University Museums Group Conference: What are University Museums For? Oxford 2013

Last Thursday and Friday I attended the UMG 2013 conference, held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Overall the message of the conference was that university museums are doing relatively well, but that strong leadership and ingenuity was the order of the day. Speaking of leadership Dr Nick Merriman (Manchester Museum) stepped down as chair and Kate Arnold-Forster (UMASCS Reading) and Sally MacDonald (UCL Museums) took over as joint chairs of UMG. On a side note, before the conference started I went on a tour of the Oxford University Natural History Museum’s roof and have included a few images in this post.

whale skeleton

whale skeleton OUNHM

 

The conference kicked off with a speech from former Secretary of State for DCMS Baron Chris Smith of Finsbury, a general celebration of university museums. The next day the conference started with a presentation from David Sweeney from HEFCE talking about state funding and the impact of tuition fees. He stressed the need for university museums to actively demonstrate their importance to their home institutions and argue the case for financial support.

Tour Group

Roof of the OUNHM

The nest session was one close to my heart as it dealt with students. Rebecca Reynolds talked about a joint project between Reading and UCL called OBL4HE which created digital resources for students. Gemma Angel talked about a fantastic project at UCL using PhD student to engage visitors with research and collections Researchers in Museums. Dr Giovanna Vitelli got us all jealous and inspired talking about the Ashmolean’s, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Funded, Museum University Engagement Programme.

 

on the roof

OUNHM roof

After that it was onto a research panel chaired by Prof. Nicholas Thomas during which I was taken back to my student days listening to one of my former lecturers Prof. Chris Gosden talk about the way that the university museums at Oxford shaped its research history. Panellists also discussed how historic collections which may seem sidelined from cutting edge research can be made relevant today.

In the afternoon we had a keynote from Hedley Swain (Director Museums and Renaissance ACE) in which he discussed how university museums can contribute to the wider museums sector. Then a ‘provocation’ from Dr. Maurice Davies (Museums Association) and Nick Poole (Director of Collections Trust). Nick pronounced himself too British to provoke, but presented a range of challenging visions of alternative futures for Higher Education, and as a consequence university museums. Maurice talked about Museums 2020 and the challenge and potential of focussing on ‘impact’.

looking up

OUNHM roof

What really struck me about the conference was how the history of university museums in the UK as liminal and often endangered organisations has made everybody raise their game. Nobody was sitting back and relaxing, everybody that I talked to was looking forwards towards the next project. Here ends a whistle-stop tour of the conference, hopefully it gives a flavour of what was discussed and provides links to further resources.

 

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