The Documentation of University Collections in Germany
Postdoctoral Researcher, Columbia University, New York, NY
Helmholtz Center, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin
Historical research on instruments and other scientific objects requires adequate documentation and preservation of scientific collections. Unfortunately, many university collections remain insufficiently documented and struggle to preserve their holdings. This article presents recent efforts in Germany to increase the visibility and accessibility of university collections. Projects such as the creation of an online database of university collections provide the basis for collection-based research and can be seen as a model for similar efforts on an international level.
The fragile position of university collections
University collections are archives of scientific practice that preserve diverse scientific objects such as anatomical models, astronomical instruments, DNA samples, historical maps, prototypes of machines, or specimens (ref. 1). The diversity of university collections makes them relevant in almost all scientific disciplines and in a large variety of academic contexts such as research, teaching, and public outreach. Furthermore, university collections have become of increasing interest in the history of science and technology as they provide unique primary sources in historical research.
University collections differ from large science museums and science centers in a variety of ways. Most importantly, university collections are directly related to research and teaching in a specific department and usually remain in their original institutional context. Museums differ from university collections in assembling presentable objects and therefore neglect many objects of scientific or historic value. As a consequence, university collections hold many instruments and other objects the are fairly rare in museums.
Despite their importance, university collections are in fragile institutional positions and often even threatened in their existence. Contrary to large museums, most university collections do not have strong institutional backing and only very limited resources. Although universities may pay attention to their most prominent and spectacular collections, many less eye-catching collections cannot count on external support. Furthermore, departments often do not know how to use or preserve collections that have lost their original function in research or teaching. For example, a collection of research instruments or teaching models will eventually become outdated and raise questions about their future.
From a historian’s point of view, the fragile position of university collections has the alarming consequence of a steady loss of unique historical sources as the fates of countless instruments and other scientific objects illustrate. Furthermore, even collections that are preserved are often not appropriately cared for due to their limited accessibility and visibility. As a consequence, historians do not even know about their existence and many collections remain ignored in research circles. This situation often creates a vicious circle in which an improvement of the visibility of a collection would require resources which are not available due to a lack of visibility.
Documenting University Collections in Germany
In 2004, the German Research Foundation (DFG) decided to fund the collaborative research project “University collections in Germany” at the Helmholtz Center of Humboldt University Berlin. The aim of the project was to survey the history and current situation of university collections in Germany by developing a comprehensive documentation of both currently existing and historical collections at German universities (ref. 2). During the early stages of the project, questionnaires were sent to universities to determine the number and state of collections in Germany. Unfortunately, many universities were not even able to provide a list of their collections and the identification of collections became a multi-year detective work that has (so far) led to the documentation of 819 currently existing collections and 300 collections that have been dissolved, destroyed, or are of unknown fate.
The results of the documentation project illustrate the diversity of functions of university collections in scientific practice. For example, the data gives insight in the use of collections in different disciplines. Of the 1119 currently documented collections, 60 have a focus on anatomy, 34 on astronomy, 146 on botany, 66 on mineralogy, 61 on paleontology, 142 on engineering, and so on. The combination of this information with further data such as the founding dates of collections leads to a complex picture which allows to reconstruct the history of scientific collections in the context of factors such as the emergence of new disciplines, research interests, or institutional factors such as the development of “mass universities” (ref. 3). The documentation therefore does not only allow researchers to find specific collections but also provides a unique macro-perspective on the historical development and current state of university collections.
The goal of the documentation is not only to provide the basis for further research but also to facilitate access to collections and to increase their visibility and usability. Researchers from various disciplines are able to use the documentation in research and teaching. To achieve these goals, the database is accessible through an easily searchable online information portal. The portal provides detailed information on the history and current state of each collection. Information such as contact details, opening hours, accessibility, state of inventory, and publications are updated on a continuous basis and provide a comprehensive resource of university collections in Germany. In order to organize the information, the database uses a system of indexes such as “location”, “object groups”, “type of collection”, “subject”, and “events”. The combination of different indexes allows users to filter collections along specific search criteria such as collections that were founded in the first half of the 18th century, astronomical collections in Berlin, or collections that hold meteorites.
The availability of an easily searchable online database has proven to be highly effective in increasing the visibility and accessibility of university collections. Without the database, interested researchers and curators would often not be able to locate scientific objects while the search criteria make it easy to find potential locations of specific instruments and other scientific objects.
