How Can We Make Our Precious Collections Available to Researchers? Reflections on the GCG Annual Meeting, December 2019

Written by Dr Liz Hide, Director, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

The question posed can be read in many different ways and, for me, throws up even more questions. How can we enable more researchers to use our collections? How can we better support and facilitate research? How can we identify new research areas within the collections? What happens when the researchers want to carry out destructive sampling? And for many of us working in museums, how do we make choices between facilitating research visits and all the other things that pull on our time, be they public programmes, exhibitions, funding bids or the hole in the roof?

These are all questions that curators and collections managers are addressing on a daily basis, and they are just the sort of challenges we are thinking a lot about in the Sedgwick Museum at the moment as we review our priorities for the future and develop our new Strategic Plan. As a museum which is physically and organisationally embedded within in an active research department, we have a collection that grew out of research yet, as research priorities shift, we need to remain an important and relevant resource. How can we ensure the Museum and its collections are at the heart of the department’s research? How do we put our limited resources and energy to the best possible use?

Daniel Field carrying out fossil preparation in the Sedgwick Museum Conservation Lab. © Liz Hide/Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

With all these questions in mind it was, therefore, a real pleasure to host GCG’s annual meeting on this subject at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge in December 2019. Over the course of a hugely stimulating day we heard from a great range of experts who, collectively, made a really important contribution to our thinking around research use of geological collections. I came away with a much richer understanding of the range of geological collections, of the widely differing contexts in which they operate, and the wealth of research questions they are addressing. I saw how curators and collections managers are finding solutions, embracing new techniques and creating new ways of working with researchers and students. I heard, too, of examples where the research value of collections is not appreciated or valued and where their rich research potential is under threat.

At the end of the day, I had the privilege of summing up the talks, and this gave me much to reflect on. For me, three themes emerged:

1. Whose Collections are they Anyway?

Are they ‘ours’? As curators and collections managers, we are custodians, but who do we carry out this role on behalf of? As Roy Starkey (Lapworth Museum of Geology) helpfully reminded us, collections are typically bequeathed in the public good, or acquired using public funds. Are we keeping this in mind when we make decisions about their use? And Emma Nicholls (Horniman Museum and Gardens) similarly urged us to reflect on the reasons we hold collections, stating ‘If not for research, education, and the overall good of science, then for what, are we keeping these collections?’

So from time to time we might ask ourselves the existential question ‘Why are our collections here?’  Whose are they, anyway? To justify the public money, and public spiritedness, that went into their acquisition and their care, we need to ensure they are used, used widely, and for a greater good.

Zoë Hughes visiting Sedgwick Museum research collections. © Liz Hide/Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

2. Polarising the Debate Isn’t Always Helpful

When I reflect upon the original question about making our precious collections available, I think we are sometimes in danger of only presenting the discussion about access to ‘our’ collections in terms of conflicting priorities: as a challenge between ‘them’ (the reckless, hairbrained researchers) and ‘us’ (the careful curatorial gatekeepers). As someone who prefers respect and consensus to conflict, I was glad to hear how many of our speakers are navigating that dichotomy, and how they are valuing and prioritising collaborative approaches to working with researchers. In this way, they have been able to tap into the expertise of researchers, and in turn enabled researchers to benefit from collections expertise as well as the collections themselves, with an end result that is greater than the sum of the parts. Working with researchers can and should be a collaborative exercise, where both parties can share information and expertise, and where that sharing leads to a greater collective understanding. Several speakers demonstrated eloquently how research can identify and solve curatorial challenges, and emphasised how keeping up to speed with new techniques means that new non-invasive approaches can replace previously destructive ones. As Emma Bernard (Natural History Museum London) said ‘our roles are intertwined’. In Emma’s case, collaboration with researchers also led to a new policy for collections development and a programme of student skills development.

Speakers also emphasised the importance of building and participating in collaborative networks and of course this is one of the huge strengths of the Geological Curators’ Group itself in overcoming isolation of both curators and their collections. How much better to know what other museums have related collections and where further expertise might be sought, and to signpost researchers accordingly. Networks also broaden perspectives and bring new ideas – for example Monica Price, recognising the cultural as well as scientific role of the Corsi decorative stone collection at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, has developed a rich cross-disciplinary network involving artists as well as researchers.

In urging a collaborative approach, I’m well aware that the dichotomous ‘them and us’ view is rooted, at least in part, in a more fundamental sense of inequality between academics and non-academics. I hope the GCG can continue to address this through its advocacy and training, and to foster a spirit of mutual respect and openness in collaboration.

GCG group visiting the new Sedgwick Museum Collections Research Centre 1.© Liz Hide/Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

3. How Can We Better Advocate for our Collections?

Collections are costly things to look after well and I’m sure most of us would, given the choice, put more resources into the care of our collections. It would also be very rare to find a geological collection that isn’t in some way feeling the pinch right now, whether or not this is articulated publically and explicitly. I really hope that everyone who works with geological collections can quote persuasive statistics about how much their collection is used, or share a powerful case study of how researchers used collections to progress science, but I know too that it’s sometimes hard to step out of our museum world and see our collections as others do. It’s now more important than ever that we are all able to clearly and loudly articulate the importance of our collections to our bosses, our funders and our stakeholders. In collaborating with researchers we are demonstrating our relevance in a wider context, contributing to addressing relevant and fundamental questions about Earth and life, and about human culture and society. Our challenge is to articulate the value of our collections in similarly universal terms, in ways that policy makers, funders and tax payers, find relatable and relevant.

I’m hugely grateful to all the speakers for their expertise and insights, and for all the work they are doing to place geological collections at the heart of research. A meeting like this is a great way to draw together lots of ideas, and to go away renewed and reinvigorated, ready to take a fresh look at our own work. Thank you for a great meeting!

GCG group visiting the new Sedgwick Museum Collections Research Centre 2. © Liz Hide/Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

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