Dorsal Root Ganglion © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2015

Creative Curating

12th February 2016

Deborah Mulhearn explores some eclectic (and extraordinary) university collections ...

A Moor’s ear cut off… a frightful large Indian bat… the hand of a supposed Siren, dried… the teat of a witch… the skeleton and stuffed skin of a woman who had eighteen husbands…

Back in the eighteenth century, these – and other rather fanciful objects – were on display in Oxford University’s anatomy museum. While we may not be able to see anything quite so alarming nowadays, there are still many bizarre and fascinating collections to be found in museums inside universities up and down the country. And although some – such as the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, and the Pitt Rivers and the Ashmolean in Oxford (the first university museum to open to the public in 1683 and still the most visited non-national museum in England) – are popular and much loved, other universities’ collections are hidden away… often quite literally languishing in dusty cupboards and stores.

Originally rounded up for research and teaching purposes, they remain inaccessible to all but the driest academic circles. Many are ‘orphaned’ objects that are sometimes quietly disposed of when they lose their academic relevance, or, increasingly, when their host universities want to reclaim the valuable space they occupy.

Over the past ten years or so, however, university museums have been opening up their collections and finding new audiences. There are around 400 in the UK, of which around a quarter are accredited and accessible. But this is a great improvement on decades ago, when only university staff, researchers and students ever visited them. University museums now welcome around four million visitors a year, hold 200 exhibitions and put on 3,500 public events.

“There is an astonishing diversity of museum collections,” says Kate Arnold-Forster, director of the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) at the University of Reading. “And nowadays they include new disciplines such as plastics and typography as well as traditional subjects such as natural history, archaeology and anthropology. This means that there is huge potential to engage more than just a scholarly audience, because they can show how their research is relevant in today’s world.”

The divide between town and gown is also being narrowed with the help of a new breed of curators who see public engagement as beneficial to all. They have forged partnerships with local museums and art galleries, and encouraged non-academic communities – who often live and work close by – to participate in events and activities, either by taking their material out on roadshows or handling sessions, or encouraging people to come onto the university campuses.

At MERL, Arnold-Forster is overseeing an ambitious project to transform what was a small, somewhat academic, museum about agricultural technology and heritage. “As a university museum, we have the distinct advantage of having direct access to the way agricultural policy, research and practice work, and how they are changing. The university is developing sustainable models to tackle such challenges as food security, nutrition and animal health, and the future management of the countryside, and we aim to reflect these issues and relationships in our new galleries and programmes.”

Arnold-Forster believes that, having learned a lot about working with communities, it’s only right that they share their knowledge and resources. “We are lucky to have benefitted from £17m worth of capital investment and project funding over the past decade, which is a significant amount even for a university museum. At the same time, local authority museums have been up against it, and if we can help in any way, we should.”

The signs are that the two worlds are starting to come together, often with the museum or art gallery acting as a gateway. University College London (UCL), for example, is building a new campus on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London, and when it opens in 2018, it will include a new museum. This will display objects from UCL’s vast collections of archaeology, art, natural history, science and medicine.

The larger university museums welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, while smaller or newer ones such as the Museum of Design in Plastics at the University of Bournemouth run public programmes where families, schools and the general public learn more about plastic in everyday use but also gain a deeper understanding of the science behind it.

With the vast (and sometimes bulky) collections they hold, space is a perennial issue for most museums. The growth of universities over the past decades has meant that some university museums have lost their space, or had to rethink the way they present their collections.

The Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MoDA) is part of Middlesex University and has collections relating to the history of interior design and decoration in the late 19th and 20th century. It holds the Silver Studio Collection, set up in 1880 by textile artist Arthur Silver, a leading exponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement. The Silver Studio Collection has over 40,000 designs on paper, along with 5,000 wallpaper samples and 5,000 textile samples, as well as the studio’s business records. Among the museum’s other collections are that of the mid-twentieth century graphic designer, Charles Hasler.

After a university restructure in 2011, the museum lost its galleries and moved to a new site in Colindale, a short walk from the main campus at Hendon. “We used the move to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the web and social media,” says Zoë Hendon, Head of Collections at MoDA. “People are still welcome to visit the collections by appointment, and they do, but there are also many people beyond the university who are interested in the collections for a wide variety of reasons. They are geographically more widely spread, and we realised we could reach out to them more effectively online.”

The website now presents the collections in a way that does not assume prior knowledge on the part of users. “It’s arranged in terms of visual appeal first, and only secondarily as an historical resource,” explains Hendon. “In other words, we are as interested in the way a jewellery designer, for example, responds to a piece of wallpaper from MoDA’s collections as we are in telling everybody about the history of that wallpaper itself. The statistics show that we’ve succeeded in reaching a wider audience in this way, and that they are engaging with the collections in ever deeper ways.

“Our strap line is ‘Online, On Tour and On Request’ – making it quite clear that we are not a virtual museum, as we definitely do still exist in a physical space, albeit an unconventional one,” she points out.
MoDA also works with local communities to bring its collections into more public spaces. For example, the Hasler Gallery, based in a refurbished shop in North Finchley’s Grand Arcade, shows work commissioned from local artists and inspired by MoDA’s collections.

“We also hold monthly ‘In Conversation’ afternoons, which offer the opportunity to see items from the collections and have an informal chat with a member of staff,” adds Hendon. “Anyone is welcome to email us at to join the mailing list and receive regular updates on upcoming events and publications.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Glasgow, trainee surgeon Suzanne Thomson has an interest in a specific medical problem faced today – how to repair damaged nerves. “The anatomy of the peripheral nervous system is both beautiful and complex,” she says. Working with the collections at the university’s Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, she is exploring historical anatomical drawings and bringing her research to a wider public to show how they are still relevant today.

“Peripheral nerves often travel a great distance, running all the way from the brain and spinal cord to the tips of the fingers and toes,” she explains. “As they lack bony protection these nerves are commonly injured, particularly in young working age adults. As well as investigating the cellular level of nerve injury I enjoy learning about the art and history of nerve injury and repair, and have come across some impressive art works at the Hunterian.”

Thomson was delighted to discover Hunter’s own drawings and lectures on the anatomy of the brachial plexus (a complex network of peripheral nerves responsible for sensation and movement of the upper limb) and other fascinating drawings of the brachial plexus prepared from dissections made in Rome around 1618 and bequeathed to the Hunterian collection.

“I have explored these in more detail with a public audience at Insight Talks,” she says, and the Glasgow Science Festival provided a great way for children and adults to interact with this artwork and explore some of the techniques we use in the laboratory. For example, we looked at some live nerve cells and even tried our hand at 3D printing.”

People are keen to learn more about how their own bodies work and enjoy discovering this through art and science, she continues. “Peripheral nerve injury has a significant impact on both the individual and society – the average healthcare costs of a median nerve (one of three major nerves in the arm) injury is €50,000, not to mention the further cost associated with this loss of function in your normal role in society.”

Public projects like Thomson’s can only increase awareness of these challenges. “It also stimulates conversation and generates novel ideas and approaches,” she adds. “And, as much of the science in the UK is publicly funded, it is vital to ensure that it reaches, and is acceptable to, the wider audience.”

These museums are unlocking the secrets and finally sharing thousands of years of knowledge. “Ironically, some of these wonderful collections have survived precisely because they’ve been neglected or forgotten about,” points out Arnold-Forster. “And now, with the possibilities of the digital age, they are being reinvented to reach a much wider audience.”

Find Your Local