Interview with Sally MacDonald

Director, UCL Museums and Collections

Interview conducted by Alison Weisskopf and Hilary Orange, Summer 2006


Sally was recently appointed Director of UCL Museums and Collections having formerly worked as the Manager of The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology as well as Acting Director and Deputy Director of UCL Museums and Collections. She is currently working on a project to bring the collections together in one building (provisionally called the Institute for Cultural Heritage). Sally began her academic career at Bristol University where she studied for a joint BA in Latin, Archaeology and Ancient History. She then moved to London and studied for a Diploma in History of Architecture, Fine and Decorative Arts and then gained a Diploma from the Museums Association. She worked as Acting Deputy Director at the Geffrye Museum, London before in 1989 becoming the Principal Museum Officer of Croydon Museums Service, where she stayed for nine years.

Would you tell us about your career to date and what your current research interests are?

I’ve worked in a whole variety of museums since I left university in 1980: Manchester Art Gallery, English Heritage, and lastly, before coming to UCL, I set up a new museum service in Croydon. I’ve been at the Petrie since 1998 so I feel like I’ve been at UCL for a long time. In a sense starting this job is quite hard because I haven’t even moved offices yet so to come in taking a different role is quite challenging, but on the other hand it’s meant that I’m very well aware of a lot of the things that need to be done. In many ways I can hit the ground running. So yes, it’s been a varied museum career, in that I decided that I wanted to work in museums from an early age and in terms of managing people I have quite a lot of experience now.

My research interests, that’s a really interesting question because in a non-academic environment nobody would ask that. Here in UCL it has always been recognised that you will be involved in teaching and research and it’s expected you will keep up to date with current issues. I like that pressure and I quite like that people push you to say: “Well where are your areas of interest? Where are your research areas?” In terms of research I’ve recently focused on public reception of ancient Egypt and a major interest now is looking at touch and what you learn from touch that you can’t learn from seeing. I’m interested in connoisseurship and the really specialist knowledge people develop through handling. It’s an area of interest that’s very encouraging. We held a conference here about a year and a half ago on that subject and a lot of people were interested, medics and anthropologists as well as museum people. Since then one of my colleagues has been successful in getting funding for a series of workshops to explore this area.

What is the attraction for you in the management of university museum collections?

I wouldn’t have known the answer when I first came to work in a university museum. I thought of the Petrie as a really interesting collection. Going to work there and the fact it is so hidden away and is so extraordinary, rich, specialist and well documented was an attraction.

What makes university museums so different to other museums is that they were put together to support academic research. They have a fundamentally educational purpose, so therefore that affects the type and depth of collection. The thing that really excites me about the potential of the university collections, and it isn’t often realised, is that they are drawn from different academic specialisations so a wealth of knowledge can then be pulled together for the benefit of the wider public. The collections at UCL are in different departments but they can help to bring people together to discuss all manner of things, such as some interesting discussions we’ve been having with people in computer science and geometric engineering about virtual handling of 3D objects and the potential for having them online and how useful 3D scans are for a whole range of things like monitoring decay and comparing one specimen to another. People here are at the cutting edge of their disciplines and have those kinds of conversations; you couldn’t do that in a local museum. There are people floating around who are quite keen to have those discussions. We perhaps haven’t got the mechanisms really set up, we need to generate forums for those discussions to take place, but it is perfectly possible to do that. At the moment the collections are far too hidden from other academics to start those conversations themselves; their physical location doesn’t facilitate those kinds of discussions usually so we’ve got to do quite a lot in terms of bringing them out and showing them. This is a tremendous challenge. Most recent surveys will tell you that universities museums are in crisis. They are not valued by their institutions because they haven’t aligned their objectives with those of their parent institutions. The contents of many collections are unseen and unused. As a result in a lot of cases the universities haven’t seen a long-term reason to keep them. A lot of collections have gone on the skip. UCL has these collections and there are ways in which we can use them.

How does your role as Director of Museums and Collections complement your role as a tutor?

