14 Mar 2016 - 15 Mar 2016 All day CRASSH (SG1&2), Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, CB3 9DT


Registration has now closed.



Nicholas Thomas (University of Cambridge)



If for many years collections seemed peripheral to innovative work in the arts and social sciences, there is a new sense that university museums can be research bases of a powerful and distinctive kind.

New approaches to material and visual culture, artefact studies and the intertwined histories of collections, exploration and the histories of science and the humanities promise to reconstitute the museum as a laboratory and the collection as a research technology. Increasingly, major cross-disciplinary projects have used collections as lenses upon larger issues ranging over art, culture, history and environment. Yet collections and the issues of method and analysis that they raise remain relatively under-theorised.

Over the same period, changing funding environments and new perceptions among policymakers of the importance of research, innovation, and the cultural sector raise the issues of what university museums contribute to higher education, and of the place and value of research in public and national museums.

This conference, formally supported by the University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden (UCM) brings together scholars from disciplines interested in material culture and curators from across the arts and sciences, to reflect on both questions of methodology and public policy.




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), the University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden (UCM). 


Accommodation for speakers selected through the call for papers and non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange or book accommodation; however, the following websites may be of help:

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage


Administrative assistance: events@crassh.cam.ac.uk


Day 1 - Monday 14th March
10.00 - 10.30

Registration and coffee

10.30 - 11.00

Welcome and Introduction:

  • Nicholas Thomas (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)
11.00 - 12.30


  • Viola König (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin): Time matters



  • Hedley Swain (Arts Council of England)
12.30 - 13.30


13.30 - 15.00

Chair: Kate Arnold-Foster (University of Reading)

  • Kenneth McNamara (Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge): Collections and Research in the Age of Enlightenment:  John Woodward's (1667-1728) Cabinet of Geological Possibilities
  • Sophie Rowe (Polar Museum, Cambridge): Breaking down the silos: Conservation research and collaboration at the University of Cambridge Museums
15.00 - 15.30

Tea and Coffee

15.30 - 17.00

Chair: Tim Knox (Fitzwilliam Museum)

  • Mungo Campbell (Hunterian Museum, Glasgow): Objects of Enquiry; patterns of intention in William Hunter's museum
  • Mark Elliott (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge): Another India: explorations and expressions of indigenous South Asia
  • Film screening: Knowing, Alana Jelinek


17.30 - 20.00

Buffet: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Downing Street, Cambridge

Day 2 - Tuesday 15th March
9.30 - 11.00

Chair: Anita Herle (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)

  • Tim Boon (Science Museum): Reflections on creating a research culture
  • Julien Clement (Musée du Quai Branly, Paris): Research in question at the musée du Quai Branly
11.00 - 11.30

Tea and Coffee

11.30 - 13.00

Panel 1: Bridging a divide? Curators as/and academics

Chair: Tonya Nelson (University College London)

  • Marika Hedin (Gustavianum, University of Uppsala)
  • Wayne Modest (National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands)
  • Michael Krauss (Zentral Kustodie, University of Göttingen)
13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.30

Panel 2: The museum as object lab: as metaphor and/or facility

Chair: Ton Otto (Aarhus University)

  • Sam Brockington (Cambridge University Botanic Gardens)
  • Josh Nall (Whipple Museum for the History of Science, Cambridge)
  • Paul Smith (Oxford Museum of Natural History)
15.30 - 16.00

Tea and Coffee

16.00 - 17.00

Chair: David Gaimster (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow)

  • Ivan Gaskell (Bard Graduate Center, New York): Everything or nothing? What do university museums know?


Discussion and close


  • Mungo Campbell (Hunterian Museum, Glasgow)

Objects of Enquiry; patterns of intention in William Hunter's museum

As the Hunterian, at The University of Glasgow, approaches the tercentenary of the birth if its founder, William Hunter, new research shows clearly that the objects which he collected were intended to offer rich and multi-layered approaches to the generation and communication of knowledge. Any twenty-first century approach to an object-focussed pedagogy may do well to reflect how Hunter considered his collections and the practical purposes to which they could be put in teaching andresearch. The purpose of my paper is to discuss the dialog fostered by the collections at the musée du quai Branly in Paris. I will specifically address the French context of this discussion, and the way it plays out particularly at the muse du quai Branly. This space is quite unique in the way it engages research academics and curators in a common discussion about the objects. This discussion generates specific questions which put the research in question at the musée du quai Branly.


  • Ivan Gaskell (Bard Graduate Center, New York)

What University Museums Are For: Reflections on North America and Europe

This paper elaborates eight claims about university museums.

  1. Museums are communities of scholars before they are agglomerations of things—collections.
  2. Insofar as they are collections, museums should prompt scholarship on relations among people and things rather than on things alone.
  3. Universities should foster risk-taking scholarship in their museums.
  4. Universities should ensure equity of standing and treatment among museum scholars and faculty, expecting museum scholars to meet requisite standards.
  5.  Museum scholars within a university should engage in far greater exchange and collaboration among themselves and with faculty colleagues than current institutional and disciplinary categorization encourages.
  6. Museum scholars and faculty should reconceive the relationship between collection items—prototypes—and their representations, both analogue and digital.
  7.  Museums are first and foremost research institutions to which public access may be desirable but that is not invariably necessary.
  8. Universities that invest resources in enhancing the scholarly capacity of their museums will gain an advantage in the international competition among them.


  • Viola König (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)

Time matters

Collection-based research is time consuming. Identification of proveniences and the digitalization process, exploration of potential exhibition themes and finding of appropriate objects, publication of the results e.g. in museums catalogues, all these steps take years.

But themes and new trends nowadays change quickly.

In my talk I will discuss how the long process of planning and building Humboldt Forum is conflicting with the varying expectations of an ever more critical public.  Among others will refer to the experiences with some projects of Humboldt Lab Dahlem.


  • Kenneth McNamara (Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge)

Collections and Research in the Age of Enlightenment: John Woodward's (1667-1728) Cabinet of Geological Possibilities

In an age when virtually all natural history collections were just parts of 'Cabinets of Curiosity', John Woodward's geological collection shines like a beacon as the foremost natural collection of its time, gathered for the sole purpose of scientific enquiry. Comprising more than 9,000 specimens, the collection still exists in the Sedgwick Museum. Woodward amassed specimens from around the world over a 25 year period. He was adamant that collections like his should be used for “…the Benefit and Advantage of the World.” Moreover, in an intellectual climate where natural observation was increasingly becoming systematized, Woodward held that “…Censure would be his Due who should be perpetually heaping up of Natural Collections, without Design of Building a Structure of Philosophy out of them.” Woodward used his collection extensively to support his 1696 An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth… as well as to make pioneering palaeoecological and geological observations. Most significantly, he used it to devise the first coherent classification of rocks, minerals and fossils. By examining the way Woodward used his collection, we see that he emerges as a man of vision whose systematic organization of specimens dragged geology out of the dark ages into enlightenment.


  • Sophie Rowe (Polar Museum, Cambridge):

Breaking down the silos: Conservation research and collaboration at the University of Cambridge Museums

Museum artefacts contain a wealth of information which can be uncovered by modern analytical techniques used in conservation research and technical art history.  However this research potential often remains untapped.  Practical examples from the University of Cambridge Museums show how individual collections can be greatly enriched by technical investigations, to the benefit of both academic research and public programming.  When technical data is shared between institutions new types of research become possible.  This paper will present case studies showing how such collaborations can work both locally and internationally.

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