Transdisciplinary research on university collections is most rewarding. Such studies give insights into the history and the origin(s) of collections and knowledge as well as the material culture of universities. From this perspective, material models in university collections are excellent objects for study. In their dual role as both products and sources of scientific knowledge, models are key instruments of science. Until today, however, a full historical overview of the three-dimensional models employed across the different scientific branches has not been compiled. Against this background, the recently launched project “Material models in teaching and research: Indexing, documentation and analysis of models in university collections” can be considered a seminal research contribution to scientific material culture. It systematically records and documents three-dimensional models in German academic collections, and presents them via a globally accessible multimedia online-database. This article will provide a brief overview of the initial steps and results of this project and recommend transdisciplinary research as a possibility of promoting academic interest in university museums and collections.
Contact to the author:
Dr Cornelia Weber
Helmholtz Center for the Kulturtechniken
Humboldt University of Berlin
Address: Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany
In 2004, a small team of researchers at Helmholtz Center for the Kulturtechniken, an interdisciplinary center of the Humboldt University of Berlin, started a project headed by the author on University museums and collections in Germany to enable transdisciplinary studies which open up a rewarding view on university collections. The aim was to catalogue German university collections and to compile extensive data on the holdings and history of these collections, in order to form a basis for specific research on the history and the origin(s) of collections and knowledge as well as the material culture of universities. The project was officially completed in 2009.1
Today, the Helmholtz Center provides not only an online survey on the national university holdings with more than 1,000 collections, it also gives information on the different object groups present in the collections: chemical material, geological material, animals, plants, human remains, artifacts etc. Historically, the priorities of university collections have been research and university teaching. Therefore, they retain complete categories and groups of material unavailable elsewhere in the public sector which means that these holdings are unique and of great importance, in particular, for research. One of these object groups is three-dimensional models.
The new project Material models in teaching and research: indexing, documentation and analysis of models in university collections started in summer 2010.2 It aims at the development and maintenance of an online information system which presents material models from different universities and disciplines. In their double role as both products and sources of scientific knowledge, models are key instruments of science (Reichle, Siegel & Spelten 2008; Dirks & Knobloch 2008). Until now, however, a comprehensive historical overview of the material models employed across the different scientific branches has not been compiled. The systematic recording and documentation of these models in academic collections, which includes their presentation via a globally accessible multimedia online-database can therefore be considered a seminal research contribution to scientific material culture.
Academic collections are particularly suited for such a project since the material sources used in and produced by teaching and research have largely been preserved. Consequently, they provide researchers with a representative range of models covering disciplines, types and times (De Chadarevian & Hopwood 2004). The documentation and analysis of model collections which have up to date remained invisible to the public will not only make available new important resources for research on scientific and cultural history, but also underline the importance of such objects as cultural goods worth preserving.
The model database is integrated in the already established information system on university museums and collections in Germany that serves as a starting point for further research. Later, we want to add additional object groups if funding is obtained.
The idea of this project is based on the following considerations:
Material models serve highly diverse functions in research and education. On the one hand, they represent theories as well as aesthetic and educational standards. On the other hand, they are important tools of scientific research practice as experimental models. Furthermore, they belong to a broad spectrum of disciplines and represent very different object types. For example, the database documents models of theatre stages, planets, ships, brains, and so on. This diversity requires a classification that acknowledges the differences between object types. The database defines eight thematic groups which are associated with different information structures and make it possible to take this diversity into account:
The database provides information profiles based on the association of models with specific thematic groups. If a model is linked to the thematic group ‘organisms and biological systems’, its database entry provides topic-specific options. For example, the user can associate a biological or medical model with a taxon, a specific organ, a type of disease, and so on. If a model is linked to the thematic group ‘buildings and civil engineering structures’, other options such as the type or the location of the building will become available.
The database is still under construction but already open for the public. The structure we have implemented is as follows:
A. General information
Fig. 1: - General Information: Ship Model "Royal George" from 1715
B. Formal description
Fig. 2: - Formal Description
C. Description of contents
Fig. 3: - Description of contents (top part)
D. Reference object (dependent on the model type)
Example: Models of machines, vehicles, apparatus and instruments
Fig. 4: - Reference object
E. Inventory evidence
Fig. 5: - Inventory evidence
F. Internal (for various information concerning the workflow)
The main page offers several data-recall facility tools: a full-text search and different indices as well as a combination of various model characteristics:
Additional details are available via separate databases:
The literature database contains publications regarding the registered objects. The people database offers bibliographic data of people with relations to the objects: academics, technicians, preparators, model makers, instrument makers, etc.
Fig. 6: - Main page
The development work is already completed and the system is open for everybody who wishes to enter data: researchers, curators and collection managers. It is intended to finish the data base project in summer 2012. Thereafter, it will be a great source for all kinds of research. In this way we can not only promote research on ‘things that talk’ (Daston 2008) but also on university museums and collections in general.
The concentration on specific object groups is not only an appropriate way to open up university collections, it is also an efficient method to enable comprehensive transdisciplinary research on important holdings. Therefore, we should try to pursue an international database for specific object groups such as material models or devices in academic collections worldwide.