AMST1510: Museum Collecting and Collections by Sarah Dylla and Steven Lubar
Over the years, the Public Humanities Center has offered a variety of courses on collections. Students have explored collections across the university in an exhibit “From A.A. to Zouave.” They’ve considered collections at the RISD Museum and at the Johnson and Wales Culinary Museum. Students have written papers on the history of collections. What a museum or university, community or country, thinks is worth saving turns out to be a good way to understand history and culture.
Students have also considered collections from a more practical point of view. “Museum Collecting and Collections,” taught this fall, covered topics like conservation and cataloging. It also focused on three collections at Brown in hands-on detail. We explored the art and memorabilia collections of the Annmary Brown Memorial, vintage scientific instruments scattered across the university, and the Brown University Library’s stamp collections. For each of these collections, students wrote a Collections Development Plan, outlining its history, analyzing strengths and weaknesses, and offering suggestions for future use and development. All of these collections offer challenges and opportunities. (More on the course, with pictures, here; the syllabus is here.)
The Annmary Brown Memorial offers many challenges. The Memorial was built by Rush Hawkins, a Civil War hero and New York collector of incunabula and art in 1907 to “share a space of beauty with the public for reflection and edification.” The library and art gallery became part of Brown in 1948. Hawkins underfunded and over-restricted his Memorial, severely limiting its ability to remain useful.
The class proposed an ambitious plan of rebranding, renovation and reuse for the building. They suggested turning the AMBM into an educational center focused on art, art history, and material culture by:
- Moving the Bell Gallery’s collections of works of art on paper, the AMBM collection of paintings, and other university art and artifacts (including the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collections, other Library-held realia collections, and historic scientific instruments), into a new storage area in the basement of the building
- Building a study center for prints and works of art and material culture, in the attic
- Rearranging the displays so that the back room, near the crypt, presents material relating to Gen. Hawkins, and the front and center rooms offer space for the display and study of art and artifacts from across Brown, designed for teaching from collections
- Renaming the building as the Annmary Brown Memorial and Center for the Study of Art and Material Culture.
Vintage scientific Instruments are scattered in many departments at Brown. Students found treasures in the the chemistry, physics, biology, and computer science departments. Some were well cataloged and well cared for, others less so. They cataloged a few dozen of these, and wrote a memorandum arguing for the value of these historic scientific collections and proposing future directions to increase intellectual and physical control.
Unknown to most students and members of the university community, Brown University Library holds the largest postage stamp collection of any university in the U.S. The collection or collections, rather, have been donated by philanthropic hobbyists over the years and range from comprehensive international albums to accumulations of stamps or postal material around a specialized topic.
Brown alum Webster Knight (class of 1876) bequeathed the initial gift of postage stamps to the Library after his death in 1933. The terms of his will established a collections management partnership between the Library and the Rhode Island Philatelic Society that continues to this day. Since then, the Library has continued to acquire significant collections. Purchases have kept the collection up to date. However, interest in and use of the collections from the university community has greatly dwindled since those early years. The students in Museum Collecting and Collections delved into the postage trove, somewhat skeptically at first, to investigate the value of stamps in an academic context. The assignment: make the case for the stamp collection as a tool for university teaching and learning.
The class pored over the albums to get a grasp on the vast and diverse contents, researched the history of the collections, drafted a strategic plan for future management and growth, experimented with platforms for presenting digitized stamps, and developed an exhibit and supporting programming ideas to help increase visibility and intrigue use. Finds from the collections that inspired class research include the unconventional postage stamps of Bhutan, such as the “Talking Stamps” from 1972, and the international World Refugee Year issues of 1959-1960.
The students came to appreciate the value of Brown’s postage stamps. The stamps located on the second and third floors of the John Hay Library are an uncommon resource for the university community and hold great potential for teaching and learning experiences. The class’s work with the stamp collections resulted in the exhibit: Thousands of Little Colored Windows: Brown University’s Stamp Collections, on view in the main gallery of the John Hay Library until May 13, 2016.