London Museum Asks Public What to Pitch

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If you're the type of person who has trouble throwing anything out, then the job of collections reviewer at the University College London's museums might not be for you. The college is embarking upon a purge of its assorted collections, some 250,000 items in total, only 2% of which are currently on display. A gargantuan task, surely, but the college is not doing it on its own — officials have taken the unusual step of opening the process up to the public. They're asking visitors what they should keep, what they should give away to other museums — one institution's trash is another's treasure — or, as a last resort, what they should just throw away.

"Disposal is still a dirty word. Most museum people are too scared to use it," says Jayne Dunn, UCL's collections manager. "We work for the public, but no one's ever thought of asking them what they want."

Many of the items in the university's collections, which range from ancient archeological artifacts to outdated scientific instruments to radioactive geological samples, were acquired over the years by professors who used them in their research. Other items were donated by other museums or private individuals. Now, the university's museums, like many institutions today, are looking to clear some space so they can continue collecting. And not everything in its collections are treasures — hence, the artifact cull.

Consider the boring old picnic basket known as the "Agatha Christie basket," which contains fragments of pottery of unknown origins. If it had belonged to the author, as its nickname would suggest, it would undoubtedly be a keeper; however, it turns out it belonged to her second husband's second wife, and the university has no idea under what circumstances it was donated. Or what about a giant rhinoceros skull? Is that worth keeping? How about the samples of earth dug up from the English Channel, pre-Chunnel? Hundreds of beautiful hand-drawn lecture slides made by the scientist Sir Ambrose Fleming, inventor of the diode? Or the slides of microscopic fossils, which don't seem to take up much space until you consider there's a quarter million of them in storage?

Last month, the university put these items and many more together as part of an exhibition called Disposal? Visitors were asked which artifacts they'd pitch, and, more vitally, for what reasons. The collections reviewers are now poring through hundreds of visitor feedback forms to learn how the public would go about thinning the university's collections. Armed with that information, they'll soon start the lengthy process of deciding what will stay or go. (The Agatha Christie basket should get a reprieve — officials admit they've grown quite fond of it.)...

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