In 2014, the University of Zurich launched an initiative to reorganize its material academic legacy. Hitherto dispersed museums and collections were integrated into a structure of communication and mutual support and are now heading towards a modern, broadly accessible research infrastructure.
Martin Bürge in front of the plaster cast collection, with shards of a drinking cup (kylix) from antique Sparta. Archaeological collections. Photo: Marc Latzel, 2014.
This article was first published in 2022 in the LERU publication Academic heritage at LERU universities.
The University of Zurich (UZH) was founded in 1833. It is the first university in Europe that was not founded by a sovereign or the church, but by a democratic state. To establish the University of Zurich, the canton of Zurich merged its existing colleges of theology, jurisprudence and medicine. In the early years of the university major efforts were made to build up infrastructure for teaching and research. The collections became a significant part of this. This material cultural heritage of the university came together primarily through civic engagement.
The Zurich Society of Natural Sciences, which was established by Swiss natural scientist Johannes Gessner (1709-1790) and his colleagues prior to the founding of UZH, had been an important driver of sciences in the city since 1746. The society provided vital support to UZH by making its collections available to students and scholars. These collections contained zoological, paleontological, geological and mineralogical objects, as well as the herbarium. In 1837 the society transferred its collection to the university. Since pharmacists had also played a vital role in building up these collections, the transfer had a major impact on medical sciences at the university. Beginning in 1840, several other medical collections in the fields of anatomy, physiology, forensics and brain anatomy, just to name a few, were added.
The beginnings of UZH’s archaeological collections were based on purchases of plaster casts of antique sculptures by lecturers, which were financed by the proceeds of their public lectures. In 1857, this group donated their collection to the university, thereby establishing the first archaeological collection at a Swiss university. In 1913, the Geographical-Ethnographical Society donated its collection of artefacts collected during travels and expeditions to the UZH and therewith laid the foundation of what would become the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. This society had been founded in 1887 by two scholars, zoologist Conrad Keller (1848-1930) and doctor, zoologist, anthropologist, linguist and ethnologist Otto Stoll (1849-1922). Both had spent many years abroad and had thus acquired intricate knowledge about foreign countries and cultures.
As a result of further expeditions and donations, by 1927 the number of collections held at the University of Zurich had increased to 24. Many of these collections were opened to the public. A guide by Hans Schinz, a Swiss botanist and explorer who made major contributions to the university’s collections, provided a detailed list of them all. During the Second World War and in the post-war period, there was a lack of sufficient resources to expand the collections. However, this came back into focus again in the mid-1950s. Today the University of Zurich houses 12 collections and eight university museums, with more than 4 million objects:
Due to their primary use as disciplinary research and teaching archives and infrastructure, most of the University of Zurich’s museums and collections have historically been linked to institutes. This was regularly confirmed when new chairs were appointed. What distinguished them from public heritage institutions was precisely this strong focus on research and academic knowledge transmission to an interested public.
Although the museums and collections are associated with their respective faculties and institutes, their directors recognized a potential for synergies early on. In the early 1970s, the Museum Directors’ Conference was inaugurated, and a central exhibition service was established. In the 2000s, a volunteer network for museums and collections was added, with the goal that all employees can participate and exchange information on a regular basis.
Since 2014, the organizational form of the museums and collections has been more formalized, by introducing the post of a delegate from the Museum Directors’ Conference into the Vice-President’s Office for Research. Most recently, the position of a central collection coordinator was set up in 2021, to coordinate efforts in collections management, in establishing the collections as a research infrastructure, and in the process of digitization.
In 2014, the University of Zurich equally invested in creating a new conservational and storage infrastructure. To achieve this, a new conservation and collection centre at Buchs on the outskirts of Zurich was constructed. From 2022 on this centre will provide workshops for restoration, photo studios and 8500 m2 of state-of-the-art storage space. This will significantly improve the long-term preservation of the collections for the future.
Meanwhile, a reorganization of the natural science museums is underway. Four existing museums will be merged into the future Museum of Natural History, which will be located at the main university building. According to current plans, this new museum will open in 2033. This will be a welcome move for the 350,000 or so local and international people who already visit its museums every year, expressing their appreciation for the University of Zurich as one of the largest, most diverse – and entrance-free – cultural services and scientific knowledge transmission providers in the city of Zurich. It is in particular the embeddedness of the collections within the institutes and therewith their proximity to ongoing research which makes them attractive to a public eager to know more about academic findings in the sciences and humanities.
One of the main challenges the museums and collections face is digital transformation. The initial digitization working group set up by the museums and collections in 2015 conducted a survey on the status of digitization, reaching a broad consensus on the need to develop a joint digital strategy. With regard to current ethical affordances and sentiments about collections, the subsequent strategy seeks to make the collections as accessible to the public as possible while respecting ownership, personality rights and issues of sensibility as far as necessary.
