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What's the role of academic museums in today's Europe?

By August 30, 2011 No Comments

There’s been quite a lot of noise about European university museums in the last couple of years. A lot of people are thinking about why and how the academic heritage should be collected, preserved and exhibited (to the right is one of the, our own Medical Museion in Copenhagen).

Now the University of Tartu History Museum (Estonia) will use its 35th anniversary celebration as an opportunity to throw a conference on 5-6 December, where the role of academic museums in today’s Europe will be discussed: “Who needs them and why, and how should academic heritage be exhibited?”

Most European universities possess rather impressive scientific collections – herbaria, minerals, anatomical preparations, instruments, etc. The traditional and initial role of these collections – to support studies and research – is decreasing in the virtual era. This has forced museums to look for new ways to use these collections, mainly to popularise science and introduce the history of universities. However, these collections are often problems for universities, as they take up a lot of room and need maintenance, which universities cannot afford. Many universities have tried to get rid of their collections, some have even managed to take or buy them back. Stocktaking of collections has been used to get rid of spoilt items.

Developing a more attractive exhibition strategy is one of the biggest challenges of museums dealing with academic heritage. They immediately face a number of questions when trying to approach this. Do we exhibit entire collections or just samples? How much will we use modern technical aids? Who are the most important target groups of these museums? How can we communicate the scientific ideas that are hundreds of years old in a manner that is understandable? Creating associations with modern times helps to understand, but it also carries the threat that we project past ideas that didn’t actually exist. How can we connect the work of science historians with the museum?

The role of museums that deal with the history of science and education and their meaning in society also depends on the broader cultural policy. How do the various forms of ownership affect the use and preservation of academic heritage? Would it be better for universities to own their museums or to transfer them to the state, local government, a foundation or other private owners with all their assets, and what would each of these options entail? How can the contribution of university museums to the development of modern society be increased?

The research director of the museum, cultural historian Lea Leppik, who organises the conference, is looking for interesting 25 min-presentations. Send 300 word abstracts to her (lea.leppik@ut.ee) before 1 October. There is no participation fee, but you’ll have to pay for your travel and accommodation in Tartu. The working languages of the conference are Estonian (!) and English.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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