Balancing general museum parts of the job with the teaching parts of the job is not always easy because the university operates to a different seasonal rhythm to the rest of the world. Teaching is concentrated at certain times. The outside world is less predictable. Balancing teaching and museum work can be difficult because the two timetables don’t always match so my vacation time is not necessarily University vacation time. Outside term time you’ll have fewer customers visiting who are academics. I think it’s quite important to keep a balance because certainly some of my colleagues have had pressure put on them to do a lot of teaching. That means, because of the imperatives of the teaching timetable, documentation, cataloguing, conservation and all the behind the scenes essential work that needs to go on, because it doesn’t have a timetable and doesn’t have a deadline, is what suffers. I think for me personally, but also as a manager of other people who are in this position, it is essential to set out some general guidelines about how many contact hours it is reasonable to do in a year and how many people it is reasonable to supervise. For example, one of my staff is supervising several PhD’s, which takes a lot of time. Quite often supervision or teaching will not be directly related to the collection, and I feel that in a broad strategic sense we should be researching and facilitating research with the collections as a primary role. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t do other things and it can’t be cross-disciplinary, both of these things are important. It’s important to set the collections in the context and to be open to new research agendas. You can’t be too fixated on the things in front of you but at the same time I don’t think that’s a bad general line to take. I don’t think we’ve always taken that in the past. It’s tended to be: “Well we’ve got this wonderful person who’s come in as a curator and how can we use his skills?” as opposed to: “Well actually he’s a curator this is what he should be doing and part of that is teaching and research.” I do think doing some teaching and research is healthy. We are in an academic environment, it is a university museum service and if you don’t get involved in that then you won’t understand your customers. You won’t understand how the collection needs to be developed. When I used to work in the local authority museum service I spent quite a lot of time on the desk because I think that’s the only way you really find out what’s wrong with the exhibitions. So you do have to do some of that and you will learn from it. It’s just important to keep it under control.

You have been quoted on the UCL website as saying that one of the highlights of your new role is the opportunity to get involved in debates on the disposal, repatriation and politics of curation. Would you like to expand on that, please?

I’m actually involved in several discussions at the moment. I’ve been involved in the whole human remains debate because I was on two DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) working groups on human remains. I was involved in drafting policies on human remains nationally and within UCL. The issue throws up a lot of other discussion for museums. It took five years to reach the point where you had the practice, which enables museums, typically some of the national museums, to consider disposal of human remains. Admittedly it wasn’t an issue for a lot of other museums but it was a hugely difficult area to debate within museums and that makes it more interesting for me. If something’s difficult to debate and people shy away from it that’s automatically more interesting.

I’m also involved within UCL in an inquiry that’s looking at some potentially illicitly-traded material that is on loan to UCL. That again brings up a lot of the ethical issues surrounding acquisition and disposal. The museum profession as a whole still finds it very difficult to discuss those kinds of things properly and healthily. Although we’ve now got what I think is a really good document from the Museums Association called Collecting for the Future and the debate is opening up a bit more, the whole area of disposal is still a no go area for a lot of collections. Frankly we’ve got to address this if the collections are to be living vibrant and relevant. Particularly in teaching in a university we’ve got to have a more flexible approach to ownership than we have at the moment. Too often we tend to define ourselves by what we have rather than what we do. Look at any museum leaflet and it will all be about what we own rather than what we do with it. There is so much lying around unused and to me that’s an ethical issue. If you’ve got tons of stuff in a cupboard that hasn’t been used for 10 years then that’s something that you as a director or curator need to be concerned about because what’s the justification for it being there? So I’m quite keen in my role as Director to do a fairly comprehensive audit of what there is at UCL, what’s being done with it, how it’s being used and whether UCL is the best home for it and it may not be. It may be that some of the collections we have here would be better off in another university where they would be more actively used, or in another country where they would have come from originally, or disposed of in some other way. I just don’t think we’ve really addressed the question and it would be good fun to address it with academics across disciplines. I think a lot of the reasons things aren’t used are because people don’t know about them. Involving academic teaching staff in those decisions would lead in some cases to their increased use rather than to a decision to dispose of them. Not facing the question is not an option really.

How do you see the role of university museum collections and how do the UCL collections compare to those of other universities?

I don’t know enough about other university collections. I know we’ve got fantastic collections here and they’re multidisciplinary. I could say something about the Petrie but that’s not a proper answer and I guess the fact I can’t answer it tells its own tale about what’s known about university collections. UCL has got a very long and distinguished history so obviously it’s had the opportunity to acquire collections in a way a more modern university wouldn’t have done. What’s interesting in the advocacy document that was done for museums a couple of years ago is that there are several hundred university museum collections. A high proportion, I think 45%, of collections like the Petrie that are designated by the government of being of national importance even thought they are not nationally funded, are university collections. So within universities, hidden away, are quite a high number of collections of national importance. Now UCL has only got one that’s designated but designation is about quantity as well as quality, and it has got real quality in a number of different areas. It’s not just about collections that show the history of the department, they’re about histories of disciplines as well. UCL’s got some amazing collections and I obviously don’t know the half of them.

