The University of Aberdeen is one of the oldest universities in the world, with museum collections that have been used in academic teaching since 1725. In fact, it is due to this that the university has over quarter of a million objects in its collections! Various disciplines built up teaching collections to help students learn about their subject.
The 1906 plans for the extended Marischal College building show that the University departments of geology, surgery, zoology, anatomy, and education each included a museum alongside their laboratories and lecture theatres. As part of this development, the Professor of Anatomy, Robert Reid, was responsible for opening a new ‘Anthropological Museum’ in what had been the old library at Marischal College. This museum drew together the collections of the Archaeological Museum in King’s College, ancient Greek pots and coins, the Wilson Museum of Classical and Near Eastern archaeology, ethnographic material previously displayed in a small museum in the Anatomy Department and other museum material from elsewhere in the university. The collections of the Anthropological Museum saw their most rapid growth in the early twentieth century as alumni who had served overseas as missionaries, soldiers and colonial administrators donated their collections to the museum. Prime among these donors was Sir William MacGregor, son of a farm labourer from Aberdeenshire who studied medicine in the university. He donated his collection to teach students that there was ‘more to the world than Aberdeen and twal mile roon’. Some of MacGregor’s collections are currently on display in an exhibition dedicated to his collecting, in King’s Museum until June 2016.
Some collections are still very much used for teaching and reside in stores in their original disciplines, such as the Herbarium and Zoology collections in the School of Biological Sciences, and the Anatomy collection in medical education, with academic staff closely involved in their curation. Now, however, all of the University collections are managed by the professional Museum staff and academic staff who use the collections in their teaching and research have been appointed as Honorary Curatorial Fellows and are able to use collections in ways unthought-of in the past. In addition other disciplines such as the history and philosophy of science, visual culture, museum studies and education draw on a range of material for inter-disciplinary studies.
Dr Jackson Armstrong, Lecturer in History & Honorary Curatorial Fellow to University Museums actively uses the collections and states:
“The rich array of University Museums holdings are an important part of my teaching in History. For example, one student is investigating the written records associated with Joseph Pollard, a collector of Egyptian objects in the nineteenth century. That exciting work illustrates well how Museums integrate with university teaching.”
Archaeology and anthropology actively use the museum collections as part of their teaching. Dr Alison Brown, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology has not only engaged aspects of the collection for her own academic study but integrates the use of museum objects into her taught courses. She says:
“For many students working with the museum collections is one of the first opportunities they get to develop research skills using primary resources. The collections-based research they do often generates new information, which subsequently gets recorded for the benefit of future museum users. In this way, the students are actively contributing to the activities of the museum, and the staff and I are always impressed by the perspectives they bring to their projects.”
Alison’s class will showcase their work on the collections in an exhibit in the University Office. Leonie Redgate a student on the course states:
“Being able to use the museum collections in our courses is incredible beneficial as it greatly enhances our understanding of the topics that we encounter. It allows us to put theory into practice and gain an insight into the past; grounding us in reality as we can often get carried away with fanciful notions about past lifeways.”
Students and staff of the university are carrying out research in a range of disciplines, while the collections are frequently studied by scholars from elsewhere in the world and feature in many monographs and academic papers. Our collections are also exhibited in museums all over the world further expanding the reach of these diverse collections.
The collections are therefore both the product of past academic research and a unique resource for current and future innovative research, teaching and enjoyment. The University can be justly proud of how it is using its heritage today.