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7AAIAM11 Collecting Cultures: Managing Collections in Museums and Collecting Organisations

Module convenor: Dr Anna Woodham
Credits: 20
Teaching pattern: 7 x 2 hour workshops and 3 x 3 hour workshops

Module description:

Collecting is at the centre of what organisations such as museums do, forming the inspiration for a range of public facing practices including temporary exhibitions, permanent galleries, publications, learning and outreach activities. This module critically considers what it means to collect for individuals, groups and organisations. Collecting is framed during the module as a powerful activity resulting in particular cultural and historical representations. Collecting is also a selective and historically contingent process, concerning what will be ‘taken forward’ into the future and therefore also what may not. This module asks key questions about what is collected and importantly who decides? Alongside these theoretical and philosophical debates, the module considers how collections are managed and cared for, introducing the duties and responsibilities of collections managers and their colleagues, and the professional frameworks that collections management takes places within.


This module will be of interest to students who would like to understand why collecting is of crucial importance to many cultural organisations and know more about what happens ‘behind the scenes’. The basic principles of collections management will be explored in visits to a museum store(s), giving students a window onto this complex and fascinating area of museum work.

Please note that this module cannot offer comprehensive training in collections care and management.


Draft teaching syllabus

Indicative teaching plan [NB: subject to change]

Week 1: Module introduction.  Does ‘stuff’ matter? Who collects and why?

Week 2: Collectors and connoisseurship

Week 3:Who do collections represent?

Week 4: Managing collections 1: law and ethics

Week 5: Managing collections 2: Sustainable collecting


Week 6: Uses and users of collections.

Week 7: Store visit 1:

Week 8: The limits of collecting, the intangible, the giant and the virtual.

Week 9: Store visit 2:

Week 10:  Collecting today, for the future

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Critique the concept of collecting as a social and cultural practice. Particularly as an activity that concerning individuals, groups and ‘collecting organizations’ (including, but not limited to, museums).
  • Contextualise collecting within a historical and contemporary context.
  • Integrate a theoretical and practical understanding of managing collections, introducing students to the basic principles of collections management encountered in the real world.
  • Offer insight to the day-to-day activities of collections managers and their colleagues via specific off-site sessions that explore the challenges and tensions faced by the collections manager.

Raise awareness of the diversity of museum collections and the challenges associated with managing specific types of collection. NB: students should be aware that although art collections will feature during the module, a key aim is to develop students’ understanding of the range of museum collections including ethnographic, science and technology, social history, natural history and industrial collections.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this unit, students will be able to display:

Knowledge and understanding of: 1) collections management practices and the critical literature and debates around collecting as a social and cultural practice. 2) The relationship between collecting and other museum activities 3) A range of specific ‘in practice’ opportunities and challenges faced by collections managers and how these are managed and overcome.

A range of subject specific intellectual skills: 1) critically apply the theories of collecting to individuals, groups, museums and other collecting organisations and critique these collecting practices; 2) the ability to explore case studies and apply theories covered by the module in a reflexive and critical way.

A range of transferable/general (key) skills: 1) Pursue knowledge in an in-depth, critical and engaged manner; 2) Propose ideas in a coherent and cogent fashion through written critique using appropriate evidence and via in-class (non-assessed) and assessed exercises; 3) Have the opportunity to develop their awareness of specific skills pertinent to working in the cultural sector and other transferable skills such as effective communication skills (e.g. asking relevant questions) and interacting with professionals in museum contexts.

Core reading

Belk, R. (2001) Collecting in a Consumer Society. Routledge.

Caple, C. (eds.) (2011) Preventative conservation in Museums. Routledge.

Davies, P. (2011) Museums and the Disposals Debate, Museumsetc.

Elsner, J. (1994) Cultures of Collecting. Reaktion Books.

Knell, S. (Ed.). (2004). Museums and the future of collecting (2nd ed.). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Marstine, J. (eds.) 2011. The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics. Routledge.

Pearce, S. (1997) Collecting in Contemporary Practice, Sage publications.

Pearce, S. (1995). On collecting: An investigation into collecting in the European tradition. London: Routledge.


1 x 4,000 word essay

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Additional costs

It is anticipated that all off-site sessions will be held in London. However, students may need to consider the cost of transport to the venues and the time needed to reach them.

Additional information

Students who find this module of interest may also wish to consider the complementary module 7AAIAM13 Exhibitions, Identities and Politics: in Museums, Galleries and other Cultural Spaces

 Images courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years. 

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