Efforts to digitize the collections are currently focused on two main goals: complete digital recording of the objects and specimens, as well as the associated contextual information; and enhanced online availability, in order to preserve originals, increase visibility of the collections, and provide data for machine-aided quantitative analysis. Most collections use their own databases and have already started to create digital images of their objects and specimens in-house. The challenges currently faced are making decisive progress with digitization, improving technical equipment, centrally hosted virtual servers and digital long-term preservation.
Third-party funding will be required and applied for to finance our digitization efforts. A funding call by the SwissCollNet initiative is currently open, to which many of the natural science collections have lodged applications. Hopefully the programme will also be extended to the humanities collections in Switzerland, at a moment when research on current topics is becoming even more urgent, like legal and ethical questions around contexts of colonial history, and when future necessary knowledge sharing will need an overview of holdings in Switzerland and quick access to data and archives.
In 2021 the University of Zurich passed its ‘Open Science Policy’ and committed itself to a free and open academic culture under the guiding principle of ‘Open by Default’. The collections have started contributing to the university’s open access data activities by building new collection portals and exchanging data with discipline-specific aggregators.
The fact that the academic collections at the UZH have been, and are, deeply embedded and cared for within their institutes and their research environments brings numerous advantages.
Since the institutes remain responsible for conservation and maintenance, they stay close to their collections and provide multiple opportunities for academics to think about their research through objects. The impact of such proximity between scholars and young academics with the collections cannot be overstated; teaching staff can teach through and with the collections, so students benefit from forming potential opportunities with the objects close in mind, through attending curricular courses, through research-based teaching, through student collaboration in collections care, through internships or research in the collections. A range of research ideas have emerged out of this proximity between concrete object and research. The scientific supervision of the collections is currently distributed among 17 curators, with a total of 8.1 FTE staff. Furthermore, in the past six years alone, more than 2,000 scientists from 40 countries have worked in the collections.
University museums and collections have formed their own national and international academic networks over the decades. As an investigation into research requests for objects in the collections has shown, the UZH collections are part of global holdings, each providing a particular facet. Thus, through the databases as well as through visiting researchers and requests for documentation, they form part of virtual worldwide collections, making the UZH collections key to global networking.
In recent years, issues of the collections’ and objects’ provenance have come to the fore. Indeed, some university collections and museums house objects that may nowadays be classified as sensitive from an ethical point of view. This might be because they were not intended for public display, for instance human remains and ritual objects, or that they might contain offensive content. Moreover, objects might fall into this category if the circumstances of their production, acquisition and appropriation are questionable, in particular pertaining to the colonial past of many European countries, including their links to Switzerland and Swiss academic institutions. Especially with regard to human remains it is important to acknowledge that the production of morphometric data, anatomical descriptions and drawings, casts, etc. might originate from enforced situations.
To address this important issue, the university has installed an expert panel consisting of scientists, legal experts, historians and museum experts, to develop comprehensive guidelines. The guiding principle will be to respect and include concerns from the respective indigenous groups or countries in questions of potential repatriation, while at the same time seeking solutions to maintain the collections’ scientific coherence. As the disciplines increasingly align themselves with these issues, the proximity of collections and research paves the way for appropriate conduct, for professional and prompt responses to requests, for digital data sharing, and for settling handling, ownership and copyright issues. With regard to the ethnographic collections, for example, rules are currently being developed around regularly declaring collections to their respective indigenous originator communities – who are all too often unaware of the preservation of their cultural heritage at the University of Zurich. Declaring collections to originator communities and understanding their particular interests in the collections will certainly improve mutual historic cognizance, and clear a path towards the decolonization of knowledge, as well as potentially lead to entirely new research questions
Schinz, Hans. Führer durch die naturwissenschaftlichen und medizinischen Anstalten, Institute, Kliniken, Sammlungen und Bibliotheken Zürichs, die Kupferstichsammlung der E.T.H. und die archäologische Sammlung der Universität sowie durch einige naturwissenschaftlich interessante Werke und Einrichtungen der Stadt Zürich. 2. Aufl. Zürich: Zürcher, 1927. Print.
Museums and Collections of the University of Zurich, https://www.uzh.ch/cmsssl/en/outreach/museums.html (accessed 27 March 2022).
Visitor statistics for Zurich, https://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/content/dam/stzh/prd/Deutsch/Statistik/Themen/Bildung-Kultur-Sport/Zoo_Sukkulenten-Sammlung_Museen_Messen_und_Ausstellungen.xlsx (accessed 27 March 2022)
Data exchange with:
Mareile Flitsch and Michael Krützen (co-presidents) and Wibke Kolbmann (managing director), Zurich University Museums and Collections