Collection Development Policy

Name of Museum: Women’s Art Collection

Name of Governing Body: Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge (hereafter referred to as ‘the College’)

Date on which this policy was approved by Trustees: October 2021

Policy review procedure: Review by the College Art Committee, followed by endorsement by College Council

Date at which this policy is due for review: February 2025


Arts Council England will be notified of any changes to the Collection Development Policy, and the implications of any such changes for the future of collections

I        Relationship to other relevant policies/plans of the organisation: 

  1. The museum’s statement of purpose is:

The Women’s Art Collection is housed at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge; a college for women.  It is Europe’s largest collection of international art by women.

Established in 1986 with the acquisition of a series of works by the prominent US artist Mary Kelly, the Collection has grown through generous donations by the artists themselves and through support from donors and benefactors.  It now numbers over 600 modern and contemporary paintings, works on paper, photographs and sculptures, the earliest of which dates from 1905.

The majority of the Collection is on display in Murray Edwards College and its gardens. The College undertakes to conserve, interpret and promote the historic and contemporary works in its care.

The Collection will concentrate on work that thinks critically about gender, inequality more broadly – and the history of art by women.  Our vision is for the Collection to embody the ethos of the College as an accessible, vibrant and innovative place to study, work, live and visit. Through collaboration, programme activity and formal accreditation, we aim to create a permanent base for the academic study of women’s art as well as a cultural destination for the wider public.

  1. The College will ensure that both acquisition and disposal are carried out openly and with transparency.
  2. The Women’s Art Collection has a long-term purpose and holds collections in trust for the benefit of the public in relation to the objectives stated above. The College therefore accepts the principle that sound curatorial reasons must be established before consideration is given to any acquisition to the collection, or the disposal of any items in the museum’s collection.
  3. Acquisitions outside the current stated policy will only be made in exceptional circumstances.
  4. The College recognises its responsibility, when acquiring additions to its collections, to ensure that care of collections, documentation arrangements and use of collections will meet the requirements of the Museum Accreditation Standard. This includes using SPECTRUM primary procedures for collections management. It will take into account limitations on collecting imposed by such factors as staffing, storage and care of collection arrangements.
  5. The College will undertake due diligence and make every effort not to acquire, whether by purchase, gift, bequest or exchange, any object or specimen unless the governing body or responsible officer is satisfied that the museum can acquire a valid title to the item in question.
  6. The College will not undertake disposal motivated principally by financial reasons


II      History of the Collection

The Women’s Art Collection is a permanent collection of modern and contemporary art by women artists. Painting, prints, photography and sculpture are displayed throughout Murray Edwards College, which was founded in 1954, becoming the third college for women in the University of Cambridge (originally founded as ‘New Hall’).  In 1960 the building of New Hall, designed by architects Chamberlin Powell and Bon, began. The distinct Grade II* listed building in Brutalist style with long wide brick corridors was a catalyst for the College to display art works on its walls.

The College exists to provide the highest standards of education to young women and, more generally, to promote the place of women in society. In line with these broad aims, and led by Valerie Pearl, President of the College from 1981 to 1995, the College began a collection of contemporary art by women in 1986 with the acquisition of a key work by US conceptual artist Mary Kelly, part funded by the Eastern Arts Board, a subsidiary of the Arts Council. Kelly had been Artist in Residence at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and spent an academic year at New Hall.  Thereafter donations from significant women artists were sought and in 1992 the Collection grew to over 100 works in a year.  This collective giving is at the core of the Collection and a significant reflection of a moment in discourse about women artists in the early 1990s, an area that befits further research.

Through the 1992 donations and subsequent gifts and loans, the Collection has an emphasis on late 20th century and early 21st century, telling a narrative of women artists over the decades.  Works are mainly wall-based paintings and include many Royal Academicians including Eileen Cooper, Paula Rego and Maggi Hambling, sculpture by Elisabeth Frink, Nicola Hicks and Barbara Hepworth, as well as examples by the YBAs (Young British Artists), Fiona Banner & Tracey Emin.  We have significant works of Feminist art from the US and UK from the 1970s-00s including Mary Kelly, Monica Sjoo, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Jo Spence and Alexis Hunter.

