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The special collections of the GUM and Ghent University

Unique collections that make you think
The GUM and Ghent University have valuable and extensive scientific heritage collections (over 400,000 objects) from all possible disciplines. These collections were built up during the university's 200-year history and continue to grow as a result of its current scientific research. The GUM is responsible for managing these collections: it records them correctly, displays them to the public and preserves them for future generations of researchers, students and visitors in a sustainable manner. You will see a selection of highlights from these collections at the museum and in the special focus exhibitions. The subcollections can be consulted for research and academic purposes by appointment. The GUM’s guided tours and public activities take place at the museum on Campus Ledeganck.

From a Tasmanian Tiger to a Dogon mask, the first Bakelite and a cork model of the Pantheon to a biomimetic model of a seahorse tail... The GUM can draw on an enormous variety of items for its permanent and temporary exhibitions. Together, they form the academic heritage collection of the GUM and Ghent University, the largest in Flanders, with more than 400,000 registered objects.

Six collections have been managed and presented in museum settings for several decades. However, there are thousands of items that are still unregistered, sometimes even unknown, in corridors and offices, basements and attics, scattered around the campus. And the heritage collection is still growing, with new products of scientific activity being added all the time. Together, the items reveal the complexity, humanity and beauty of scientific practice.

A collection as old as the university

A number of collections stem from a law enacted under King William I in 1817. It stipulated that all state universities had to have a scientific collection of plants and animals and an instrument cabinet. From then on, students would not simply listen to lectures, but would also observe and examine things themselves. This marked the start of the zoology, ethnography, archaeology and surgical instrument collections. Some items were purchased by the university when an opportunity arose, in some cases with royal funding. Others were gifts from generous patrons, while yet others were collected by enthusiastic professors.
Despite their practical orientation, the university collections have also fascinated local residents from the outset. As a result, the university opened them to the general public every year during the Ghent Festivities.

Zoology Collection

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Archaeology Collection

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Ethnographic Collections

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Morphology Collection

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History of Sciences Collection

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History of Medicine Collection

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Botanical Garden

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Stray items and active collections

In addition to the collections whose pieces are recognised for their heritage value, there are also many heritage items scattered around the campuses. Many of these collections initially had an educational or scientific value, and some of them still do. They stem from the personal dedication of professors or the specific needs of a degree programme. When the professors in question retired, the collection remained. Many collections were then dependent on the fluctuating interest they held for the successors to their original owners.
Sixteen active and stray collections were recorded in 2013 in the screening report Balance and Perspective. These include wire and plaster models in the context of engineering studies, minerals and rocks collected during expeditions, dialect tapes or pharmaceutical collections. All of them have very limited inventories and are difficult to access.

The invisible treasure chamber

The recording of the collections in the Balance and Perspective report was based entirely on spontaneous notification by the collection managers. It is clear that, in addition to the collections mentioned in the report, Ghent University has even more treasures in store. Many, many more, in fact. The question is how many, and where. Ghent University’s unknown treasures have not yet been itemised in a uniform way, or even recognised as heritage. In brief, they are invisible. The heritage collection is still growing today, particularly as a result of by-products of current scientific research such as devices, fieldwork specimens, models or prototypes. Only a vision of heritage based on a broader university or public-oriented framework can guarantee the preservation and management of the academic heritage. Ghent University has made the courageous decision to radically redraw the map of its heritage. In the years ahead, Ghent University and the GUM will focus on identifying and providing access to all the university's stray collections. You will already be able to admire some of the most intriguing pieces from stray collections in the permanent exhibitions of the GUM.


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