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How Collections End: Objects, Meaning and Loss in Laboratories and Museums

A collaborative project that explores not how collections begin, but how and why they end.

Collections are made and maintained for status, pleasure, nation or empire building, cultural development, a substrate for knowledge production and everything in between. In asking how collections end, this project shifts the focus from acquisition and growth to an alternative history: of accidental collections and collections that have been diminished, misplaced, dispersed, or destroyed. It draws together insights from the history of science and from science and technology studies to investigate the dispersal, destruction, absorption repurposing or repatriation of the diverse scientific collections. The lens of ending makes visible the perpetual care, assessment, de-accessioning and editing needed for collections to persist.

At a workshop in 2017 we brought together scholars of museums and laboratories to look at the threat and reality of ending in a range of different kinds of scientific collections. In laboratories, collections are in perpetual flux, and managed destruction is part of the job of the research scientist or lab technician. In museums endings can sometimes be intentional, but they can also be disastrous, or simply mundane, as the relevance of the collection dwindles or a museum closes its doors. Endings can be productive too: a matter of spring-cleaning, re-purposing, or the absorption of one collection into another.

In the forthcoming 2019 issue of BJHS Themes, we bring together stories of endings from Europe, the United States and the Asia-Pacific, dealing with seeds (Helen Curry, Cambridge), microscope slides (Nick Hopwood, Cambridge), blood (Ricardo Roque, Madrid), human remains (Ann Kakaliouras, Whittier), flies (Jenny Bangham, Cambridge), DNA samples (David Skinner, Anglia Ruskin), scientific instruments (Boris Jardine, Cambridge), and things that were never intended for collection, like museum props (Emma Kowal, Deakin), impromptu collages (Ana-Maria Gómez López, Amsterdam) and even museum catalogues themselves (Dahlia Porter, Glasgow). Together, we argue that when collections end, so do careers, communities, disciplines, and empires, and these broader stories have enduring consequences for social, political and intellectual groupings. To pay attention to ending is to pay attention to the shifting fortunes of things, to the labour of their maintenance, and to the reality of dispersal as both a negative and positive force.

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