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Sebastien Soubiran

Scientific collections and heritage on their University's secret service

For the past ten years university heritage benefited from a special attention at a European scale: New structures were created (i.e. ICOM-UMAC), new Networks appeared (i.e. UNIVERSEUM) on international level, but also on national level, in which actors with various background are involved: academics, curators, heritage professionals even sometimes State representatives. This recognition of academic heritage as part of heritage and museum world even has a concrete expression: preservation plan policies are started, public events are built up, academic works are begun to better characterize what is university heritage, describe it, define a typology. This move, as far as France is concerned, seems very similar to the “discovery” of scientific archives during the 1980’s. I would argue that for France, it is part of the same process. Though I am aware that we still need more time to understand better the process that lead to the recognition of university heritage at the turn of the 21st century, some contingent phenomena can help. Beyond structural changes that occurred within university – change is often synonymous of heritage concern – increased concern for university heritage certainly overlapped with issues raised by the development of scientific heritage preservation plans in which numerous scientific institutions took step for the last thirty years. These preservation plans were, among others, closely connected with the development of scientific and technical culture. My presentation will rely on the example of what has been done and what is planned for university heritage at the University of Strasbourg.

What’s in the closet?

The University Louis Pasteur has more than ten significant collections: mineralogy, zoology, botanic, palaeontology, normal and pathological anatomy, collections of instruments: astronomy, physics, medicine, seismology and earth magnetism. These collections are closely linked to the peculiar history of the University of Strasbourg. Though some scientific collections were started in the 18th century, the most profound impact on the collections is certainly the German and French history in the late 19th century up to the Second World War. This double heritage imparts to the collections of University Louis Pasteur a richness and a peculiarity.

Despite the Two World Wars and the four alternation of nationality, university collections and museum were preserved until today. Among them some kept their genuine value as object for teaching and research: the herbarium, collection of Egyptology, ethnology, normal anatomy, botanic. They are under the responsibility of an academic who uses it for their research and the teaching. This dynamic legitimizes at the same time as it guarantees their preservation within the university, even if storage conditions are not always very good. Other collections are not any more (or little) used for teaching or research (zoology, mineralogy, palaeontology, ….) their value rests above all on their status as historic witness of a way of producing knowledge, a scientific discipline, which does not exist anymore in Strasbourg, in a world these collections have an “heritage value”. If altogether they benefit from a friendly attention which protected them from their disappearance until today, they suffer from a lack of personnel qualified to guarantee their preservation, to restore them, or lead action to display them to public. However they are few lucky one, which are displayed in a museum: zoology, mineralogy and botanic (in a botanical garden).

Next to these collections, that specialist of university museum called of first generation (Marta Lourenço, Between two worlds: The distinct nature and contemporary significance of university museums and collections in Europe, thèse de doctorat, Paris, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, 2005 ; available online:; new collections were created during the 20th century, mainly in the 1980s in Strasbourg. They are collections of scientific instruments. These collections testify of experimental practices and know-how in various scientific fields mainly from the late 19th to the 1960s. The value is from the beginning a historical value. The existence and the preservation of these collections within the university rely on a quite different dynamic than the collections of the first generation. Lots of the instruments preserved were saved by the special action of an association made of scientists, called AMUSS ( Some of the instruments were kept within university departments when storages were made available, but others were kept by AMUSS in specific storages. This action was started in order to create in the 1980s a science museum in Strasbourg. Two major exceptions are to be underline in the field of astronomy and earth science. In 1986 a museum space was created within the observatory to display part of the astronomical instruments preserved, and a museum of seismology and earth magnetism was created in 1992 within the old seismological station. One also has to add the collection of medical instruments, also taken care of by an association.

Once stated these long list, its heterogeneity is striking. This heterogeneity relies not only on the nature of the object, but also on their use, the person in charge or even their accessibility to the public. Having in mind this heterogeneity is certainly an important point if one has to put in place a general policy with collections. Since 2001, the University of Strasbourg pursued quite a few studies, (four to be precise), that provide a good knowledge of the existing. The three last studies were linked to the general dynamic created by the project on the preservation of physics heritage that some of you already heard about. Connected with the archives, more than 500 hundreds of physics instruments were inventoried. This inventory is pursued in collaboration with the Regional inventory department. Beyond the building of detailed information note for each instrument, this process has many advantages. The first one is to bring in new persons to speak with, professionals in charge of heritage, curators. The second one is that we beneficiated from knowledge, know-how that don’t exist within the university. Last but not least, university also appears as a recognized actor that helps to adapt this method to scientific heritage and more generally to university heritage. This collaboration leads to the creation of a data base, which should also be useful for museum management of the instrument collections (

