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Natural science collections in Welsh museums – a Distributed National Collection

There are number of reasons why we would want to undertake a national review of museum collections. One of them is to aid the development of a Distributed National Collection (DNC), one of the most exciting collections management concepts in recent years.

DNC - What is it?

Beetles from the AC-NMW BioSyB collection.

The idea of the DNC implies a shared responsibility for our heritage. The Museum Strategy for Wales recognises that collections telling the story of Wales are kept across the nation by a diverse range of museum institutions. Collections – and the knowledge that goes with them – remain at the heart of museums; they are the reason museums exist and what makes them unique.

Many museums collect to reflect the culture and natural history of the geographic area they cover. Other museums collect material related to a specific site, activity, community or object specialism. A museum’s collecting remit is usually defined in its acquisition policy. When accepting objects into their collections museums consider not only to their own acquisition policies, but also those of other museums – this coordinated approach to collecting is one benefit of the shared knowledge that comes with a DNC.

There are a number of reasons that may reduce a museum’s capacity to collect as comprehensively as it had previously done. An agreement with other museums could facilitate the development of specialized subject-based collections, and arrangements to facilitate management of and access to objects and specimens. Institutions across Wales would co-ordinate the collection, display, research, storage and disposal of collections to ensure the greatest access to collections with efficient targeting of resources. This strategy represents a move away from the location of collections to a focus on how they are used and cared for.

Why do we need one?

The concept of the DNC was adopted by CyMAL for the Welsh Assembly Government within the 2010 Museum Strategy for Wales, and endorsed by museums across Wales. Collections and the stories they tell are the most fundamental of museum assets. In recent years there have been a number of important initiatives to better document, understand and care for museum collections. Whilst this remains by no means a comprehensive achievement with much still to be done, we now have an opportunity to take stock and develop new concepts and initiatives.

Driving factors for the development of a DNC may be funding constraints, or loss of specialist expertise. However, the DNC is about more than simply pooling resources. The concept enables the museum sector to, among other things:

Nantgarw collections-68

-          promote our collections,

-          work collaboratively across the sector,

-          collect comprehensively, and

-          improve access both within the collecting community and for the public.

How will it help the public?

The public benefit lies in a better understanding and appreciation of our collections, which opens up ways and means to improve our enjoyment of and access to them. Knowing where the most historically significant and intrinsically important items and records are kept, and how they can be accessed, can only be of benefit to those who wish to see them as well as to those charged with their long term care and interpretation.

What’s in it for museums?

The DNC enables information to be discovered and shared, omissions within collections identified and areas of overlap addressed with informed collecting. This makes museum collections more robust and relevant. Scientists, such as biologists and geologists, in particular, have long known that museum collections globally are one single resource. Specimens held in museum collections form a physical inventory of the history of life on Earth. Specimens are kept, in preference to data and images alone, for the physical information they contain.

Ammonites from the AC-NMW Geology collection.

Museums are seen by the public as unbiased guardians of factual information and therefore have the potential, if they are not reduced to simply recycling nostalgia, for influencing public opinion in an authoritative way. The concept of the DNC formalises the relationship between museums and supports easier sharing of specimens and information. It forms a coordinated strategy to ensure the preservation of a nation’s cultural material, and to facilitate broader physical and intellectual access to it. Museum collections will add up to much more than the sum of their parts.  This partnership approach is important in any subject discipline, not only in natural history, for museums to retain their status as keepers of knowledge.

Natural history museums are in the midst of an unprecedented opportunity for linking collections-based research with the experiences they offer to the millions of people they serve each year. If they are successful in fully integrating these two historically separate realities, they have enormous potential to elevate the public understanding of, engagement with, and participation in urgent and compelling scientific challenges now and in the future.

 

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