The two main experts in modern and contemporary art associated with the College at this moment in time were Sara Holdsworth (Pearl’s daughter), a curator at Manchester City Art Gallery and Ann Jones, now Curator of the Arts Council Collection.  A catalogue was first produced in 1992 with a preface by Dr Valerie Pearl who thanks the eminent feminist academic Art Historian Griselda Pollock for opening the collection and Marina Warner for her essay titled ‘In the Fertile Bind: Making a Female Body of Art’. Jones is cited as a significant contact as well as the then Bursar, Christopher Stevenson. The Henry Moore Foundation and Esmee Fairburn Charitable Trusts are cited as supporters.  The second catalogue titled Women’s Art New Hall was published in June 1996 under the Presidency of Anne Lonsdale due to at least 50 new works arriving over a couple of years.  The third catalogue settles on the name Women’s Art Collection with the subtitle ‘catalogue of the Women’s Art at New Hall’, published in 2003.  Here it thanks the ‘curators since 1992’ Jonathan Herring, Christopher Stevenson and Jenny Teichman, all Fellows within the College.  In 2004 this catalogue and the re-opening of the Dome dining room instigated a ‘relaunch’ of the Collection overseen by Lonsdale and publicly declared open by Maggi Hambling who became an Honorary Fellow.

Curatorial responsibility went to Dr Aya Soika, a History of Art Fellow, from 2001 until 2005. In 2008 the College was awarded £99,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to support a Curator and Outreach Manager.  This was first taken on by Amy Jones and subsequently Amanda Rigler.  The role ended in 2011 with the end of the grant. During the years that the College did not have a Fellow or designated Curator, Ms Sarah Greaves (MA History of Art) acted as Curator and programmer. In 2015 a new catalogue was launched at the Royal Academy and Sotheby’s New York which coincided with the decision to spend ring fenced art funds on a fixed term Curator post (0.6), with the aim to secure an endowment for the role, at which point Ms Eliza Gluckman joined the College.  In 2018, Mrs Harriet Loffler replaced Eliza as Curator, and several generous donations from alumnae and supporters enabled this role to continue to May 2022.  Strategies are in place to seek additional funding for this post.  Ms Naomi Polonsky has been appointed in 2018 and 2021 as Assistant Curator, to cover maternity leave.

The Collection is still acquiring work through gifts and donations to reflect contemporary practice today. There have been no significant disposals during the lifetime of the Collection, nor has there been any major change in the focus of the Collection other than a decision recently not to encourage unsolicited donations.  The reason for this has been to maintain the quality of the Collection in the light of an increasing number of works being offered.


III     Overview of Current Collections 

Size and Display through College: The Women’s Art Collection is the largest collection of modern and contemporary art by women in Europe, with over 600 works.  It is open to the public daily allowing visitors to walk through the 1960 Grade II listed Chamberlin, Powell and Bon building, and gardens, and access significant works from the Collection as well as a programmed gallery space and display areas. Overall, 85% of the Collection is on show throughout the College complex creating a unique environment for our 600 students and staff.

Areas of strength and significance & how these reflect the key aims of the College: Through the 1992 donations and subsequent gifts the Collection has an emphasis on late 20th century and early 21st century, telling a narrative of women artists over the decades and largely representing the generations of women who have attended the college since 1954.  Works are mainly wall-based paintings, photographic and print works and include works by Royal Academicians Eileen Cooper, Paula Rego and Maggi Hambling, sculpture by Elisabeth Frink and Barbara Hepworth, as well as examples by the YBAs (Young British Artists), Fiona Banner & Tracey Emin.  Donations of specifically feminist art practice by artists such as Miriam Shaprio, Monica Sjoo, Jo Spence, Alexis Hunter and Judy Chicago have been acquired since the original acquisition of Extase by the feminist, conceptual artist Mary Kelly. The broad range of work within the Collection reflects the diverse styles and themes of art by women.  In this context the collection is a physical representation of the history, ideals and aims of the College.

