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Issue 480, 22 April 2002

Bottles, butterflies and 150 years of history – new plans to open up the University's collections and archives

From musical to scientific instruments, art to archaeology, zoology to dentistry, the University's thirty special collections span all disciplines and document life inside and outside the University over the last hundred and fifty years. Some are displayed in departments, others still used as teaching aids, and all have enormous academic and historical importance. Threatened by changes in teaching needs and pressures on space and finances, but protected by dedicated - and in many cases unpaid - curators, these irreplaceable treasures are now promised a safe future, thanks to a new plan put together by the University.

Universities hold some of the most important, yet least known and least accessible, of the country's artistic and scientific artefacts. Many who retain collections are faced with the problems of inadequate storage facilities, limited display facilities and little staff time available for documentation and upkeep. As a result, the collections are underused for teaching and research, and little known outside their respective departments. Some institutions have taken radical steps to solve these difficulties, getting rid of their collections altogether.

Luckily that's not been the case at Leeds, as collections officer Deborah Snow explains: "Our collections have great academic and historical significance. Leeds is one of the few universities in the country to still have a chemistry teaching collection and a biological collection dating back to the late nineteenth century, both in their original cases. We are also one of the first universities to look at positive solutions for the difficulties and opportunities posed by these collections, and the plans we are putting together should be useful for the sector as a whole."

Some collections, such as the international textiles archive have secured individual funding to create their own 'museum' (see Reporter 465), or, like the art collections, are managed by the library, and exhibited in the University gallery. Others depend on their respective departments, where budgets are, as ever, continually under pressure. Where collections are used in teaching, there is usually some money to support them, but departments may deem historical collections to come low on the list of priorities.

Retired senior fellow in biology Sandy Baker (pictured below with co-curator of the biology collections, Dr Jenny Edmonds), who works on a voluntary basis as curator of the zoology collection, explains the dangers this can pose:

"Much biology teaching and research is now on a molecular level, so the collections aren't much used for these purposes. However, the discipline moves through swings and cycles, and we don't yet know our future needs. Leeds' biology collections exhibit a wonderful range of biodiversity in the plant and animal kingdoms. It's a heritage worth preserving."

Pathology curator Pat Harkin is also conscious that much of his collection is irreplaceable, yet vitally important for training future generations of doctors: "We have specimens which show diseases like cutaneous anthrax, once quite common in Leeds during the height of the city's tanning industry. The condition is now treatable with antibiotics, so a similar specimen wouldn't be available today. Photographs and written descriptions aren't as effective, yet it's vitally important that doctors learn to recognise such conditions."

As the University approaches its centenary, the collections also offer an insight into the work of past academics and their achievements. The physics collection includes X-ray material used by 1915 Nobel prize-winners William and Lawrence Bragg, and a prototype of the range finder invented by two Yorkshire College academics, Barr and Stroud, who later set up the well-known optical company in their names. Range finders were a crucial instrument used for naval sighting during the First World War.

Among the brightly coloured compounds and crystals held in meticulously sealed and labelled glass jars in the chemistry collection are nodules of manganese, trawled from the ocean floor during the Challenger expedition of 1876 and residue from an early experiment by Bunsen – of burner fame. To curator Mike Hoyland (pictured left), the collection is evidence of the preoccupations and interests of his predecessors:

"We are the only place outside the British Museum to hold manganese from Challenger's expedition – which shows how dedicated the early curators were to building up an important museum. We're still in the process of cataloguing the collection, and until that's done, we won't know what other stories these jars and bottles might tell."

Finding out exactly what the University holds and where it is was Deborah Snow's first job. She unearthed far more items than anyone knew existed, and thinks there may still be important artefacts lost in forgotten drawers or cupboards.

The strategy she is putting together has to take into account not only the diverse content of the collections, but also their differing use: "It's preferable that collections can remain in departments, especially in cases like anatomy, pathology and earth sciences, where they are intensively used as a teaching resource.

"However, we hope that some of the onus will be taken from departments, with proper support provided to curators. Simple things like purchasing a single software system for cataloguing is an example of how a centralised approach can really help. We also want to create some exhibition space, where certain parts of the collection can be put on display for the wider public."

Central to this long-term strategy, the University has also applied for a grant from the heritage lottery fund to widen access to the collections. If successful, items of particular interest will be taken out in a series of workshops for community groups, schools and special interest groups in the city and wider region.

Deborah Snow (pictured right) said: "Using the collections in this way makes the University itself less intimidating, as academic study is shown as something concrete, that people can see, touch, and relate to. We hope the project will encourage wider access, taking the University out to new and non-traditional audiences."

The final strand of the new plan is the creation of a centre for heritage research, with University academics joining forces with local museum curators to encourage research. Collaboration between universities and museums is fairly unique, and centre director Dr Graeme Gooday hopes it will see the start of a wider use, both within and without the University, of the underused resource that the collections currently represent.

The centre's inaugural seminar takes place at 4.30pm on April 30 in the University Gallery. Speakers include head of collections for Leeds museums and galleries, Tim Corum, and director of education and learning at the Yorkshire Museums Council, Jane Walton.

For more details, see

A full list of the collections can be seen on the collections website at

Academic ancestors – former chair of geology Professor P F Kendall, on Fylingdale Moor in 1912, one of 10,000 mainly local photographs in the Godfrey Bingley collection taken between 1884-1912 and held in media services





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