Social Capital of a Teaching Collection By Michelle Hamilton

Social Capital of a Teaching Collection
Michelle A. Hamilton

Michelle A. Hamilton is the Director of the MA Public History Program at Western University

After four years of planning, the Medical Artifact Collection at Western University has finally moved to its new home. For almost 20 years, the Collection, a fraction of a hastily discarded hospital museum and archives, had been housed in the administrative space of the History of Medicine department, protected all this time by Paul Potter, the Jason A. Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine. In 2004, Prof. Shelley McKellar and I began to catalogue and document the approximately 1000 objects stored in this space. Our research showed that the collection had begun as early as the turn of the nineteenth century as part of Western’s medical school, but an official museum and archives was not organized until the 1970s when University Hospital was built. Unfortunately, the hospital decided to close the museum and archives in the 1990s, a decade which saw many Ontario hospital museums close due to government cuts to health-care.

In 2004 we knew the collection could never revert back to a true museum for financial and space reasons. Our situation was not unique as other university collections, such as the CAV Barker Museum of Canadian Veterinary History at the University of Guelph or the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, have experienced similar problems once their original faculty champions had retired.

Nevertheless, we believed that this collection held great potential for teaching purposes. Shelley McKellar began to incorporate these artifacts in her History of Medicine classes, and in 2008, I, as the new Director of the Public History program, began to use these objects to teach my Master’s students about material culture and collections management. We also began to create material culture teaching modules for university instructors at other institutions without an artifact collection.

In 2008, we began to plan our move to a new building and a new museum-quality space. As part of this process, I took a Storage Planning for Cultural Facilities workshop from the Canadian Conservation Institute. The CCI recommends that before any move, institutions should thoughtfully reconsider their mission statement and collecting mandate. At this time, we wondered whether this was an opportunity to recreate a museum, rather than a teaching collection.

What is the difference between a museum and a teaching collection? While much of a museum’s purpose is dedicated to public exhibitions and programming, a teaching collection prefaces the hands-on use of artifacts, and other methods of learning for students. Despite our new space which will have museum-quality cabinets and a controlled environment, we have a relatively small public display space, limited space for growth, no long term funding or staff, and any visitors will need to make an appointment. A teaching collection also has different collections management priorities. It may keep an object that is broken or degrading – something a museum would deaccession – so that students may learn about proper handling techniques or the consequences of an unstable collections environment. It may deaccession an object that has true exhibit, but little teaching, value. For example, in 2010, we permanently gifted a beaker used by Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin, while he was an instructor at Western to the Banting House National Historic Site. This object’s significance is derived purely by its association with Banting, which made it an obvious choice for permanent display by Banting House – which possesses only 10 other Banting-provenanced items –  and thus much more valuable to its visitors than our students. While museums aim to be comprehensive in their collections, teaching collections often have a very restricted accessions mandate, partly because of space constraints, but also because each new object must be able to relate to our curriculum.

But both museums and teaching collections aim to educate its users. In doing so, both can create ‘social capital,’ a concept I borrow from Bob Janes and Gerry Conaty’s thoughtful introductory article to their 2005 book Looking Reality in the Eye:  Museums and Social Responsibility. Social capital, they explain, is partly the creation of truly meaningful experiences for the public within museums or through the use of artifact collections in non-traditional places.

Our new space incorporates visible artifact storage with space for student workshops on material culture and collections management. We have a small, but centrally located, display space which students will use to learn the curation and mounting of exhibits. In the upcoming fall semester, we look forward to creating truly meaningful learning experiences in our new home.