Is there a tension between the needs of the ‘community’ and the needs of academia?

The way that you’ve asked the question suggests that you’re talking about needs within the Higher Education community and then everybody else. One of the really difficult things in any museum is to define your audience. It’s much easier if you’re working in a local authority museum. You have a local authority area with boundaries. In a university, a global university, the world, potentially, is your audience. Now actually that’s not realistic and within UCL Museums and Collections we did do quite a bit of work on defining our audiences. What we came up with was that there were certain audiences that were shared by all UCL Museums and Collections: internal staff and students and more broadly the Higher Education community within the UK. Then there are other audiences that are relevant for some collections but not others. Generally speaking, secondary schools are an audience for pretty much all of our collections. You have to define that more closely because realistically unless you’re producing online resources you’re talking about secondary schools where the pupils can get to you or you can get to them, so one looks for both primary and secondary schools. I think it’s sensible to look at UCL’s Widening Participation strategy and the fact that you focus on certain boroughs and particular Excellence in Cities, boroughs and schools because otherwise you’d just be dealing with far too much. They’re more of a target for certain areas than others. For instance, with The Petrie Museum because Ancient Egypt is on the National Curriculum Key Stage II the demand is very evident. It would be madness not to provide services for that group. With another type of collection there isn’t that obvious National Curriculum link up so therefore to make those connections is much more difficult given the pressures on teachers and you have to be much more creative. You also have to look at the kind of collection you have and what you can physically do with it. We’ve done a lot of loan boxes so there’s a certain amount of going out to schools that takes place but again it’s much easier with some collections than others. You’ve got specialist audiences for different collections. You’ve got people who are Friends of the Grant Museum of Zoology who’ve really got no real reason to be Friends of The Petrie Museum, natural specialist audiences for different areas. When I was at the Petrie we did quite a lot of thinking about potential audiences who were excluded. We identified Egyptian and Sudanese people and then, more broadly, people of African descent as being people with a strong interest in the collection but who felt excluded from it. We did a number of things, some of them well and some of them not so well, to try to bring those people and those collections closer together. One could approach other collections in that way also. It’s fairly obvious with things like the Palestinian archaeology collection; it’s less obvious with a zoology collection perhaps, or a geology collection. There are different communities out there though they might not define themselves in that way and it’s quite complex but essential for an organisation with very limited resources that we target quite carefully. It’s something we haven’t begun to do quite effectively. Something we have to do over the next few months is really work on whom we’re going to work with.

But your question was really about balancing different needs and there are ways in which you can do it to some extent. It’s about ways of allocating space, how you divide up your time, your opening hours, how you target your staff resources but I don’t think there’s naturally a dichotomy. If you’re trying to work in a more interdisciplinary way then you’ll be targeting your collections at people who aren’t specialists in Egyptology, for example, the knowledge of a professor of Egyptology about the Strang Print collection isn’t going to be that much different to your average punter off the street. If you’re trying to make your collections accessible to one they will probably also become more accessible to the other. It’s not an easy distinction to make.

We are intrigued by the history of the name ‘Panopticon’ - the original name for the Institute for Cultural Heritage. Where did it come from?

The name has a connection with Jeremy Bentham, one of the spiritual founders of UCL, and although it was first used in connection with prisons, mental institutions and in hospital buildings [UCL’s Cruciform building is a Panopticon]. The term came in the 19th century to be used for buildings that were educational and that had leisure use. That, and the idea of being all visible: UCL’s window on the world and the world’s window on UCL and so on, was the thinking behind it. There are lots of good things about that name but ‘tis no more.

The plans for the ‘Panopticon’ are of course an example of
community involvement. How do you see the project enhancing public participation?

