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Off The Shelf: Projects Surrounding the Chair Collection at the Faculty of Architecture
The faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft houses a unique teaching collection of over 300 chairs. Unlike any other collection in the university, and because a collection’s purpose and needs deviate somewhat from the more common features of a given university department, its position can be challenging in terms of management, funding, and goals.
Generally, university collections were used for either research or teaching, and they remained key teaching resources until the 1960s. However, due to changes in research, teaching practices and university budget cuts since the 1980s, many university collections are at risk. Losing the connection between a collection and active education and research can result in its neglect or dissolution because it is seen to have lost relevance. This is a real shame as university collections form an artefactual record of pedagogical methods, and store a wealth of future educational potential and are therefore very valuable from a heritage point of view.
When it comes to the use of collections, developments in architectural education have not always run parallel to those in other university disciplines. Whereas in other disciplines the connection between teaching collections and education has often been lost completely, at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment some of the collections have remained in active use. What is significant in the case of the Chair Collection was that it was being compiled at the very time that many university departments elsewhere were turning away from their collections.
To explain the position of the collections at A&BE and to map their future, I will place them in a framework of university collections in general. Although university collections form a large and varied group, and the different nature of the various collections often call for a specific approach, they all face a number of the same challenges. For the purpose of possible cooperation between institutions, and the formulation of new approaches and goals, an overarching theoretical framework helps curators to escape the limitations posed by a narrow, disciplinary or organizational categorization. However, the broad spectrum of university collections and their changing use makes it difficult to universally categorise them.
Lourenco (2005) provides a theoretical framework for a better understanding of the origins, nature and possible significance of university collections. Lourenco based the framework on extensive literature research on the museological approach to university collections, documenting the existing confusion of terms and classifications. In general, Lourenco proposes to classify university collections according to the following typology:
- Research collections
- Teaching collections
- Historical teaching and research collections
- Collections of university history (memorabilia, biographical collections)2
With time and changing approaches to research and education, collections may shift from one category to another; research collections may be used for teaching, and once active research and teaching collections may no longer be used for their original purpose, becoming historical collections. Lourenco proposes to take the process of admission of objects into the collection as an additional criterion for a division of the typology into two main categories. First generation collections are the result of purposeful collecting, for research or for education. Second generation collections are formed by historical accumulation and may contain for instance historical instruments, but also portraits of professors and other memorabilia.
When we apply this categorization to the collections at TU Delft, we see that most of it can be classified as a second generation collection. The majority of the research and teaching collections formed at the various faculties of TU Delft are now in the care of TU Delft Library under the heading of Special Collections. Special Collections is subdivided into the Trésor, housing the historic publications, photographs and prints, and the so-called Museum Collections. The latter contains around 8000 items, amongst which are included historic instruments and equipment, lecture materials and research collections. Besides the items that members of staff used for research and teaching in the past, the Special Collections house furniture, portraits and other memorabilia.4 The purpose of the collections, as stated on the website, is research into the history of science or technology or industrial archaeology, exhibitions, or ‘leisure’ research. This implies that the items contained in the Museum Collections are no longer relevant to current TU Delft research and teaching and that the collections, therefore, fall into the category of a second generation collection. The general trend in TU Delft is to regard collection items as an illustration of educational practices of the past, to be stored in a closed depot.
The current stagnation of these collections has occurred relatively recently. The Technische Hogeschool Delft (as TU Delft was then called) became a national pioneer in the use of historic technical collections when the board founded the Technisch Tentoonstellings Centrum in 1976. The goal of the TTC was to popularise technology through exhibitions, and many items from the teaching collections found new purpose there. Due to budget cuts, the TTC was privatised in 1993 and its name was changed to Techniek Museum Delft. In 2008 the museum was relocated, a change that also prompted a change to the overall concept. The Techniek Museum was renamed Science Centre, but more importantly, decided to no longer base its activities on TU Delft’s Museum Collections. As a result, the Museum Collections lost an important means of outreach.