Specific areas of strength and interest within the Collection include:

  • Women Royal Academicians
  • Figurative painting by women artists
  • 20 works by celebrated Cambridge-based  woodblock artist and writer Gwen Raverat (1885-1957)
  • Abstract modernist painting by women artists
  • Feminist art from the US and UK from the 1970s-00s
  • Women artists from Hong Kong

The Collection is of international, national and regional interest as a base for the study of works by women, enabling viewers to trace movements in art in a variety of media over more than 50 years.  A printed catalogue and biographical archive materials on works and artists are supported by a comprehensive website.

Specific types of work in the collection (in terms of materials) and works that no longer fit with the collection:  The fact that much of the Collection is displayed in spaces throughout the College’s extensive buildings and grounds, means that the majority of the works collected have been paintings or large sculpture. Wall-based works are more forgiving to a working environment and a busy building that is used for academic teaching, residential use and events (internal and external hires). The works in the Collection are mainly paintings on canvas or board but also include mixed media, watercolour, prints, photography, collage and sculptures in bronze, ceramic and wood as well as artists’ books.

We aim to rotate works, specifically photography and watercolour and any light sensitive media.  Works in storage come under a few categories including those awaiting conservation, those awaiting a new hang, those in need of new frames or re-mounting. These are dealt with in order of priority and within the limitations of budget.

Material held by the College and cared for by the Collection that are not considered appropriate to accession are gifted works that are by male artists who were partners of women artists in the collection. The two examples of these are a painting by Jacques Raverat, the husband of Gwen Raverat, of whom we have a significant number of works and is a historically significant figure in Cambridge’s cultural history, and  prints by Julian Trevelyan, who was the partner of Mary Fedden. In both cases the works were donated along with works by their wives.

There have been two significant disposals of work in the lifetime of the Collection (due to damage).  There has been no major change in the focus of the Collection other than a decision recently, not to accept unsolicited donations (unless under exceptional circumstances). The reason for this has been to maintain the quality of the Collection in the light of an increasing number of works being offered.


IV    Themes and Priorities for Future Collecting 

Historically and since the first funded acquisition of an art work (by the Eastern Arts Board, for a work by Mary Kelly in 1986) the Collection has accepted donations and gifts, primarily directly from the artist.  In some cases, works are bequeathed or gifted by alumnae of the College or those supportive of the Collection and its aims.  Since 2017 with the growing profile of the Collection and the new post of Curator in 2015, the Art Committee no longer considers unsolicited acquisitions due to a rise in approaches and in consideration of a more tailored acquisitions plan, reflecting the College aims and the capacity of resources for the Collection.

Acquisitions to the Collection will reflect the College admissions policy that applications for entry to the College will be accepted from any person who identifies as female and, where they have been identified as male at birth, has taken steps to live in the female gender or has been legally recognised as female via the Gender Recognition Act (2004). In relation to artists who change gender during their career, the Collection will consider works by artists who identify as a woman at the time of acquisition of their work.

In the past long-term loans were sought; however this has also been reviewed in light of Accreditation. Loans are being assessed and fixed term loan agreements have been negotiated.  In some cases, loans have been returned to the lenders.

The College acquires, by donation, through commissioning or through specific funding initiatives, works in a variety of media from significant women artists.  In addition, the College maintains an archive containing documentation relating to the artists featured in the Collection.

From 2017-19, the Collection prioritised the acquisition of works by artists from Hong Kong as a focus on research in collecting practices in the region, in collaboration with the Asia Art Archive.

The collecting focus now concentrates on work that thinks critically about gender, inequality more broadly, and the history of art by women.

