By Suzie Thomas
Last week, the University of Helsinki together with the University of Jyväskylä co-hosted the International Council of Museums (ICOM) University Museums and Collections (UMAC) annual conference, from 5th to 8th September 2017. The co-hosted conference began the week in Helsinki, transferring via a day of travel interspersed with opportunities to see more of Finland’s natural and intangible cultural heritage, to Jyväskylä for the closing days.
The conference welcomed delegates from universities, their museums and diverse collections from across the world, with a mixture of keynote lectures, regular sessions, panel discussions and a poster session. In this short review, I will not go through the papers and sessions exhaustively but rather hope to present an broader impression of the conference as a whole.
Rather than calling for themed sessions as many conferences do, potential contributors were asked to submit abstracts and ideas to a broader overarching theme of “Global Issues in University Museums and Collections: Objects, Ideas, Ideologies, People”. This produced a broad variety of contributions that nonetheless could be categorized into different themed sessions. One of the things I noticed within this categorization was that the session that focused particularly on ethics, in Helsinki on the 5th, discussed almost exclusively the issue of human remains – for example discussing how different cultures regard not only the display but also the donation of human remains for research. In Sri Lanka, for example, the influence of Bhuddist worldviews mean that it is considered a very positive thing to leave one’s body to medical research, and audiences seem less concerned about viewing human remains in museum exhibitions than may be the case in at least some other parts of the world.
There are of course many other ethical issues that museums have to consider on a daily basis, from provenance and provenience issues through to decisions over appropriate social media use. Perhaps the strong presence of human remains discussion in this conference also reflected the nature of many university collections as being connected to medical research.
Many more presentations further demonstrated the wide range and nature of collections belonging to university museums. As well as natural history collections, with their own particular conservation and interpretation needs, many collections are of fine and contemporary art. It was exciting to see innovative ways in which these collections and gallery spaces are finding new audiences, for example through hosting live performances or other happenings in and around the exhibitions.
The continued use of museum collections for research and teaching was a major theme of the conference as well. Although not a function unique only to university museums, it is nonetheless one of the central reasons that such collections exist in the first place. We learned of groundbreaking digital uses of university collections (as with the Cabinet Project), enabling more extensive opportunities for university students and their instructors to incorporate artefact studies and research into their learning.
Museum learning and outreach was also a key theme of the conference, with several papers looking at how university museums can engage not only with the university community itself, also reach audiences outside of their parent institutions, such as young people and families. Often, consultation with and inclusion of wider communities is key. The winner of the UMAC 2017 award, the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History exemplified this idea, gaining UMAC’s recognition for the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, in which community involvement and decision-making is central.
There were also tales of caution, with the threat of closure and disposal of collections coming to light with some sad examples from the United States. It is hoped that UMAC and other representative bodies of university museums can lobby effectively and gain public support to prevent more losses.
My own presentation, on 8th September in the beautiful Festival Hall of the University of Jyväskylä, was co-authored with my colleague Dr Anna Wessman, and reflected on our efforts to include consultation with the wider museum community in Finland and beyond, to inform the development of the new Museum Studies courses at the University of Helsinki. An interesting thing that struck me at the beginning of the presentation was when I asked people in the audience to put their hands up first if they worked with a university museum or collection (not surprisingly, most of them), then if their university taught a museum studies programme (surprisingly fewer), and finally if their museum or collection had involvement in the programme’s delivery (even fewer). So many universities have museums and collections available to them, it seems that there is an opportunity here to take advantage of these fantastic resources also for teaching the next generations of museum professionals, and I am hopeful that more research will develop soon to gain a clearer picture of the extent to which this happens.
My final thought about the UMAC 2017 conference is simply to say what a friendly and good natured event it was. To my slight embarrassment, it was my first time attending an ICOM conference, and what struck me was the existing sense of belonging that exists within the UMAC community. There are clearly old friends who reconnect annually at these conferences and pick up their conversations, while newcomers like me are also welcomed with open arms and made to feel a part of the group immediately. Next year’s UMAC conference takes place in Miami, Florida, and voi, is it tempting to go!
(If you wish to find out more about the discussions at UMAC 2017, it is worth seeking the hashtag #UMAC2017 on Twitter).