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How Collections End

Edited by Boris Jardine, Emma Kowal, and Jenny Bangham

Collections are made and maintained for pleasure, for status, for nation or empire building, for cultural capital, as a substrate for knowledge production and for everything in between. In asking how collections end, we shift the focus from acquisition and growth to erosion, loss and decay, and expose the intellectual, material and curatorial labour required to maintain collections. In this introductory essay, we draw together insights from the history of science and from science and technology studies to investigate the dispersal, destruction, absorption, repurposing and repatriation of the diverse scientific collections discussed in the papers that make up this issue of BJHS Themes, and many other collections besides. We develop a distinction first suggested by the curator and bibliographer John Willis Clark between ‘working’ collections of objects valued for the information they hold or produce, and ‘unique’ collections of objects valued for their historical singularity. We show that in many cases, the ‘end’ of an object or collection involves a shift in the dominant account of its cultural value from ‘working’ to ‘unique’ or vice versa. Moving between the laboratory, the museum and difficult-to-classify spaces in between, we argue that ‘ending’ is not anathema to ‘collecting’ but is always present as a threat, or as an everyday reality, or even as a necessary part of a collection’s continued existence. A focus on ending draws attention not only to the complex internal dynamics and social contexts of collections, but also to their roles in producing scientific knowledge.


JARDINE, B., KOWAL, E., & BANGHAM, J. “How collections end: Objects, meaning and loss in laboratories and museums.”

ROQUE, R. “The blood that remains: Card collections from the colonial anthropological missions.”

KOWAL, E. “Spencer’s double: The decolonial afterlife of a postcolonial museum prop.”

KAKALIOURAS, A. “The repatriation of the Palaeoamericans: Kennewick Man/the Ancient One and the end of a non-Indian ancient North America.”

SKINNER, D., & WIENROTH, M. “Was this an ending? The destruction of samples and deletion of records from the UK Police National DNA Database.”

BANGHAM, J. “Living collections: Care and curation at Drosophila stock centres.”

CURRY, H. “From bean collection to seed bank: Transformations in heirloom vegetable conservation, 1970–1985.”

HOPWOOD, N. “The tragedy of the emeritus and the fates of anatomical collections: Alfred Benninghoff’s memoir of Ferdinand Count Spee.”

GÓMEZ LÓPEZ, A. “On taphonomy: Collages and collections at the Geiseltalmuseum.”

PORTER, D. “Catalogues for an entropic collection: Losses, gains and disciplinary exhaustion in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.”

JARDINE, B. “The museum in the lab: Historical practice in the experimental sciences at Cambridge, 1874–1936.”

DELBOURGO, J. “Commentary: Collect or die.”

REARDON, J. “Commentary: Ends everlasting.”

BJHS Themes is a collaborative venture between the British Society for the History of Science and Cambridge University Press aimed at establishing the first fully open access journal for the history of science community. It aims to publish open access, scholarly and engaging collections of history of science papers, which address provocative themes, and which will be free for readers and offer no financial barrier to publication for authors. Like its sister publication, British Journal for the History of Science, BJHS Themes is a journal of the British Society for the History of Science, a major learned society for its subject.

Image: Note accompanying an object (woven mat) in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Image tweeted by, accessed 25 April 2019. Copyright, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University.