It’s not called that anymore, it’s called the Institute for Cultural Heritage, and I can tell you about the name change. The building project has been in gestation for six years, that’s quite a long time, so fundraising has been a huge issue. Although we’ve got funding from certain outside resources it’s still quite an uphill struggle and we hit a financial crisis about a year ago. For a while it looked as though the project might be called off. We had to do some quite serious thinking about why it needed to happen and that led us to really start to articulate the academic reason for having this building. Previously we’d just said it’s going to be a lovely home for several of our most important collections so we can put them on display and make them available for the first time. That was all completely necessary and worthy but didn’t seem to really catch the imagination of the senior academics within UCL and that was a serious problem. Plus the Provost, Lord Young, who’s chairing the fundraising board, and senior members of the staff here had difficulties with the name. We’d done quite a bit of public consultation about the name and it was not all positive. Some people thought it sounded intriguing and some thought it sounded very confusing or they got muddled up with the pantechnicon [a name for a removal van], it was a hard name to say. The public response was mixed, some people loved it, but on balance we felt it was better to have a name we didn’t have to keep explaining to people. The Institute for Cultural Heritage will probably not be what it’s called when it opens to the public. It is a working name for the next four years while we build it and continue to fundraise. Therefore, it stands explicitly for what’s going to happen in there in terms of taking various areas forward. One of them is object-based learning and another is related to new technologies around cultural heritage. The whole ethics area is another one so there are certain strands of discussion that we’ve said will be fostered in this new environment. The whole idea is that it will be an interdisciplinary space for looking at heritage questions and where such things can be debated with the public and not just within the university. I think the change of name is quite significant. In one way it was window dressing, but in another it was about trying to say this isn’t just about housing our most important collections it’s about being able to have these kinds of discussions in a public forum and take forward some of this thinking that at the moment is scattered across different departments but doesn’t really have a home anywhere.

On the UCL website it states that groups from the community will be able to stage ‘high quality exhibitions.’ How will you make it accessible?

There are several ways. We’ll have a public exhibition gallery, which will be not just for collections but also the latest research so we’ll be looking at how we illustrate research in a dramatic and engaging way. It’ll have a lecture theatre. We’ll be able to have a public space there. The building will be designed so you’ll be able to see not just the collections, but also work going on. You’ll be able to see into conservation studios, research areas and teaching areas in a way you actually can at the moment, but only because it’s all happening on top of one another and in quite a dangerous way, whereas here there will be separate spaces but you will be seeing it as a working environment so it will illustrate some of the processes of the University as well as the objects that we happen to have.

How will the Institute for Cultural Heritage facilitate student research?

There will be a number of areas that are actually set aside for research. There will be spaces dedicated to research in heritage areas. The other collections that it will house will be art collections and the rare books and manuscripts. There will be conservation studios for those as well and a reading room for those collections, bringing the art and manuscript collections together and studying works on paper, and book production and so on. In a sense just bringing things together will enable new types of research to be done. So paper conservators can work with rare books, prints and with papyrus for instance. There will be new types of interaction going on that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. There’ll be physical spaces for student research. The whole way we design displays and exhibitions will be much more explicit about how we know things and what we don’t know. Hopefully it will encourage people to take things forward. We certainly planned in areas of the displays that we want to be more flexible where we could either have courses, groups of students on courses doing exhibitions or it could be individual students doing a display or choosing an object and saying why. There are all sorts of areas where we could set a framework for encouraging student research.

Do you see The Petrie Museum as reflecting a continuation of the legacy of Amelia Edwards?

Definitely there will be part of the new display that will be about the history of the
Museum and the people involved in its history and that includes Amelia Edwards and obviously [Flinders] Petrie but also all the excavators who were involved and the
labourers who were involved in it. So it’s not just a history of the great and the good. Until quite recently it was called The Edwards Collection: it’s only been called the Petrie Museum since the 1970s so that for a long long time the collection was associated with her by name. Certainly we need to do more research on which elements of the collection were hers but it’s very difficult to work that out from her will. I don’t think we’d have a specific area devoted to her per se, but certainly she is one of the important figures in that area of the museum that we want to talk about because if it weren’t for her that museum wouldn’t be there, Petrie wouldn’t be there.

Our understanding is that the Friends of the Petrie have a very active role within the museum and give it a considerable amount of support without which it would have considerable difficulty on a day-to-day management basis.  How do you view their role and what sort of value is an active support group like this to a museum of the Petrie’s size and scope?

It’s a hugely important role; I’ve encountered several Friends’ organisations in previous roles but never such a large and active Friends organisation. They’re fantastic in that they run themselves and the museum benefits hugely, financially in terms of them supporting conservation and a lot of the behind the scenes stuff that’s a lot more difficult to get funding for from outside. Much more so in terms of moral support and having a general group of people who just love the museum and have really stuck with it despite the fact that we’ve made quite a lot of changes to it. How many of them will stick with it when we move to new accommodation I don’t know but they’re still supporting all sorts of aspects of it even though they know that change is planned. I had thought that they would be resistant to change and they’re not at all. There are more Friends than ever before so they’re just a huge boon.