Thematic Collecting at Manchester Museum: a Blog Post for Museum Development North West

Manchester Museum launched its thematic collecting project at the end of 2014. The aim of this approach is to re-invigorate collecting. The impetus for the project came from a number of papers by Manchester Museum Director, Nick Merriman, who highlighted the fact that collecting is, increasingly, seen as either unaffordable or an indulgence. However, collecting is a core function of museums and if those who work in museums stop acquiring objects, what kind of legacy will we bequeath to our successors? The challenge is how do we make the case for continuing collecting at a time when some museums are struggling because of cut-backs, and when there is considerable uncertainty about future funding because of the result of the EU referendum?

Of course, no-one is arguing for a continuation of the large-scale collecting that went on during the 19th and 20th centuries. Few museums have the capacity to collect the way they once did. Manchester Museum is a case in point. Founded as an encyclopaedic museum in the 1860s, its collections cover all disciplines from Archery to Zoology. Adding material across the board to already crowded stores is clearly not an option.

Rationalisation of collections is only part of the answer. Museums should still collect but they should do so in a more discerning manner, by focusing on specific themes. Coin collectors don’t try to collect an example of every coin ever minted but focus on one particular aspect such as coins of a particular country, of a period in history or with a particular design. For example, one collector I met limited himself to depictions of hand-shakes on coins! At Manchester Museum we decided to concentrate on the themes of migration and water. These are both very topical and relevant to us given that the mission of the Museum is to promote understanding between cultures, and to work towards a sustainable world. Of course, it is up to each institution to decide which particular themes are most relevant to them, but these two seemed to offer the greatest prospect for all disciplines represented in the Museum’s collections to contribute to the project.

In the initial phase of the team members (who hadn’t previously done this kind of work) were trained to film interviews, edit and post films on the internet. The equipment needed to do this is within the price range of most budgets. Thanks to advances in digital technology, work that just a few years ago required an editing studio can now be completed on a laptop. The first trial interview was a trip to Manchester’s Christmas market where curators collected specimens from stalls run by visiting Dutch traders. They filmed an interview about the seasonal trade in minerals and bulbs as a way of exploring different perspectives about migration. Since then over sixty short films have been filmed and posted on the internet and all are accessible via the Museum’s thematic collecting blog.

For our thematic collecting project we have interviewed museum staff and specialist researchers, wardens on nature reserves, a tourist visiting lava flows in Iceland, a poet, and members of the general public. One of the great advantages of this approach is its topicality, flexibility and the speed with which curators can respond to an event or an activity. Recently I visited the Ribchester Roman fort excavation and interviewed the director about the Spanish and Hungarian soldiers who formed the garrison some 1800 years ago. This provided an historical and archaeological backdrop (and just possibly a little bit of perspective) to debate about immigration into the UK that was an issue during the Referendum on the country’s membership of the EU.

At the end of the first full year of the project we wish to evaluate the work we have done. One question concerns who it is we are trying to engage with thematic collecting interviews. Clearly the museum benefits by recording the context of acquisitions. How often have we as museum curators regretted the fact that so often with old collections the circumstances of acquisition, not to mention the motivations of the curator and the donor, remain opaque.

At a symposium on Contemporary Collecting at the London Transport Museum in March 2016 one of the questions that was asked was what it was that museums were not collecting that might leave a gap in the future? One of the speakers, Jen Kavanagh, had collected examples of tattooing equipment not represented in the collection and interviewed some of the artists on film to create a record of the context of acquisition. This is a wonderful example of a thematic collecting approach, which seems to offer a flexible and effective means of contemporary collecting. It also provides a way of opening up debate on important social issues by exploring them from the varied perspectives of a wide range of people, thereby showing the relevance of the Museum as a civic institution in the service of the community.

In the next phase of the project we intend to film more interviews about the topic of water and talk to a wider range of people. The work of taking the message out to symposiums, conferences and other venues is in its early stages but we would welcome opportunities to raise the profile of Manchester Museum’s thematic collecting project in the current debate about contemporary collecting. With this aim in mind we will organise a conference on the subject at Manchester Museum next year. Watch this space for more details.

Bryan Sitch,
Deputy Head of Collections,
Manchester Museum
31st June 2016

Images:

1. Excavation at Ribchester Roman fort
2. Interviewing Mark Champion, Warden of Wigan Flashes nature reserve
3. Interviewing a market trader about semi-precious stones
4. A taxidermy specimen of a swallow and nest from the Zoology collections makes a talking point for the theme of migration

 

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