Chap 11: ‘The future of collecting in disciplinary museums: Interpretive, thematic, relational,’ by Nick Merriman

In my new book Museum Practice, Section two: Resources deals with collections.  In chap 11, another contributor turns to the problem of active collecting itself, which he points out has almost disappeared in many ‘disciplinary’ museums in the UK except the very large national institutions. Nick Merriman, archaeologist, scholar and director of the Manchester Museum, considers the future of collecting in regional museums like his own, which have traditional discipline-based collections from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Bioblitz Whitworth Park (2)

Figure: A bio-blitz at Whitworth park in Manchester collecting material for the interdisciplinary theme on trees.

Reasoning that museums should still collect but do it better, he presents new paradigms and approaches which his staff have been experimenting with at Manchester as a way of refreshing and revising the objectives and frameworks for institutional collecting. These ideas—collecting scientifically rather than comprehensively, qualitative rather than quantitative, collecting in a manner that is interpretive, thematic and relational—are then applied in a case study of a current pilot project at the museum which shows how collecting can be repositioned at the heart of the museum again but made sustainable and relevant by being linked closely to its audience and mission. Although this new collecting “could be seen as a low priority at a time of severe constraints in terms of funding and personnel,” Merriman asserts that “in hard times one has to return to fundamental values.” He concludes: “There is no better time to re-assert the vital importance of collecting.”

Nick Merriman has been Director of the Manchester Museum since 2006. Prior to that he was Director of Museums and Collections, and Reader in Museum Studies, at University College London. He began his career at the Museum of London in 1986, as Curator of Prehistory and subsequently Head of the Department of Early London History and Collections. From 2004-6 he was a part-time Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme, and was also Chair of the International Council of Museums (UK) from 2001-2004 and has been President of the Council for British Archaeology since 2005. Nick studied archaeology at Cambridge University, and his PhD, on widening participation in museums, was published as Beyond The Glass Case (1991). He has published widely on visitor studies, heritage management and archaeology in museums, including the edited collection Public Archaeology (2004).


About mccartco

Conal McCarthy is a former museum professional and academic who has published widely on museum history, theory and practice. He is the Director of the Museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
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