Blog by Morven Rodger following session on 5th Nov 2022: University collections study centres: The impact of use on collections care, Lizzie O’Neill, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Glasgow
University collections are characterised by scholarship, making collections available to staff, students and visiting researchers. Collections study centres support teaching with collections and provide an environment for visitors to access collections for independent research. If not carefully managed, this can put collections at increased risk of overhandling and damage, as objects are used repeatedly for teaching and study, and exposed to risk of theft or loss.
Through the course of her experience developing the Hunterian Collection Study Centre, presenter Lizzie O’Neill found many study centres based in uninviting, out-of-town, storage facilities, obscure to visitors and difficult or expensive to access by public transport. By contrast, the University of Glasgow offer access to their collections directly on campus, in close proximity to other cultural heritage institutions and attractions.
The Hunterian supports access to their collections using EMu, recording each request through the Events module to capture type of use (e.g. research, teaching), intended audience, number of students, and creating links with the relevant objects. “The best way to make sure that a collection is preserved is to make sure that it’s useful”, and recording this activity through their content management system allows Hunterian staff to interrogate the data and identify patterns of use. This can highlight items that are requested repeatedly to help identify conservation priorities and make informed decisions about promoting underused collections.
As university collections develop around the research aims of the institution, not all material acquired is intended for display. Gathering information about the other ways these objects are used can help justify storing items that may never be used for exhibition. Study Centres can provide access to collections where public display would not be appropriate, offering an environment to discuss controversial or contested histories that cannot be adequately conveyed in an exhibition setting. At the Hunterian, this has contributed to the community led project, Curating Discomfort, which was curated through a series of workshops by a community of academics, community activists, social justice campaigners and educators.
The Spectrum standard was updated in September 2022 with revisions to the Cataloguing and Use of collections procedures encouraging a more inclusive approach to knowledge production. “[Cataloguing] information is generated through the Use of collections: through research and interpretation that can – and should – be inclusive. No object has just one story, as users bring different perspectives.” Facilitating broader access to collections creates the potential to gather different perspectives on the objects in our care and contribute to the ‘decolonisation’ of cataloguing information. Through their Study Centre, the Hunterian has been able to engage with diverse audiences and source communities and record their perspectives, with consent, to enrich their catalogue.
Another feature of recording access this way is to make visible the work of collections staff. These records can be used to demonstrate the demand on staff to deliver the service and justify the necessary resources by monitoring the volume of requests, associated collections moves and the number of sessions delivered. The value of this data as a tool to advocate for staffing feels particularly relevant in the context of recent university cuts, and the sector’s reliance on precarious fixed term contracts. With so much focus rightly placed on the environmental impact of our roles, it was extremely encouraging to hear a presentation tracking the positive outputs of collections work.
Heritage Collections, Centre for Research Collections
 Keene, S. 2005. Managing collections in store, (http://www.suzannekeene.com/articles/managing-collections-in-store.pdf)