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Students 'rummaging' through the Betty Smithers Design Collection at Staffordshire University

‘Beyond the Display – an exploration of collections in art, media and design teaching and learning‘ has just been published in Networks 15. In this article I try to give an overview of some museum and collection resources that may be available to engage students that use objects in a more direct way than ‘just’ looking.

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On a recent trip to Vancouver I visited the Beaty Biodiversity Museum , which is a very interesting museum in that it is also a (working) archive. Hidden away under the largest blue whale skeleton on display in Canada is what at first glance looks like a (albeit stylish) bunker, but is really storage for specimen. Most shelves are fronted in black, but some have integrated glass windows to allow visitors to see the collected objects, depending on their type pressed, stuffed, contained in boxes or in jars. This not only shows the objects, but also gives an insight into how they are stored and worked with. The interpretive text is interspersed with these displays, while there is also a ‘band’ of text that goes along the shelves and gives information on the different relationships of the specimen.

basic set-up

objects on display

storage boxes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I was there a member of staff from the University of British Columbia, where the museum is located, was accessing some of the specimen by unlocking one of the cabinets and showing that it really did contain hundreds of examples of pressed flora.

archive in action

There was also a treasure hunt for children, the last

in the discovery lab

station of which was a discovery lab, where the specimen could be seen outside of their glass cases.

Overall a fascinating museum well worth a visit!

There are a number of ways in which Higher Education can get access to objects, some of which I will blog about more in future. but just to get this started a (probably very incomplete) list:
Most obviously probably are museums, which often, but not always, collect and give access to objects. Here you can find curated exhibitions, where objects have been pre-selected and arranged in a formal display. Some you might be able to touch and handle, possibly in specially arranged sessions.
Museums also tend to have lots of objects that are not on display. It may be possible to get access to objects from a catalogue, or even explore the museum stores. This depends on the access policy of the museum and if you are working with students probably space and numbers.
Universities often have their own museums, galleries or collections. Here access to objects is usually easier for students, because it is probably part of the mission of the collection, and they often grew out of teaching collections initially.
Some of these teaching collections are handling collections, where rules of access are slightly different and objects may be handled without gloves, in some items can be taken apart or even borrowed.
But objects to be used in learning and teaching don’t necessarily have to come from a formal collection, they are all around us, so they can also come from personal collections of enthusiasts or simply the home – a possibility that should not be discounted.
And then there are also the virtual objects, images that are accessed through the internet, books or magazines, which bring their own problematic, because here we obviously do not have a three-dimensional or even tactile encounter, but they probably should not be discounted.