When the Art Committee considers a potential acquisition, it takes into account above all the quality of the work and its suitability as part of the Collection alongside the overall aims of the Women’s Art Collection. It is also guided by considerations of the College’s responsibility to ensure adequate conservation, documentation and proper use, and limitations imposed by such factors as staffing, storage, conservation resources and display space. Acquisitions which fall outside its policy guidelines are only made in very exceptional circumstances and then only after detailed consideration by the Committee.  Advice on the artistic merit and quality of proposed acquisitions is sought from an external expert Advisory Board comprising academics, contemporary art curators and museums professionals.

The College employs a system of rotation for the display of works. Any works not on display are stored appropriately within the College. On occasions, works may be loaned to other galleries and exhibitions at the Art Committee’s discretion and under appropriate conditions.

The Artist or her Estate are asked to give signed consent for ownership of the work to be passed to Murray Edwards College.  The College can reproduce her donated work within the Women’s Art Collection and related publications and merchandise. The artist will continue to hold the copyright and will be informed in advance of all plans to use the image. Artists are not obliged to agree to their work being reproduced in publications or merchandise.


V      Themes and Priorities for Rationalisation and Disposal 

Disposal is not a priority for the Collection, and the College does not intend to actively  dispose of collections during the period covered by this policy.

Works of art accepted permanently into the Collection will not be sold. However, the College reserves the ultimate right to dispose of a work where the work has been degraded by reason of damage, physical deterioration, or infestation by destructive organisms (in which case the means of disposal can include destruction) and where the cost of repair is higher than the regularly updated insurance value. Nevertheless, there is a strong presumption against disposal for any reason, and any such decision will be taken only after due consideration by the Art Committee acting on advice of professional curatorial staff at recognised museum and gallery collections, and not by the Curator of the Collection acting alone.

In the event of a decision to dispose of a work, the College will contact the artist, donor or appropriate estate, giving details of the work involved and allowing a period of at least two months for interest in the return of the work to be expressed. Full records will be kept of all such decisions and of the works involved, and proper arrangements made for the preservation or transfer (as appropriate) of the relevant documentation, including photographic records.

In the event of the disbandment or reduction of the Collection, the artist or donor will be contacted and allowed a period of at least two months for interest in the return of the work to be expressed. If the artist or donor does not wish for the work to be returned, it will be offered to another appropriate collection, in the first instance, or disposed of.

The procedures which the College will use in disposing of collections are described in more detail in section 16.


VI    Legal and Ethical Framework for Acquisition and Disposal of Items 

The College recognises its responsibility to work within the parameters of the Museum Association Code of Ethics when considering acquisition and disposal.


VII   Collecting Policies of other Museums 

The College will take account of the collecting policies of other museums and other organisations collecting in the same or related areas or subject fields, including other museums within the University of Cambridge. It will consult with these organisations where conflicts of interest may arise or to define areas of specialism, in order to avoid unnecessary duplication and waste of resources.


VIII Archival holdings 

The College holds limited archives relating to the Women’s Art Collection. These are kept in the College Library and are managed by the College Archivist under the College Librarian.  Any material associated with an artist in the Collection, that refers to an exhibition or their work is collected and given to the Archivist to be added to an archival box allocated to each artist.  This includes leaflets, press cuttings and catalogues.  These additions are sometimes sent in by the artists and otherwise collected on ad hoc bases by the Curator and College Administrator. We are not seeking Accreditation for our archive.


IX     Acquisition

  1. The policy for agreeing acquisitions is described in section 4 (above)
  2. The College will not acquire any object or specimen unless it is satisfied that the object or specimen has not been acquired in, or exported from, its country of origin (or any intermediate country in which it may have been legally owned) in violation of that country’s laws. (For the purposes of this paragraph ‘country of origin’ includes the United Kingdom).
  3. In accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which the UK ratified with effect from November 1 2002, and the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, the College will reject any items that have been illicitly traded, guided by national guidance on the responsible acquisition of cultural property issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2005.


X      Human remains

The College does not hold, or intend to acquire, any human remains.


XI              Biological and geological material

So far as biological and geological material is concerned, the College will not acquire by any direct or indirect means any specimen that has been collected, sold or otherwise transferred in contravention of any national or international wildlife protection or natural history conservation law or treaty of the United Kingdom or any other country, except with the express consent of an appropriate outside authority.


