A Critical and Inspiring Workshop on Museological Collections at The University of Stirling

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With many of the other Collections Trainees off on their two week placements to different archives, I got to take a slightly different day trip on Friday May 16th to Stirling University for an AHRC workshop entitled: ‘(Mis-) Representing Cultures and Objects: Critical Approaches to Museological Collections.’

I thought it would be good to write a little post summarising my experiences at the workshop, touch upon on how my personal research and experiences at RCAHMS proved useful in workshop discussions, and how discussion outcomes were applicable to the concerns and processes of RCAHMS.

My previous academic interests prior to starting at RCAHMS had been focused on taking a critical approach to the mis-representation of Medieval collections, particularly ‘Islamic’ objects in the West, principally in terms of the loss in understanding of their dual-contextual histories through museum classification and display (or lack of). Since starting at RCAHMS I have truly come to appreciate how such a critical approach is also readily applicable to museums and archives, whose historic collections stem from a wide array of sources and contain a variety of materials, including many of the collections held at RCAHMS.

The workshop was centred around  the PhD topic of Inbal Livne, who undertook a Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) between the Department of Critical Religion at The University of Stirling and the National Museums of Scotland, entitled ‘Tibetan Collection in Scottish Museums 1890-1930: A Critical Historiography of Missionary and Military Intent.’ The speakers ranged from those working within Museums and Universities from Edinburgh, Dundee, Liverpool as well as Germany and America, all of whom who had either undertaken research on Tibetan material culture; or for whom the critical study of museum collections and processes is significant to their research; or even those who utilise alternative methods of collaboration to provide new approaches to material culture and language histories.

I thoroughly enjoyed every presentation and particularly those by Inbal Livne, Deborah Sutton and Diana Lange fuelled frantic note-taking on my part and many questions of my past and future research. There were also many inspiring discussions following the sessions which enabled all of the speakers and attendees to put forward their perspectives from each sector.  I was certainly encouraged to delve further into the later biographic history of the objects I am concerned with and feel more confident in my criticism of their display and approach in a museum context. Besides from also learning more about Tibetan Material culture and approaches to military and missionary colonial collections; issues such as digitisation, public access, material display, collection management and dispersal of written/object collections were raised consistently and such that I found able to respond to due to my work at RCAHMS.

Even though few of the collections at RCAHMS were acquired in a colonial context like many the workshop discussed, there are small collections that have come to us with little known provenance, collection history and many that are not entirely related to the role of RCAHMS. On a practical level it became increasingly apparent throughout the day how valid and insightful this form of critical approach to colonial Scottish collections is proving, but how much needed future research is being restricted by a lack of knowledge of and access to collections. Having worked for some time now with the collections at RCAHMS I can only appreciate from the other side quite how difficult and time consuming it is to provide access to even a small amount of material, and certainly how little of the collections held are accessible online due to time and monetary constraints. Nevertheless it was agreed all institutions on a national and local level would do well to work with researchers, on similar projects, as they can aid in filling that knowledge gap of a collection too often restricted by their own resources.

There was also some discussion concerning the benefits of CDA PhD’s and all three participants agreed it was a success in this case. Sadly the reality of a second collaboration occurring at the NMS appeared quite unlikely as it would ultimately depend upon the previous curatorial training of the candidate at the institution. Having undertaken a collaborative dissertation project for my MSc with the NMS last year I witnessed and completely understand the causes of such constraints at the NMS, but only hope these won’t completely prevent such a CDA there in the future. It is worth noting as well that RCAHMS does also have similar CDA opportunities with various universities so keep a look out.

Ultimately the day seemed successful for all and though I had to return to NMS Lates in the evening I am sure dinner proved fruitful for nurturing future collaborations. For me the workshop was certainly a welcome break from my current work, very beneficial to my personal research and shall aid in my future approach to collections as I venture to my placement next week at the National Galleries of Modern Art!

Many thanks must go to the organisers at the University of Stirling, Michael Martin and Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan, along with Inbal Livne and all the other speakers and participants for a brilliant day!

For a full break down of the speakers, their presentations, the CDA award and the Critical Religion department at The University of Stirling, do consult the workshops website, http://misrepresentingcultures.wordpress.com/images/.

There is also talk of a publication of presentations in the future and hopefully also Inbal Livne’s PhD, so keep an eye out if the work interests you.