University Museums: A Reflection

15 September 2021

University museums and collections are critical resources for universities. They enhance teaching and research and support and further promote higher education goals and values. University museums can also serve as a welcoming space and be an access point to the campus.

Unfortunately, university museums can also be overlooked and lack the recognition their collections deserve for serving their important roles. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example where university museums have been able to utilise networks to exchange information, communicate between facilities and schools, and provide inspiration and assistance. Museums, such as The University of Queensland’s Integrated Pathology Learning Centre, have also been highlighted for their ability to disseminate scientific information and use their collections to promote an understanding of health and disease that may become, quite rapidly, increasingly relevant. The social value of a university museum is also something that should be recognised.

Between 1-3 September this year, I attended a university museum conference via Zoom, an event run by the International Council of Museums University Museums and Collections Committee and Universeum. This was an amazing opportunity to hear a diverse panel of speakers from all over the world discuss the role of university museums and their future. In total, over 400 delegates from 57 countries joined the conference.

It was a particularly important conference considering the current environment for both universities and museums in a worldwide context. Having this forum to both celebrate the work that had been achieved and consider the work that needs to be done, allowed for a range of important considerations and outcomes to be discussed.

Throughout the conference the word ‘hybrid’ was used to describe the exact nature of a university museum – balancing between the world of the university and the world of museums.

The main themes of the conference revolved around accessibility, sustainability, and ethics. The following is a brief summary of these main themes.

Regarding accessibility, different university museums explored how COVID-19 has led to the need to make collections more accessible, where possible, to wider audiences. Specifically, in the university context, continuing engagement with researchers and students has led to a variety of responses, from 3D imaging objects from the University of Wyoming Art Museum to building new digital archives from the University of Pretoria Museums. While returning to in-person classes that utilise objects or specimens is preferable, having this digital component to augment the experience will hopefully continue long-term. On sustainability, all museums play an important role in both delivering information and ensuring sustainable practices. A collection, such as a pathology collection, can deliver on sustainability goals, promoting good health and well-being and highlight inequalities that exist in Australia. On the final theme, ethics, the conference dedicated an entire day to looking at ethics in university museum collections and considered draft guidelines on restitution and repatriation of pieces.

University museums are uniquely positioned, due to the diversity of their collections and resources they can draw on within their institutions. They play a vital role in the broader museum sector and conversations on repatriation.

Overall, the conference was able to equip participants with new ways of thinking, projects to consider, and a renewed sense of pride in university museums and museums in general. Being able to facilitate discussions and reach such a diversity of audiences with our collections that promote ideals of sustainability, accessibility, and ethics, adds so much value to the university of which we are a part. The University of Queensland is fortunate to have such a wide range of museums across the St Lucia, Herston, and Gatton campuses. If you have never visited one of UQ’s museums, then I hope you may feel inspired to after reading this post.

Thank you to the University Museums and Collections Committee and Universeum representatives for their work in running this conference.

Ms Rebecca Lush is the Museum Curator at the UQ School of Biomedical Sciences.