This year’s UMAC (University Museums and Collections) conference was held in Helsinki, Finland from 4-8 September. Alison Hadfield presented a paper on behalf of our team and reports back on some of the highlights from her trip.


The 2017 UMAC conference was attended by around 100 delegates from 26 countries, representing most regions of the world and a variety of University museums. It was brilliantly organised, with a packed programme of papers, workshops and museum visits, hosted jointly by the University of Helsinki and University of Jyväskylä (pronounced something like ‘Yoo-va-skoo-la’ though it defeated most of us!).

The main theme of the conference was ‘global issues in university museums and collections’ covering topics as diverse as community engagement, sustainable heritage management and the ethics of displaying human remains. My paper addressed the issue ‘how can we engage faculty and students with our collections when the educational system has been transformed by technology?’

This was an ideal context in which to present the results of our research from Through A Glass Darkly – Art of Artefact. During our experiments with focus groups last year, we observed some broad generational differences in visitors’ responses to digital material. As might be expected, it excited children far more than adults and sparked interaction within the group. By contrast, browsing was a solitary experience for adults, many of whom felt “distanced” from the images. Despite the visual appeal and research potential of the 3D digitisations, the project found unanimously that participants preferred to interact with real objects. Furthermore, as they explored each object using more of their senses they gained a fuller understanding of its original purpose and archaeological context.


I was really interested to hear what Lyndel King and Graciela Weisinger had to say on this subject in their presentation, ‘Neuroscience + technology = the challenge of redesigning the way of learning at university museums’. At the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) Massachusetts, USA, they have taken the unusual step of hiring neuroscientists to help curators understand how the human brain is wired to appreciate art. For example, they conducted an eye-tracking study to find out what people looked at most in paintings and discovered that the focal points were invariably human figures, animals and areas of high contrast, such as trees in a forest (good news for Finland!). Lyndel also discussed the role of the senses and emotions in learning, noting that smell is strongly tied to memory and can directly trigger an emotional response. Stories are also easily remembered because they appeal to our emotions and give meaning to things.


In many ways, this paper provided a scientific explanation for what we saw in our own study, and supports the argument that exhibitions should be multi-sensory and ‘tell a good story’. It would be fascinating to run an eye-tracking study with some of the objects from the Bridges Collection or to re-create the smell from our Iron Age aryballos (perfume bottle)! The final cautionary word from Lyndel’s team is that we need to think very carefully when and how to use new technology in museums. Social media and surfing the net may stop us getting bored, but some research suggests that boredom stimulates creativity and that multitasking actually impairs our ability to focus. Coincidentally, I found an article on the same subject by former Prime Minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb in Finnair’s in-flight magazine! He observes; “modern communication channels are training my brain to read a paragraph or two, then move on to the next thing…Neuroscientists have explained this phenomenon. We learn something new quickly and get a dopamine rush from it” but “studies show that surfing the web makes you more tired than intensive deep reading”. Perhaps in our super-connected, hectic modern world we will see a return to the idea of museums as places of contemplation!

On the subject of museum spaces, Kali Tzortzi, Assistant Professor of Museology at the University of Patras, Greece, gave a thought-provoking presentation on ‘Human Remains, Museum Space and the ‘Poetics of Exhibiting’. She has studied the way museum architecture and exhibition layout influence visitors’ reactions to exhibits, especially bodies. At the British Museum, for example, Egyptian mummies are displayed in glass cases along a main thoroughfare, whereas the Lindow Man is located in a more secluded corner of the newer Iron Age gallery, in a dimly lit, corner case. This somehow affords it a little more privacy and recognition that it was once a living being. This is taken even further at the Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark, which houses the famous bog body of the ‘Grauballe Man’.  He is set low in the ground, surrounded by offerings, and visitors approach quietly to view his remains. The effect is more like a memorial than a museum:

On a lighter note, I really enjoyed listening to Yves Winkins’ reflections on working with contemporary artists at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. A museum of industrial design, its founding purpose was to collect the latest technological inventions and assist with the training of tradespeople. In order to reinvigorate the displays, the museum has recently collaborated with 3 contemporary artists, Oscar Lloveras, Claude Lévêque and Cécile Raynal. Their work invariably disrupted the status quo of the museum and Yves Winkins shared the reactions of staff and visitors:

In addition to all the presentations there were lots of informal opportunities to share experiences with other delegates and I enjoyed learning a little about Finnish culture and history from our hosts. We were treated to some amazing Finnish hospitality, including what can only be described as a ‘feast’ on our last night at Jyväskylä.

For more photos and discussion from the conference, see UMAC’s Facebook and Twitter pages:

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