University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Treasured Possessions in Different Contexts

A Cambridge Museums Summer School

Pair-of-shoes,-English,-cThe Treasured Possessions exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum (on until 6 September) makes you wonder about your own special objects.  It also provided the theme for our July/August Summer School for adults across five Cambridge City museums:  are treasured possessions always about personal taste and aspirations, or can they be about memories, identity or even survival?

“Using the Treasured Possessions title was inspired.  It allowed for both flexibility and focus.” Julia Wilson, course participant

Our enthusiastic summer schoolers began at the Fitzwilliam’s exhibition, which looks at material culture from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.  Treasured Possessions has been co-curated by our own Keeper of Applied Arts, working with three academics from Cambridge University’s Faculty of History.  Our course members quickly began to contribute their own insights and knowledge which helped to illuminate the vast array of objects in that exhibition.  The second week brought a visit to The Polar Museum.  Rosie Amos began with a tour of the Museum stopping at 8 key points, followed by object handling in the lecture theatre

“At the beginning I had laid out about 20 handling objects … I handed out the objects to pass around and chat over, but I said I wanted them to look at them from a fresh perspective so I wasn’t going to tell them about the objects until after they had handled them first. They really enjoyed the object handling, especially exploring them and guessing what they were and why they were important to someone. The objects ranged from a meteorite, to a pair of sami shoes and a laser thermometer.”  Rosie Amos, (Education and Outreach at The Polar Museum)

The next week was at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology:

“At MAA we looked at a snapshot of humanity, thinking about the different way in which objects can be ‘treasured’ – by people across time and across the world.   We started in the Cambridge gallery, looking at a wide selection of objects which were excavated from the local area, thinking about how the status of these objects can change by them becoming part of the Museum’s collection.

After a whistle-stop tour of other highlights from the archaeological collections, we switched our thinking to look at how MAA now ‘treasures’ objects by the way we and others use them. We looked at the photographs from Inner Mongolia in the River Star Reindeer temporary display and thought about how this collection of 18000 photos can connect people directly with their past through digital sharing.”  Sarah-Jane Harknett, (Outreach Organiser)

Weeks four and five were spent at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and the Museum of Cambridge. One course participant, Jane Woods, kindly wrote this summary of her experience of the course:

“Cambridge has a greater number and range of museums than any city in the country, other than London, and as a regular visitor I thought I was reasonably familiar with their collections.  But follow a Fitzwilliam Summer School, and you quickly realise how little you know.  A flint axe, but look closely, and see the small fossilised shell that the knapper has taken great care to keep centred on the blade; this was not a tool for use.  An unassuming piece of driftwood, but to the Inuit who carved it, a map showing all the indentations of his coastline.  A chunk of rock – no bigger than a die – but it was chipped off the face of Everest, only 40 feet from the summit, by Sir Edmund Hillary. Two tiny shrunken mole paws, believed by the Fen dwellers who carried them to cure the rheumatism so prevalent in the bleak and boggy Fens.  The curators set each of their chosen objects in context: their history, their significance to their makers or owners, and what they can tell us about the values of the society in which they were created, until they have become treasured possessions in today’s museum collections, taking their place amongst the costly and the opulent.”

Another course member Julia Wilson, sent us this message – which is making me plan next year’s Summer School already:

“I didn’t want this week to pass without telling you what a treat the Cambridge Museums Summer School was this year. Each meeting was a delightful — and insightful — “way in” to people, period, and place.  Our guides/mentors at each venue were first-rate, full of infectious enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge, enabling us to “not just look but see” objects in the respective collections.

We had a short discussion over tea at the Museum of Cambridge (our last stop), and it was obvious the class unanimously believed the course a huge success. Everyone I spoke to intends to return to each museum for a lengthier visit. Thanks and kudos to all!”

Rachel Sinfield, Head of Communications and Engagement, The Fitzwilliam Museum

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