Candidate for: VICE-CHAIR

Giovanna Vitelli

The Hunterian, Glasgow University, UK

ICOM No. 152267

Nominators: Steph Scholten (UK), Silke Ackermann (UK)

Biographical note

Archaeologist, anthropologist, museum specialist

Italian: born in Serbia, lived and worked in Europe, North America, and North Africa.

  • AB: Harvard University, USA
  • Postgraduate study: Magdalen College, Oxford/Architectural Association, London
  • PhD: University of Reading, UK

Recent employment:

2009-2011 Research Fellow (Chercheure), Université Laval, Québec Canada

2011-12 Assistant Visiting Professor, Anthropology, University of Maryland USA

2012-2018 Director, University Engagement Programme, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford UK

2019- Head of Collections and Curatorial, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow UK

Recent Service:

2014-2016 Chair, Collections & Curation Committee, Society for Historical Archaeology

2015-2016 Co-Founder/Co-Chair, North American Collections Consortium

2017-2020 Council, Book Reviews Editor, Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology

Link to CV.

Qualifications for the position

My museum perspective comes from having had many different career roles, both in heritage and in the private sector. I offer a range of skills and experience that is drawn from finance, project management, start-ups, museums and academia, all of which I use in the course of my work.

I trained as a field archaeologist in Europe and North Africa, excavating and publishing data on prehistoric, medieval, Islamic, post-medieval and 19th century sites.

When based in Tunis, I worked for the National Museums service to study and publish the Islamic period archaeology of classical sites, working with the collections of a range of regional museums across Tunisia and Libya, both small and large. I learned about the perils and politics of nationalist agendas, as they obscured or silenced local interests, and how community and local museums could counteract that force.

I then had a career change into the financial sector, becoming interested in setting up new enterprises and developing the skills needed to help shape and manage start-ups. The people-intensive nature of this sector influenced how I work with and support others to realize their potential, a skill which is becoming essential in the museum sector in this period of change.

When I returned to the heritage sector, I obtained a Masters in Historic Landscape Conservation and a PhD in colonial-Indigenous archaeology, working on sites and collections in both Canada and the US that had lain ‘dormant’ for generations,  and were of increasing importance to affected Indigenous groups. I had an entire second education working with Indigenous knowledge holders, one that has stayed with me as I have deepened my commitment to developing better access to university museum collections that bear witness to the events of the past.

To improve the quality of that access, I focused on making knowledge co-production in the collections more systematic and usable as a methodology, whether with university colleagues and students, Indigenous makers and users, or with interested members of the public. From 2012-2018 I progressed this vision as Director of a major programme of university engagement at the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford). The programme aimed to make collections study a part of the mainstream university curriculum, advocating for the use of museums as powerful intellectual resources – _on a par with libraries and archives – _by providing evidence of successful academic adoption and excellent student results. I shared our work at international conferences and workshops, and was enriched by learning about local perspectives and priorities all over the world.

As Head of Collections and Curatorial at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, I now have a great opportunity to understand the common collecting histories of a full disciplinary spectrum of museum collections, working with both science and humanities curators. I am more than ever convinced of the power of university museums to make their collections address the societal issues facing our universities, the desires of our many stakeholders, and those whose voices remain under-represented in our collections.

Main goals of candidacy

I am applying for the position of Vice President on the UMAC Board because I believe I can make a significant contribution to widening the impact of UMAC’s work in the university museum sector. I firmly believe that any investment we make in widening access to good practice must be shared with our community, working together to clearly communicate our value to both university and to society. It is this combination of action and advocacy that I wish to bring to UMAC as it continues to focus on the quality and reach of its programming.

UMAC is in a unique position to influence how university museums can participate in conversations about knowledge creation, control, sharing and access. The university museum is aligned with its parent organisation’s identity and aims, but it also can push beyond, to positively expand the university’s reach, and to act as a bridge that connects knowledge production in the university with a wider set of stakeholders and affected communities.

I see my UMAC goals as follows.

  • Changing the perception of university museums from a storehouse for treasures, to a dynamic partner in mobilizing intellectual and societal change. This has been my professional mission in senior museum roles at both Oxford and Glasgow. I have built strategic experience at Board level to successfully communicate the special role that university museums play in being the creative, experimental, and intellectually rigorous face of a traditional institution. UMAC should be playing a leading role in marshalling global evidence to broadcast the value and reach of the sector.
  • Contributing to the development of new museum methodologies and theoretical frameworks for collections use, especially in the area of cross-disciplinary research and teaching. In our sector, there numerous success stories of collections teaching programmes, each special and unique: however, in order to make this work truly sustainable, we need to offer our collaborators a set of common principles and approaches to knowledge co-production, so that the museum is also understood on academic terms. My professional interest in this area is long-standing, having published and taught collections practice and theory. I have also worked with community stakeholders to develop theoretical approaches to re-interpreting and revitalizing collections of under-represented groups.
  • Commitment to establishing open and equitable ways of working across UMAC regions, to encourage the creation, sharing, and ‘return’ of knowledge about the past. The ‘decolonizing’ mission is perhaps the most challenging that museums in both the Global North and South now face, and one which UMAC can play an important supporting role. UMAC should open itself further to scrutiny and power-sharing, and act as a model for decolonial practice for the university museum sector. To de-center its practice, for example, it can lead with changing the editorial power structure of the UMAC Journal to welcome topical thematic issues created and produced by regional members, for example in Africa and Asia.