Teaching with Collections in Higher Education: Demonstrating Value – Philip Milnes-Smith

Philip reflects on his recent visit to a conference at the Museum of England Rural Life

An audience of academics, museum staff and archivists assembled last week for a one-day conference entitled ‘Teaching with Collections in Higher Education: Demonstrating Value’, hosted at the Museum of England Rural Life (MERL). MERL is part of the University of Reading’s unusually integrated University Museums and Special Collections Services (UMASCS), which is closely involved in undergraduate museum studies teaching. It also extends opportunities to engage with collections to students from an increasing variety of disciplines, not just English and History. 

Adam Lines from MERL reflected on the progress made with student engagement, including recent feedback showing that 86% of users had never used collections before. In addition to streamlining processes and, perhaps counter-intuitively, reducing the number of seats in the reading room, he mentioned using digital media to explain the catalogue, monitoring statistics, and building Arts Council generic learning outcomes into feedback surveys. Naomi Hetherington from the University of Sheffield discussed a joint project with Museums Sheffield for foundation students, connecting academic/museum practice and the lived and felt experience of the learners through the practice of object biography. Alex Nagel from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York stressed that his Art History and Museum Professions Program students are encouraged to develop a professional mindset and skillset, and, in particular, mentioned critiquing each other’s work to develop exhibition writing skills. Anna McNally from the University of Westminster discussed putting the focus on archival and archivist skills, as opposed to particular collections of material, and building relationships with staff over time to get archive use embedded as a coursework requirement. Ana Baesa Ruiz from the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture reflected on making the reading room a laboratory for students to co-create collaborative, creative and cross-disciplinary digital outputs that promote the collection online (https://moda.mdx.ac.uk/creativity-co-creation), and using digital tools to create themed entry points to the collection.

Heritage learning consultant, Jenny Pistella, led a workshop discussion of participants’ experiences and a practical group exercise in object-based learning, which caused me to reflect on the interplay between archival and museum practice.  Does an evidential perspective on archives lead us to treat them like windows, looking through them to see the past, at the expense of valuing their materiality as objects with complex biographies? I was put in mind of papers I once worked on where the catalogue focus was on the records typed (in a wartime paper shortage) on the blank reverse side of earlier architectural survey documents.

There was some interest both in making this an annual event and developing a new university-centred heritage network that matched the mix in the room. In this context, it was mentioned that archivists can feel under-prepared to mount exhibitions. What do you think? How could ARA support you? Does anyone have any tips?

ARA Learning would also be interested to hear from archivists who have completed the Museum Sector Alliance MOOC on Digital Skills for New Museum Professionals, which also came up in discussion.

Philip Milnes-SmithALES Events Officer



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