A seminar aimed at spotlighting the material and intangible heritage of universities, and creating supportive alliances, took place at the University of Havana, Cuba, March 18-20. The seminar, organised by the venerable university’s Department of Cultural Heritage (Patrimonio Cultural), headed by Claudia Felipe, drew together participants from three continents.
The seminar included presentations on museum collections and other aspects of university heritage across Cuba and in other countries of Latin America, including Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador; with two presentations from the University of the West Indies – one by UWI Museum Curator Suzanne Francis-Brown, and the other by Cave Hill campus historian Tara Inniss. Several presentations from Europe included inputs from the University Museums & Academic Collections (UMAC) of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the European Academic Heritage Network (UNIVERSEUM).
Felix Julio Alfonso of Havana’s Colegio San Geronimo noted that the idea was to understand university heritage, tangible and intangible, and to manage it so that it contributes beyond the academic world. He underscored that this heritage included the collections within university archives.
In his presentation, Hugues Dreysse, head of UMAC, noted both positives and negatives of university museums – the positives including the generally less bureaucratic approaches, greater opportunity for long term research as part of the university culture, openness to innovation, funding opportunities, opportunities for inter-disciplinary approaches and for greater connection to a teaching mission. However he noted, on the flip side, that university museums often had low budgets, few staffers, and that they often consisted of scattered units.
UNIVERSEUM Chair, Sofia Talas of the University of Padova, likewise noted that university museums were “often precious sources of primary information re cutting-edge research” on numerous topics, but there were several challenges. She noted that many universities were not sure how to deal with heritage and even saw it as a burden; that the university heritage community was often fragmented; as well as issues of accessibility, lack of funds and lack of staff. She highlighted the need to reach both internal and external audiences, and to innovate in terms of exhibitions offered.
The issue of innovative approaches was taken up by Maria Laang of the Technical University of Denmark, who discussed a programme to take non-specialist visitors through their museum’s storage area, among some 6000-10,000 objects and documents stored behind glass in a series of rooms. “The absence of a constructed narrative in storage creates an engaged visitor” she suggested. “The things are right there to look at. In museums, objects often become secondary to the narrative; objects in storage allow visitors to focus on their physicality…like the old cabinets of curiosity.”
UWI Museum’s Curator discussed the history of the English-speaking Caribbean’s longest-standing university; the newest tenant on the historic Mona site in Jamaica, where the university was founded. Mona was the only campus until the early 1960s when the St Augustine came on stream in Trinidad & Tobago, followed by Cave Hill in Barbados. The presentation cited instances where the university has recognised and begun to focus on its heritage and that of the sites on which it is located; as well as areas requiring greater attention to the conservation of representative elements of the historic fabric and the identification, interpretation and communication of other aspects of the heritage to internal and external audiences.