This blog follows my placement with Research & Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham in January 2014, where I will undertake a range of collections management projects to further develop my skills in research, cataloguing, exhibition and preventive conservation.

Friday, 17 January 2014

First week: Balancing the use and care of collections

Time flies! I’m already one week into my placement at Birmingham. On Monday I met Clare Mullett (University Curator) and the rest of the Research and Cultural Collections team at ‘Red Marley’, a former residence at 32 Pritchatts Road now housing the offices of RCC and some of the University’s vast collections. Anna Young (Assistant Curator) provided me with an introduction to the collections at RCC with a tour of the building. Later in the day I was welcomed in the English tradition with an afternoon tea, where I had the opportunity to meet staff from some of the other institutions on campus I’ll be working with.
Research & Cultural Collections at 32 Pritchatts Rd

 My first few days have been a lot of fun and undoubtedly ‘hands-on’! From a ‘Working with Objects’ handling session with graduates from the Cultural Intern Scheme, to assisting the Learning and Access team with a clay-modelling workshop for local school children responding to sculptures displayed at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. I also had the privilege to spend two days with conservators Sarah Kilroy and Marie Sviergula at the Wilson Conservation Studio based at the Cadbury Research Library, assisting them with preparations for an upcoming exhibition, ‘The Art of Anatomy’.

On my first day, I attended the introductory lecture for the module, ‘Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things’, which seeks to explore material culture, how people engage with objects and the meanings, values and knowledge attached to them. These experiences and new skills have also encouraged me to reflect on the fundamental dilemma at the heart of all collections management activities – the use and access of collections balanced against their long-term care and preservation.

In addition to the use of collections in teaching or research programmes, at the University of Birmingham there is a strong program of exhibitions throughout the year, with collections displayed all over the campus (the majority in public or semi-public spaces). This frequent access to collections actually enhances their long term preservation. When we consider that objects become valued through regular contact and knowledge of them, ultimately collections will receive more care and attention. For example, cleaning objects so they are in a suitable condition for exhibition; or remounting a fragile work on paper so that it may be handled with less risk of physical damage.

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