When you don’t cry over spilt milk: Collections access at the UBC Museum of Anthropology during the renewal project

Shabnam Honarbakhsh, Heidi Swierenga, and Mauray Toutloff


In the spring of 2004, The UBC Museum of Anthropology embarked on a major Renewal Project to enhance the physical, visual and virtual access to its collections. Taking a total of six years to complete, the “Partnership of Peoples” project encompassed numerous activities including digitization, mount making, packing and moving of the collection, as well as the complete redesign of the visible storage galleries. Prior to the launch of the project, MOA’s 30 year-old infrastructure was no longer able to successfully serve the increasing demands of its users. There was insufficient space to safely store and display material, and minimal room for community visits, research or new acquisitions processing. The museum’s permanent installations were also in need of a significant change in order to accommodate both community and conservation concerns.

While the project would significantly impact the museum’s operations, continue d access to the collections for both researchers and originating communities throughout the process was critical. These consultations provide the intellectual, historical and spiritual context for many of the objects in MOA’s collection. The museum’s staff was able to accomplish this throughout the disruptive packing and move process by implementing a number of effective procedures and protocols.

MOA’s philosophy of access, developed through the experience of hundreds of access requests from originating community members, allows for a heightened level of access to objects for the makers/artists, or the originating families of an object. Collections staff provide guidance on care and handling as well as details on the possible or confirmed presence of contaminants in order to enable the user to make informed decision about how they will handle a piece; however precisely how an object is handled is left largely to the individual. Any damage that may subsequently occur is arguably seen as part of the object’s life as opposed to a detriment.

During the Renewal Project, collections staff were presented with the opportunity to further push the boundaries of what constitutes appropriate access thanks to some ceremonial requests that ca me about as part of the development of the museum’s Multiversity galleries; One of the most noteworthy requests was the re-animation of a bronze representation of the Hindu God Vishnu which involved ceremonially dressing the figure and anointing it with milk, honey and a number of other wet substances. This ceremony contravened the standard protocols set for the care of collections but the benefits to both the community and the institution were found to outweigh the risks to the physical objects.

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2011 | Philadelphia | Volume 18