Collecting Practices was a workshop organised by Georgia Vullinghs, Laura Volkmer (both of University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland) and James Inglis (University of St Andrews and National Museums Scotland). The workshop was designed to provide Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) students with some knowledge from museum/archives professionals on how collections are put together. The day proved a success, and attendees felt they had gained from the experience of the speakers as well as an environment in which they could pose and discuss issues around the theory and practice of collecting.
The day began on the theme of ‘Collecting the Sensitive’ with presentations from Anna Kuslits (PhD researcher) and Sophie Goggins (Curator of Bio-Medical Science at the NMS). Anna discussed her work using the Anatomy Collection of the University of Edinburgh, explaining how it was formed from the 17th C, and some of the issues surrounding the collection of human remains. Anna showed how, far from being objectified, in the 18th C Edinburgh people were willing to give specimens to the university collection as a way to tie themselves to the city. Sophie reflected on her experience of curating exhibitions which dealt with sex, murder, and disability. She raised some of the considerations important when dealing with these sensitive issues. The discussion then opened out to how museums might go about presenting such themes, rather than shying away from them.
After a well earned break, the next theme was ‘Collecting Decisions’ with Jennifer Giles (NLS) and Jane Thomas (HES). Both speakers reflected on their archives and how approaches to collecting had changed over time. Jennifer in particular focussed on the NLS’s activity as the nation’s repository for all published and publicly available information and how the library goes about collecting such a large volume of material. Jane reflected on her time in HES, formerly RCHAMS and how their priorities for and methods of collecting architectural material had changed over time. She also proved that there is much to collect about buildings and monuments, even if you can’t gather the building itself.
Lunch gave the attendees a chance to reflect on what had been said, discuss their own work and generally mingle. Refreshed, the last speakers, Sarah Laurenson (Curator of Modern and Contemporary History at NMS) and Jenny Noble (Glasgow Women’s Library) shared their experience of ‘Collecting History Now’. Sarah shared her work and experiences on collecting contemporary history for the NMS, and explained why museums undertake contemporary collecting. She shared some lively case studies and how they, as stories of the present, fit into the museum’s telling of Scotland and its past. Jenny focussed on the Glasgow Women Libraries ‘rapid response’ collecting to current political and social events. She also shared how the collection relied on and was shaped by contributions made by the public, as donors, volunteers, or visitors who point out what they want to see in the collection.
Overall the speakers provided an insight into the varying thoughts, considerations, moral, and practical issues that go into the formation of collections.
The rest of the afternoon was spent on an activity which was intended to provide attendees with time to reflect on and discuss what had been raised by the presentation. The attendees were invited to visit the NMS galleries and consider why they thought certain objects were in the collection, whether it was obvious how they had entered the collection, and what they thought might be missing from the collection. These ideas were brought back to a group discussion, during which there was space to discuss more generally the formation of collections and had we deal with that in our research.
The day ended with a trip to the pub and a group dinner, where discussion continued to reflect on the day and provided an opportunity for making some bonds between us as a cohort.
Overall we think the workshop was a success. It was a new theme for the AHRC and that was appreciated by attendees as shown by the answers in our post-event questionnaire. As potential future curators, and as researchers who use collections, it was invaluable to gain more of an insight into how they come into being. The speakers were generous in sharing their experiences, raised some key questions about how we decide what goes into a collection, and touched on some of the more mundane aspects of collecting too.
With thanks to all of the speakers who gave up their time to attend and share their expertise, the NMS for hosting, to the AHRC for funding our workshop, and to Sarah McEvoy and Andrea Cop in particular for their support in making the event happen. And of course to those who came along and took part.