In addition to the various national museums and museums of science, technology and history, there are also university museums and collections. The people responsible for these museums and collections came together at the Mendel Museum of Masaryk University in June to share their experiences of maintaining academic heritage.
Soubiran points out that from time to time, researchers rediscover the value of university collections, which is why it is so vital that they are preserved. With the current challenges of climate change and environmental protection, the collections that have developed over hundreds of years have gained importance in biodiversity research.
The event that brought them together was a meeting of Universeum, an association created in 2001 whose objective is to maintain, study, promote and provide access to university collections, archives, libraries, botanical gardens, observatories, and other academic heritage. Universeum is currently headed by Sébastien Soubiran from the University of Strasbourg in France.
“Various collections and museums are a natural part and heritage of universities. The artefacts they contain bear witness to the development of practices and knowledge during the university’s history. These are objects that were used – or are still used – in research and teaching. And the fact that they can still be used is what makes university collections so unique and important,” says Soubiran when talking about university museums.
He adds that while these collections are tightly interwoven with the history of each institution, the connection has become somewhat looser since the beginning of the last century: “It turned out that most fields were no longer dependent on historical equipment or resources and university collections have been gradually turning into artefacts documenting the history of their universities. This can be a double-edged sword since although universities like to boast about their history, they also have to be modern, current and innovative. When historical artefacts are seen as a burden from the past then it can sometimes create tension.”
It is important that university collections are not only maintained but also made accessible to researchers and the general public. “In France, we have a large number of university collections of natural history, whose total can rival the collections of the national museum of natural history. From time to time, researchers rediscover the value of university collections, which is why it is so vital to preserve them. With the current challenges of climate change and environmental protection, the collections that have developed over hundreds of years have gained importance in biodiversity research,” says Soubiran.
When it comes to maintaining this academic heritage, it is vital that it is cared for by professionals. “Universities often worry that maintaining various historical artefacts and data will require large spaces and special equipment, but that is almost never the case. Larger spaces are only required when the collection is made accessible to students, experts and everyone else. Museums and related activities can actually help universities become more open to the public.”
Universeum was created as a network of people responsible for the various collections and historical aspects of university heritage and to promote the need to maintain these artefacts in a professional manner. The goal is to make their work more visible to university leadership and demonstrate its importance and why it should be supported.
Ten years ago, the initial cooperation was extended into an association and the membership comprised of both institutions and individuals continues to grow. As Soubiran says, “We have succeeded in creating a community where we can meet, share our experiences, and resolve problems. Our next goal is to focus on marketing and start lobbying various university networks and the European Commission for support.”