2018 CAUMAC – ANU Symposium:
Reframing university collections – research infrastructure
- This one day event was held on the 6th April 2018, at the Australian National University in the McDonald Room: Menzies Library 2 McDonald Place, Acton, ACT 2602
- The Published Abstracts contains the program for the day and each presenter’s biography, as well as the abstracts of their presentations:
- CAUMAC_ANU Published Abstracts 6 April 2018
Palaeontology Collection, ANU (photo courtesy: Stuart Hay)
In 1755 Oxford University, on the order of university authorities, burnt the natural history collections of the Ashmolean Museum, including the stuffed extinct giant flightless pigeon of Mauritius known as the Dodo. This is one form of management response to the question of legacy collections in higher education. But at the time Oxford University’s leadership could not have possibly anticipated the Linnaean and Darwinian revolutions in understanding the natural world that would require large natural history collections to underpin research progress.
Many of the collections held by the Australian National University (ANU) are a legacy of the University’s past. ANU was initially research-focussed, with an emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, medical research, and both physical and social sciences. Hundreds of thousands of items were collected by researchers from across the region and brought to Canberra – these collections were essential to the research process. Studying Chinese history would have been impossible without a library of Chinese-language books. A xylarium (or wood library) was the only way of investigating the taxonomy of native trees. Rocks and fossils had to be brought back to the laboratories in Canberra for close analysis. But when these research projects ended, or the discipline of study shifted focus, many of the collections lay dormant for decades. While their significance and value may be acknowledged, how can universities that were not mandated by enabling legislation to be collecting institutions, justify the ongoing resources required to manage a legacy collection?
The ANU is moving to reframe collections as research infrastructure – to consider the maintenance of a collection in the same light as a telescope or a supercomputer. The upfront capital required to make these collections more visible and accessible would be seen as an investment that might encourage new research outcomes – particularly across disciplines. This is not a new idea: Mark Meadow noted in 2009 that University collections often move in and out of research value depending on changes in technology and disciplines (Relocation and Revaluation in university collections, or, Rubbish Theory revisited, UMAC Conference, Berkeley 2009).
But we’re curious, how has this worked in Australian universities? Future research potential and possibility has never been a focus of any studies on higher education in Australia.
This one-day symposium was organised as a collaboration between CAUMAC and ANU and asked the following questions:-
- How have Australian universities dealt with the issue of legacy collections?
- What are the advantages and pitfalls of valuing legacy collections based on their potential for new research?
- How do you manage a collection to be ready for research that might currently be unforeseeable
- What does this mean for collections whose research potential is unknown?
CAUMAC and ANU (2018) Reframing University Collections: Research Infrastructure. Proceedings of the joint 2018 Council of Australian University Museums and Collections, and the Australian National University Symposium; 2018 Apr 6; Acton, ACT.
CAUMAC_ANU Published Abstracts 6 April 2018
PNG facemask, Asia-pacific artefacts collection, ANU (Photo courtesy: Jack Dunstan)