However, there are exceptions to the general circumstances of the collections at TU Delft, and some collections are still in use for education. As was mentioned before, the Faculty of A&BE still houses a number of active collections. The collections of A&BE include construction models and building fragments from older teaching collections, an image archive largely resulting from educational activities and field trips, and material samples of wood, stone and some brick. In addition to these older items, a large collection of architectural scale models has built up over the last three decades, largely the result of research and exhibitions both at the faculty and at other venues. Amongst these were travelling exhibitions with an international audience, such as Raumplan vs. Plan Libre, and monographic exhibitions on The Smithsons and Melnikov. Many of the models in the collection were built by students under the direction of professor emeritus Max Risselada. Finally, the faculty houses a teaching collection of chairs.
The Chair Collection consists of over 300 chairs, most of them present in the faculty building. It has been part of the Faculty’s educational facilities since a number of students started collecting in 1957.6 As the collection was initiated to support design education, it reflects a special interest in material use and construction, making it a ready source of inspiration for designers In contrast to most of TU Delft’s heritage collection, the Chair Collection is a living collection, in the sense that it is still growing, mostly thanks to donations. In the past year, donors have contributed a small collection of (mostly anonymous) working chairs, as well as several chairs by well-known designers.
Activities around the Chair Collection include exhibitions and research, but there are also frequent loans to museums. Recent loans to prominent museums include a Rietveld chair at the Rijksmuseum, a Berlage chair, amongst others, to the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, and a sofa to the Kröller-Müller museum. The chairs are currently on permanent display in a central location in the faculty building, and information on the items can be accessed through touch screens. Therefore, in contrast with most TU Delft collections, the Chair Collection is still a first generation collection. But to the curators, it seems that the preservation of a collection and the heritage value it represents is best served by the continued or renewed use and significance for education and research, especially since these are the core activities at the university.
In order to activate the faculty’s collections and to realise their full potential we, the curators of the faculty’s collections, tried some new activities in which the Chair Collection served as a guinea pig. Until recently, the chair collection was used predominantly during lectures to exemplify work by the designers or was exhibited in tours of the collection. There were also instances where students might write their thesis paper or undertake research on a chair or designer. Otherwise, the collection mainly provided loans to museums. One of the issues that the curators wanted to investigate was the question of how to deal with the future of the collections in education. Other uses besides education and research could also become relevant. In planning the future use of the Chair Collection, it will be useful to consider the future and other possible uses of university collections generally.
In the past, the main purpose for a university collection would have been research, and the second purpose would have been teaching. Since the 1980s, a third mission became more important to collections looking for renewed relevance: outreach to the general public through public exhibitions. With increasing competition among universities to attract students from abroad, a fourth mission is added: forming a display window aimed at prospective students.7 This kind of activity could achieve another goal at the same time, by appealing to alumni. Alumni are another important new audience; the university sees their involvement with their old university as a possibility for networking, potentially beneficial to research and education purposes.
This publication discusses projects around the Chair Collection because this collection served as a test case for possible new approaches. Some of the projects in this publication appear to be part of a trend to reconnect collections to education. At the annual meeting of the European academic heritage network (Universeum) of 2016, these projects were presented to an audience of mainly university museum staff or university collection curators. The introduction of a dedicated session read:
Connecting the collections with research and education … In the last few years, we have seen an increased demand by university boards to demonstrate the use of collections as resources for research and education. Many university collections that originated and then dissociated from teaching and research are now reconnected to education and scientific investigation. Did the collections find their way back into the labs and the curriculum? How do new ways of object based learning and research give new meanings to collections?
Other educational activities presented in the session centred on research carried out on items in university collections, sometimes in an educational context.
Our recent collections activities have not just been aimed at expanding research on and teaching with the collections, but also at expanding on the other two aims through the exhibition of the results of the educational research and design projects to our various audiences. The third and fourth missions, of outreach to a general public and appeal to prospective students, form a viable option for part of our collections. By incorporating selected student work into the collections, a highly representative picture could be created of what it is like to study at the faculty. Thus the future for the collections can be found in all four missions: integration into education, generating research, active in outreach to international students, alumni, and the general public, in cooperation with museums.
The main question throughout the project was: How can we activate the faculty’s collections through integration with education, research and exhibitions?
The goals that we identified were:
- Better integration of research education into the curriculum, which is dominated by design education
- Getting the collections involved in design education
- Output: using student output, to create exhibitions for students at the faculty as well as other universities and the general public.
The curators aimed to achieve these goals by initiating projects that advance the integration of research and design education, by using research on items from the collections as input for design projects. The results were presented in exhibitions and are shown in this catalogue.
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