to a 'Wissenstheater': an ambitious project at the Humboldt University of Berlin", in Museologia 2, 2002, pp. 81-88.

3 The exhibitions were in Halle: "Emporium. 500 Jahre Universität Halle-Wittenberg. Landesausstellung Sachsen-Anhalt", 2002; and in Berlin: "Theatrum naturae et artis. Wunderkammern des Wissens", 2000/01.

4 This according to Dr. Torsten Speler, curator at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

5 This according to Dr. Dieter Speck, archivist at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg.

6 Weber, pp. 81-88.

7 Information from the Web site of the Archaeological Collection.

8 MYSQL, open source

9 Web front end in php

10 Because archives and collections of rare books and manuscripts are usually accessible in libraries they were excluded from the database.

11 To compare collections on an international basis a glossary in English will be essential.

12 The former universities of Altdorf and Helmstedt.

Copyright © Cornelia Weber 2002.
All rights reserved.

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