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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Question of the Week: Where did UCL acquire its Art Collection?

By Kevin Guyan, on 12 February 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

Questions directed towards Engagers come in all forms, one of the most common questions I have been asked while working in the Art Museum is also one of the most of interest to me:

Where did UCL acquire its Art Collection?

Excited by the romantic vision of illicit meetings between UCL staff and art collectors, foreign trips and auction houses, I made my own investigations into the history of the collection.

Perhaps reassuringly, the history behind the 10,000 plus objects in the UCL collection is more mundane than I had first expected.  The collection has developed through two main sources: links between UCL and the Slade School of Fine Art and the receipt of art work bequeathed to the museum.

A collection of material produced by prize-winning students studying at the Slade would, in its own right, offer a collection of great importance, with notable students including Stanley Spencer, Paula Rego and Augustus John.  This collection policy continues to the present day, with the museum recently acquiring A Printers’ Symphony,  a sound recording accompanied by a concertina of printed images and marks from these processes, bound together like a musical score and Marianna Simnett’s video Dog, which won the William Coldstream Memorial prize in 2013.

Marianna Simnett, Dog (2013) (c) UCL Art Museum

Marianna Simnett, Dog (2013) (c) UCL Art Museum

What about the collection’s Durers and Rembrandts – they surely were not linked to a school of art that they predate by over two centuries?  The second source explains the acquisition of the collection’s older material.

Above all, the collection is a teaching resource and it is the hope of benefactors that by donating their work to the collection it will be of benefit and enjoyment to the students and staff at UCL as well as being shared with the general public more broadly.

This made me think about how the museum goes about collecting work in the present day.  Space is an obvious limitation and the time of UCL staff is finite, there must therefore be limitations on what the museum can and cannot accept, raising questions over who holds the power of this decision?

The Art Museum is the only collection at UCL that continues to grow, as the other UCL collections do not acquire new objects.  Any acquisition of new works is first approved by a committee and is subject to a strict acquisition policy.  It can be the case that UCL chooses to turn down works if it is felt that they would be unable to conserve or store them properly.

The question of how UCL Art Museum acquired its collection made me rethink the processes behind why the collection takes it current shape.  A more in-depth account of the collection’s acquisition history and charting the chronological spread of the material would be fascinating – a ready subject, perhaps, for a future blog post?