Effective museum collections, header image

Effective museum collections

My background in museums is very much rooted in collections, and exploring how they have been used and can be used. I love collections-based research, and exploring archives and collections to ask and answer questions about the world, exploring the past and present.

My focus has always been natural history collections, but the same principles apply to all kinds of collections. I also love making current research (most of it from beyond museums) available and accessible through events and exhibitions in museums, and supporting research through the effective use of collections. Effective collections are a bedrock of all museum activity. Effective collections need to be well looked after, well understood, looked after by people with the skills to use them and who understand how they can be used to meet external agendas, with well curated collections information that makes them usable, and with effective support and facilities. Making collections work involves internal processes, and also working with external partners.

Effective collections

I have been involved in all manner of collections reviews, writing strategies and policies for collections and their use as part of Accreditation, providing advice to museums internationally, and developing a programme of collections reviews in the North West of England to promote the understanding of the significance of collections and their potential for use. My approach has always been to focus on empowering those who work with collections to appreciate the potential and challenges facing the collections they care for, and to explore potential partnerships that can help make collections more effective and impactful.

How can museum collections support biodiversity conservation? Was the output of a project I ran in 2018-19 with funding from the British Ecological Society. One of the challenges of natural history/natural sciences collections is that they grew without a grand plan, and there is limited contact between the museum and nature conservation sectors. I used a method called the ‘100 Questions Approach’ to develop strategies for museums to direct their collections towards supporting research, policy and site and species management for biodiversity. The project was the largest of its kind, with contributions from biodiversity workers in 84 countries, including many people involved in the Convention on Biological Diversity. The project was presented at both the British Ecological Society annual conference (Birmingham, 2018) and as a keynote at the International Council of Museums Natural History Committee (ICOM Nathist) in Kyoto in 2019), and the UK Museums Association Conference in Brighton in 2019.

‘Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: birds, books and business’ was a pure passion project. I wrote a biography of Manchester Museum’s main bird collector, and used his life as a lens to explore transformations in 19th century natural history and the connections between natural history, empire, colonialism and trade, to help people understand scientific natural history collections, their contexts and uses. The book was published by Manchester University Press in November 2017. Work on the book was presented at a number of international conferences, in Russia, Spitzbergen and Vienna.

The book was reviewed as follows:

“This is a magnificent exploration of (British) Victorian ornithology, which brings to life many of the key figures of the period with their frequently very strained relationships.”

Alan Knox, British Birds, January 2018

“As Henry McGhie makes clear in this excellent, wide-ranging and beautifully produced biography, Henry Dresser was a key player in Victorian ornithology… Well researched, well written and nicely produced, this is a book you should have”

Tim Birkhead, Ibis, July 2019

“Historians and scientists will find the book engaging, and Manchester University Press has done an impressive job of reproducing an enormous number of illustrations and plates (including some beautiful colour ones).”

Paul Lawrence Farber, Annals of Science, January 2018

“The book itself is comprehensive but remains eminently readable, and as such it constitutes an important addition to the history of ornithology.”

Peter Lack, British Trust for Ornithology

“…anyone with a general interest in the history of ornithology will enjoy McGhie’s survey of social history when Dresser was active.”

Frank Egerton, Journal of Field Ornithology

“McGhie mines a rich trove of primary and secondary sources to bring his subject to life in Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology. While the broad outlines of Dresser’s ornithological trajectory will be familiar to historians of natural history, this excellent biography provides many fascinating and worthwhile details.”

Mark Barrow, Jr, ISIS, March 2019

Animals as Object and Animals as Signs (2008-12) was a multidisciplinary, international research project initiated by Prof. L E Thorsen of Oslo University, funded by the Norwegian Research Council. My contribution resulted in a chapter in the anthology exploring where our ideas about animals come from, using the example of a rare Arctic gull that is strongly linked with Arctic exploration in the heroic age of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This project also resulted in an exhibition at Oslo University Library. The book was published by Penn State University Press.

Museums as cultures of copies (2015-18) was another multidisciplinary, international project, run by Prof Brita Brenna at Oslo University, again funded by the Norwegian Research Council. My contribution was on the role that natural history/natural sciences play in understanding the world beyond the museum, and how viewing collections as tools for modelling can help articulate their value in a time of rapid environmental change. The book, ‘Museums as Cultures of Copies: the crafting of artefacts and authenticity’ was published by Routledge.