Reflections on the Connecting Classical Collections conference (Great North Museum, 20th September 2019)

It was a pleasure to be able to attend the Connecting Classical Collections event, organised by the British Museum’s National Knowledge Share programme.

The event was inspired by an earlier conference held in Reading in 2018, where discussions took place exploring the potential for the creation of a Subject Specialist Network for classical collections across the UK. At this year’s event, the final decision for the name of the group was announced as ‘Classical Collections Network’ after a summary of the potential names compiled in 2018. This year’s event ‘Engaging with Histories, Networking for the Future’ was a combination of presentations relating to the creation of the subject-specialist network, showcases of relevant classics projects across the UK, and tours of the classical collections within the Great North Museum, as well as the opportunity to network with others in similar positions in museums, universities and other heritage organisations across the UK.

The event began with a brief presentation by Tamsin Russell of the Museums Association on Empowering Collections, a report based on the Collections 2030 research project carried out by the organisation in 2018-2019. This included an overview of the 11 recommendations from the report aimed at making the future of collections empowered, relevant, and dynamic.  From decolonisation to digitisation, the report (and the presentation by Tamsin) also considered the social role, impact, and potential of collections. This included a thought-provoking mention of how organisations need to consider how they implement and interpret new research conducted on their collections, and this in turn led to an interesting point about the nature of Universities and museums. Tamsin suggested that these relationships were potentially more important now than ever, and there was a need for stronger partnerships between these institutions. Existing platforms dedicated to such interests, such as the University Museums Group, were highlighted for those interested in further information and similar networking opportunities across the UK.

The first themed panel of the event, ‘Making connections with audiences through collection history’, included speakers from Great North Museum, Hull and East Riding Museum, and the British Museum. Each presentation focused on particular classical collections, all of which also involved collectors from the 19th and 20th century, and provided insightful details about the classical objects from what ancient and modern stories they hold, to the ways in which they have been utilised for teaching and research since becoming part of the museum collection. What also united each of these presentations was the discussion of the various methods in which museum professionals must piece together the story of the collectors, an often complex process with problems shared by many private and small museum collections.

The following presentation on ‘Communications and mapping of collections and specialists’ included consideration of how to define classical collections, and what both the objectives and associated data of such collections entailed. The initiative of collections mapping within the network (a system similar to Googlemaps providing information on museums with classical objects) aims to provide a clearer and more effective system of exchanging knowledge and information about both the collections and associated academics and museum professionals. The Collections Mapping section of the website is still in development but currently active, and may in future include further additional resources such as links to digital collections and 3D models.

The next session on ‘Matching Expertise and Need’ involved groups working together to share their knowledge and skills, while discussing needs and expertise represented by the attendees and more widely within the network. This was a great opportunity to discuss in more detail some of the themes which had arisen during the day, including ideas about other additions to the website. For instance, our group discussed the idea of having a ‘wanted’ or ‘offered’ page on the network site for people to advertise their specialisms or areas of interest, which others in the network could respond to and thus exchange knowledge and information that may have a wider benefit to the museum collections.

The final session of the event was a discussion of the future organisation of the network, including an overview of the main aims of the network in relation to museum professionals and academics working with classical objects, but also to support public engagement and provide opportunities for collaboration, exchanging of information and ultimately raising awareness of the importance of classical collections within the UK. The next steps for the network, including recruitment of particular roles such as coordinators for the collections mapping, web development and membership, also coincided with the agreed need to finalise a structure for the network and potential funding avenues.

The conclusion of the conference ended with questions and feedback from the attendees, which included consideration of the next event for the network in 2020, and how this could also be advertised to non-specialists as well as those already within the field. What was particularly encouraging about the event was the diverse range of attendees, from those established within the heritage sector to early-career researchers, PhD students and volunteers. The event was a great networking opportunity that both encouraged and facilitated the sharing of knowledge, interests, and expertise amongst the attendees. In addition the event promoted projects across the UK working with classical objects, such as the AHRC-funded Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections and the digitisation Through a Glass Darkly Project within the University of St Andrews.   

I’m very grateful to the British Museum for providing a travel bursary to allow me to attend the conference, and to the wonderful attendees who made the day such a valuable experience! It was also great to see the classical objects held by the Great North Museum, including their beautiful collection of ancient Egyptian objects…

Ancient Egypt Gallery, Great North Museum