A radioactive mineral sample emitting alpha particles, a crusher that can apply the weight of 150 hippos and a picnic basket belonging to Agatha Christie's second husband's second wife. It is unusual fodder for an exhibition. But Disposal?, the new show at University College London (UCL) is anything but normal.
The exhibition, which runs through October, invites audiences to comment on the question at the heart of contemporary museum policy: what should they be collecting, holding and dumping? Despite possessing 250,000 world-class items, UCL, with its latest exhibition, focuses on objects that don't necessarily cut it in terms of research value, historical merit or public interest. It's precisely because of its vast and exciting collection that the exhibition is happening, explains Subhadra Das, UCL's collections reviewer and the co-curator of Disposal?. "The exhibition is a culmination and a continuation of a process which was started by the collections manager Jayne Dunn and me in 2007," says the Abu Dhabi-born Das. "After embarking on a collections review, we discovered that, in addition to many significant items, we also had material whose role wasn't immediately apparent or might have been slightly problematic in terms of care."
Rather than disposing of this material in a more traditional way, UCL decided to give the public a role in deciding its future. Confronted with a treasure trove of oddities, audiences are allowed to vote on what goes and what stays. Objects on display include a collection of plastic dinosaurs, a death mask of a Victorian murderer, slides containing microscopic fossils, soil samples collected before the Channel Tunnel was built, the skull of a giant water buffalo, a dilapidated wheelchair that may have belonged to the English surgeon Joseph Lister, and a pair of right-footed cowboy boots. Many items are on view to the public for the first time.
To audiences, the notion of museum disposal remains a controversial one. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of throwing something away that may be of unknown or future value. The truth is that disposal is a necessary and normal process in any museum. With decreasing resources and expanding collections, museums are under serious pressure. Collections are fast becoming unsustainable, and ethical but tough decisions are essential to museums' survival. Responsible and regular disposal is essential for collections to stay manageable.
"We're not just talking about throwing things away," Das says. "We are talking about transferring them to other museums, maintaining them in the public domain and potentially passing them into private hands. Recycling and destruction are also options." The exhibition aims to uncover people's criteria for disposal. For some visitors, historical connection is important. For others, research potential is key in deciding an object's future. The long-term effect of this public pressure will help to shape UCL's future collecting policy.
It is a strategy that Das can see working in Abu Dhabi. "The UAE is in an enviable position," she says. "It has resources to invest in taking care of collections. At the moment, it's all very new and exciting because, in a way, the sky's the limit. They can collect the things they want to and they have the facilities to take appropriate care of them. "The really important thing is to work out exactly why they are collecting," Das says. "The reason that UCL is in the situation it is in now is because we've been collecting stuff for 180 years without necessarily using a coherent collecting policy. This is what we are trying to develop now. That's the question we are asking in the exhibition - not just what we should be disposing of, but what we should be collecting and why?"