From Documentation to Preservation
In the past few years, attempts to increase the visibility and accessibility of university collections in Germany have led to a remarkable improvement of their institutional position. In 2010, the Helmholtz Center at Humboldt University Berlin organized a conference with the title “University Museums and Collections in Academic Practice” that attracted 150 academic participants (ref. 4). Since the initial conference, there have been regular “Sammlungstagungen” (collection symposia) that allow curators and researchers to coordinate plans.
In 2011, the “Wissenschaftsrat” (German Council of Science and Humanities) published a document entitled “Recommendations on Scientific Collections as Research Infrastructures”. According to the council, “collections play an important role as infrastructure for research and teaching. Yet especially here, due to a shortage of resources and allocation decisions that are often guided by other interests, their scientific potential is not always exploited to the full” (ref. 5). The council recommends the creation of a coordination center that (a) sets up a platform for communication between people who are responsible for collections, (b) creates as meta-database portal that facilitates access to holdings of scientific collections, (c) supports the development of criteria for their assessment, (d) develops guidelines and standards for their use, (e) offers advisory service to collections and universities, and (f) coordinates and organizes activities of collections on a federal level. Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the coordination center started its work in April 2012.
Internationalizing Documentation Efforts
The institutional position of university collections in Germany has greatly improved over the past 10 years and the developments can provide a model for similar efforts on an international level. The documentation and online presentation of scientific collections has proven to be a crucial aspect of the improvement of their institutional position. Developments such as regular collection symposia and a federal coordination center for scientific collections would not have been possible without prior documentation efforts.
Of course, the situations vary between countries and approaches that have proven effective in Germany may not work everywhere. However, challenges of insufficient funding and limited visibility of scientific collections are common in most countries and make similar documentation efforts necessary on an international level. A first step in this direction is the database of the International Committee for University Museums and Collections (UMAC) (ref. 6). However, the UMAC-database also shows that there is still a long way to go. For example, it includes 154 collections in Brazil compared to 17 in Argentina, 854 collections in Germany compared to 62 collections in Spain, and 96 collections in South Korea compared to 1 in India. The database therefore illustrates the current patchwork of documentation efforts that often still inhibits research on collections, instruments, and other scientific objects.
Current efforts in Germany focus on the long-term preservation of scientific collections and on the documentation of individual objects. The coordination center for university collections in Germany was set up in 2012 with two-year funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and with the option of three additional years of funding. The goal is to turn this center into a permanent institution that stabilizes and expands the currently existing network on a national and international level. Furthermore, current documentation efforts in Germany reach beyond institutions and increasingly focus on the documentation of individual objects. The long-term goal is to offer not only comprehensive information on collections but also on scientific objects in collections. From 2010 to 2012, a pilot project started with the documentation of scientific models in German university collections which led to a database with more than 2500 different models and to historical research on their roles in scientific practice (ref. 7). Currently, a similar project is developed with respect to scientific wall charts in university collections. Finally, the coordination center is developing a general platform for the documentation of scientific objects. The goal is to provide collections with an online platform for the documentation of their holdings that is easy to use, does not create extra costs, and does not require technical knowledge regarding the setup of websites or databases.
- For an overview, see: C. Weber, “University Collections”, European History Online, 2012.
- Available at: www.ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/crossroads/knowledge-spaces/cornelia-weber-university-collections
- See http://universitaetssammlungen.de and the documentation for the project: http://universitaetssammlungen.de/download/Projektdokumentation.pdf
- cf. D. Ludwig and C. Weber: “A Rediscovery of Scientific Collections as Material Heritage?”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part A, (2013).
- C. Weber and K. Mauersberger: Universitätsmuseen und -sammlungen im Hochschulalltag. Aufgaben – Konzepte – Perspektiven. Beiträge zum Symposium vom 18.–20. Februar 2010 an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2010. http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/conferences/ums201
- Wissenschaftsrat “Recommendations on Scientific Collections as Research Infrastructures”, 2012, page 6 http://www.wissenschaftsrat.de/download/archiv/10464-11-11_engl.pdfFrom: http://publicus.culture.hu-berlin.de/collections/
- cf. C. Weber “Material models as recorders of academic communities” University Museums and Collections Journal, 4, 2011, 65-72 and D. Ludwig “Mediating Objects. Scientific and Public Functions of Models in Nineteenth-Century Biology” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 35 (2), 2013, 139-166.