Out of the closet

A further step has been taken in Strasbourg in 2006 when the committee of university collections and museum was created. This committee is composed of all the person in charge of a collection. Its objectives are to create exchange between its members, favour collaborations, and think on the building of a general policy regarding the display of the collections. This committee doesn’t have an executive power within the university but its existence should allow to diminished the “one person, one collection” phenomenon which link the survival of a collection to a particular individuality. Last but not least, this committee was also created in order to prepare the reunification of the three universities of Strasbourg in January 2009. A website has been built (, collective actions were organised during the museum night or the European heritage days, and an exhibition was built with collections of astronomy and ethnology on African cosmogony.

It seems that the three universities are keen to develop public actions that involve university collections. A special attention is given to the development of the scientific culture using scientific heritage.

The University Louis Pasteur is particularly involved in the development of actions of scientific and technical culture; this term “scientific culture” refers in France to what is called usually in other countries “public understanding of science”. In addition to special events during which collections are displayed to a large public, many actions are taken towards students and pupils. These actions are sustained by the idea that university collections and scientific instruments collections are powerful pedagogical tools to complete science learning. Collections and museums are mobilised to teach history of science within the university to Licence and Master classes. These objects and places illustrate perfectly the existence of various way of producing knowledge, the evolution of scientific practices and their legitimisation.

Special trainings are also offers to PhD-students which consist in various activities in which collections are involved: inventory, special events like museum night or European heritage days.

A specific attention is also put on primary and secondary schools. A collaboration was started in 2005 with a High school which consisted in organising a workshop with pedagogical instruments of physics kept in the establishment. Pupils worked on the instruments trying to find out how they work, the scientific field they are related to, and are asked to prepare an oral presentation.

Regarding primary school a special collaboration was started in 2006 with the regional university institute in charge of the training of teachers (IUFM). A convention was signed last year to settle the actions started on a long term basis. These actions aim at building pedagogical tools for teaching science in primary schools. These tools rely on university collections and museum. Special visits of university museum are organised during the training of the future teachers, but also those already in service. An educational suit-case was also built with replication of various collections: stuffed animals, skeletons, collection of seeds, herbarium, casting of fossils.

Last but not least, this action on university collection is completed by research work in collaboration with the research department on Science, Technology and Society as was the project on physics heritage. The idea is to complete operational action with a reflexive approach on its motives and objectives. A book is about to be published on the heritage of knowledge.

The development of scientific culture is a strong motive that sustains the raising interest of the university collections and museum. Though this connection is not without ambiguity, it is essential to legitimate any action on collections or scientific heritage. To this peculiar dynamic specific to scientific community one have to add the urge reform started on university by the new French government last year which plan the autonomy of the university. It is understand in the general trend within Europe started in Bologne in 2002. Last but not least, linked to the reform started, the three universities decided to fusion to be the University of Strasbourg in 2009. The idea is to strengthen the identity and the visibility of the university in order to face a more competitive context, and enhance the capacity to rise private funding. Besides, heritage appears as a key element to enter the cultural field, understand as an open gate to the City. This need to invest the cultural sphere was advanced by the former president of the University: “I am convinced that both scientific culture and heritage richness connected to the history of the university of Strasbourg, together with the necessity of openness of the university on the city and the society in general, already central for each university of Strasbourg, would be it even more in the thought that will sustain the building of the new university”.

The general context seems to offer real opportunities to bring back the university collections and museum to the forefront of university attention. One certainly has to be cautious of course because the current changes contain lots of unknown, in particular regarding the means available to sustain such policy. However it should help to move the debate which too often put the heritage activity in competition with the main mission of the university that is research and teaching. Only while integrating the cultural action as necessary and major actions for the good functioning of the university in the European landscape, will it be possible to set up thorough policies for the conservation of the university collections and their display to a large public. Besides it is important to go beyond institutional communication.

What about the archives? Well, one has to follow the trend that guarantee a special attention from those who are in charge. The project on the archives of physics certainly helps the raising of a more general attention on scientific heritage. I am aware that I didn’t succeed to guarantee a long term dynamic regarding archives as well as for the instruments. However, I am convinced that if archives brought me to look at the instruments, instruments will lead to archives. The next step started on earth science field confirm this strong connexion and my first investigations regarding archives give me good reason to hope that it will be possible to link the inventory of instruments with the process of archives in the field of earth science.