Reinventing the academic museum: Studying the digital transformations at Glasgow’s university museums

Maria Economou, UK

The Hunterian is Scotland’s oldest public museum and holds large and diverse collections which have been recognized as being of National Significance. They were built on the founding bequest of Dr William Hunter’s  (1718 – 1783), a pioneering obstetrician and teacher with a passion for collecting, and reflect his Enlightenment interests.

The Hunterian is currently undergoing an interesting period of change which is affecting not only the University but also the whole cultural sector in Scotland and beyond. It has just embarked on an ambitious project that will allow it to reunite the collections, employ new technologies to increase access to them and re-create the contemporary equivalent of the Museum of the Enlightenment.

In partnership with Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Life and the National Library of Scotland, the Hunterian will collocate its collections, currently dispersed in various locations in the main campus and beyond, at the Kelvin Hall, one of Glasgow’s historic buildings. Funding for the Kelvin Hall project has been secured for Phase 1. As part of this, a new Hunterian Collections Study and Research Centre will be built which will offer new opportunities for object-based teaching, research and engagement with diverse communities. A new portal will also be created bringing the collections of the three partners together (The Hunterian, Glasgow Life Social History collections, and Scottish Screen Archive holdings) and is currently being designed. Furthermore, the Hunterian has just transferred its collections’ data from the old in-house system to the new KE-Emu one, which allows, among others, more sophisticated recording of collections information, grouping and linking of objects, recording multimedia and other interpretative information and creating digital narratives.

The paper will focus on a project which will study the use of the online collections of the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery for teaching, research and public engagement. The project will investigate how all these developments affect the way different user groups (students, researchers, wider educational audiences and diverse communities) engage with the online collections and the potential for new types of interactions. The project will combine both quantitative and qualitative evaluation methods and will explore

It will examine the different user requirements of each group and how they currently interact with the collections both online and onsite. It will also study the effect of particular design and interface choices in the portal and how these affect access to the information and ways of exploring the objects. It will investigate the information pathways different groups take through the collections data and what they make of the information they encounter. Finally, the paper will draw guidelines and discuss the wider issues arising from this case study about how online access and digital technologies are reshaping out understanding of rich and diverse cultural material.

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