Active Collections, Active Learning

Students and other visitors come to use the collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture by appointment.  We frequently lend items to other venues, and we make our collections available online, but we don’t have exhibition galleries where people to pop in and look around.  So how does this influence how we think about our collections, both in terms of looking after them (conservation) and student learning?

Items in the store

Traditionally museums have only a small proportion of their collections on show at any one time.  Museum stores are sometimes thought of as places where the museum’s other objects go to die (or at least to sleep) until the rare occasion when someone wants to see them.  In contrast,  a large number and a wide variety of objects in MoDA’s collections are used by students and researchers. All of these users have a tailored learning experience with things that interest them.  So for us, the museum store is a really active place, with objects coming out to be used – and being replaced after use – all the time.  Our user-data shows that a greater number and a wider range of objects are used by students and others than ever before.*

We are of course putting a great deal of effort into improving this website, including developing some online resources aimed at students.  But we are expressly not a ‘virtual museum’, and it is important not to overlook the significance of students’ encounters with real objects, in real life, in real time.  The opportunity to handle things, look at things, and to think with and through ‘real’ museum stuff is a vital part of the learning experience for many Middlesex University students and others.

What does this mean for our approach to conservation?

In some museums conservation means making one or two objects look perfect and ready to be put on display.  Our approach is rather different.

we want to make it possible for as many objects as possible to be handled by users
We want to make it possible for as many objects as possible to be handled by users while minimising the risk of damage.  As with any museum, we have to find a balance between the need for people to look at and use things today, with our responsibility to look after things for the people of tomorrow.

So our Conservation Officer Emma Shaw devises projects aimed at making a specific part of the collection available to users.  We’ve recently looked back at past conservation projects and it is clear that even small projects that took place several years ago are having an ongoing impact today.  Past conservation projects (such as work on items by Silver Studio designer Winifred Mold in 2008) paved the way for later teaching and research projects involving Middlesex students such as Sara Kadrnka and others.  Conservation work on our magazine collections in 2014 laid the ground work for the subsequent “I Am A Magazine” student project in 2017.

Current Museum-Sector Thinking

All of this is very much in line with current museum-sector thinking.  The Museum’s Association‘s recent Empowering Collections 2030 report emphasises the idea that collections should be actively used. A new book called Active Collections urges museum professionals to radically rethink their approach to managing the objects in their care. 

museum objects need to work hard to ‘earn their keep’, in the present as well as for an uncertain future
The current consensus is museum objects need to work hard to ‘earn their keep’, in the present as well as for an uncertain future, and that’s exactly what we are doing with MoDA’s collections.

MoDA staff work with academic colleagues to ensure that the students’ encounters with the museum’s collections support learning outcomes. Students’ encounters with objects are always purposeful, always informed by their wider learning objectives, and always part of an active learning process.  We see students, tutors, museum staff and museum objects as participants in a dialogue that results in the Co-creation of knowledge.  If we think of it this way, the museum can be understood not as a repository for sleeping objects but as an engine-room of active learning.

*OK, data-nerds: we are working on some pretty graphs that will demonstrate this.  Please check back later.

[Image Credit: Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash]

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