The Collections Team has been working on the thematic collecting project for pretty much the last year and yesterday we had an opportunity to give a presentation about the interviews we’ve been filming at one of the staff briefings that are held at the Museum.
By way of introduction to our work I spoke about what is meant by thematic or relational collecting. Essentially it is the name given to a new approach to collecting which acknowledges that in this time of austerity the Museum can no longer afford to collect comprehensively. Focusing on particular themes, such as ‘migration’ or ‘water’, that are of great relevance to the public, allows the Museum to continue collecting whilst using its limited resources more effectively. The crucial thing is that the Museum should be seen to be collecting, no small achievement when many museums have ceased because collecting is seen as an indulgence in a time of recession or austerity.
If one of the definitions of a museum is that it is a collecting institution, then what does it become if it ceases to collect? Manchester Museum Director, Nick Merriman, has discussed thematic collecting in a number of papers and conference presentations, most recently at ‘Refloating the Ark’ and argues that museums reduce their potential in the future when they stop collecting. Some museums have had to cease collecting because of changes in international legislation. For instance the Petrie Museum in London, have done some excellent work in developing relationships with Sudanese and Egyptian communities and interpreting the collection in innovative and exciting ways. Elsewhere anthropologists facing similar challenges have filmed interviews with native people speaking about objects in museum collections, which are of mutual benefit both to the museum and to the community.
Relational collecting provides something of a model for the Collections Team, allowing us to focus on particular themes in a multi-disciplinary way, whilst drawing on the testimony of academics and members of the public, and using digital technology to record their opinions. In this sense the digital record may be as much what is collected as the object itself.
For the purpose of the presentation we concentrated on the theme of migration. Curator of Palaeontology, David Gelsthorpe talked about an interview he recorded recently with a member of the public about the discovery of a deer in the North West. Hopefully in the fullness of time the Museum will acquire the skeleton, at which point the personal account of the circumstances of discovery will make it of even greater relevance to visitors and to our successors who will find a detailed account of the circumstances of acquisition. The context of objects in museum collections may sometimes be lacking because it was acquired many years ago before the introduction of professional standards of documentation, or because the thing in question was acquired at auction, or because it was a heirloom given to the museum when the family had only a hazy memory of how it had been acquired.
Rachel spoke about her and David’s research visit to Iceland and showed clips from an interview with an Icelandic expert talking about the introduction of plant species in the volcanic landscape to fix minerals in the soil. As we know the history of humans giving a helping hand to relocate new species in a different environment does not always end happily.
Campbell and Henry were unable to attend but kindly provided slides about interviews they had filmed. Campbell has been out to Egypt recently and interviewed members of the Egyptian antiquities service. He is interested in the movement of Egyptian artefacts outside the country in antiquity and in the modern period.
I showed a clip from my interview with Dr Emma Stafford of University of Leeds talking about a vase in the collection with a picture of Herakles and the connection with Marian Maguire’s work which relocates the Greek hero in New Zealand.
I finished the presentation by pointing to interviews on the theme of water, which were in preparation. The response from colleagues was very supportive and we welcomed their comments in helping us to evaluate this preliminary stage of the thematic collecting project.