XII            Archaeological Material

The Collection will not acquire any archaeological material.


XIII           Exceptions

Any exceptions to the above clauses will only be because the College is:

  • acting as an externally approved repository of last resort for material of local (UK) origin
  • acting with the permission of authorities with the requisite jurisdiction in the country of origin

In these cases the College will be open and transparent in the way it makes decisions and will act only with the express consent of an appropriate outside authority. The College will document when these exceptions occur.


XIV          Spoliation 

The College will use the statement of principles ‘Spoliation of Works of Art during the Nazi, Holocaust and World War II period’ issued for non-national museums in 1999 by the Museums and Galleries Commission.


XV            The Repatriation and Restitution of Objects and Human Remains

The Women’s Art Collection does not contain any human remains.


XVI          Disposal Procedures  

In addition to the general principles on disposal outlined in section 5.

  1. All disposals will be undertaken with reference to the SPECTRUM Primary Procedures on disposal.
  2. The College will confirm that it is legally free to dispose of an item. Agreements on disposal made with donors will also be taken into account.
  3. When disposal of an object is being considered, the College will establish if it was acquired with the aid of an external funding organisation. In such cases, any conditions attached to the original grant will be followed. This may include repayment of the original grant and a proportion of the proceeds if the item is disposed of by sale.
  4. When disposal is motivated by curatorial reasons the procedures outlined below will be followed and the method of disposal may be by gift, sale, exchange or as a last resort – destruction.
  5. The decision to dispose of material from the collections will be taken by the College only after full consideration of the reasons for disposal. Other factors including public benefit, the implications for the College’s collections and collections held by museums and other organisations collecting the same material or in related fields will be considered. Expert advice will be obtained and the views of stakeholders such as donors, researchers, local and source communities and others served by the museum will also be sought.
  6. A decision to dispose of a specimen or object, whether by gift, exchange, sale or destruction (in the case of an item too badly damaged or deteriorated to be of any use for the purposes of the collections or for reasons of health and safety), will be the responsibility of the College acting on the advice of professional curatorial staff, if any, and not of the curator or manager of the collection acting alone.
  7. Once a decision to dispose of material in the Collection has been taken, priority will be given to retaining it within the public domain. It will therefore be offered in the first instance, by gift or sale, directly to other Accredited Museums likely to be interested in its acquisition.
  8. If the material is not acquired by any Accredited museum to which it was offered as a gift or for sale, then the museum community at large will be advised of the intention to dispose of the material normally through a notice on the Museums’ Association Find an Object web listing service, an announcement in the Museums Association’s Museums Journal or in other specialist publications and websites (as appropriate).
  9. The announcement relating to gift or sale will indicate the number and nature of specimens or objects involved, and the basis on which the material will be transferred to another institution. Preference will be given to expressions of interest from other Accredited Museums. A period of at least two months will be allowed for an interest in acquiring the material to be expressed. At the end of this period, if no expressions of interest have been received the College may consider disposing of the material to other interested individuals and organisations, giving priority to organisations in the public domain.
  10. Any monies received by the College from the disposal of items will be applied solely and directly for the benefit of the collections. This normally means the purchase of further acquisitions. In exceptional cases, improvements relating to the care of collections in order to meet or exceed Accreditation requirements relating to the risk of damage to and deterioration of the collections may be justifiable. Any monies received in compensation for the damage, loss or destruction of items will be applied in the same way. Advice on those cases where the monies are intended to be used for the care of collections will be sought from the Arts Council England.
  11. The proceeds of a sale will be allocated so it can be demonstrated that they are spent in a manner compatible with the requirements of the Accreditation standard. Money will be restricted to the long-term sustainability, use and development of the Collection.
  12. Full records will be kept of all decisions on disposals and the items involved and proper arrangements made for the preservation and/or transfer, as appropriate, of the documentation relating to the items concerned, including photographic records where practicable in accordance with SPECTRUM Procedure on deaccession and disposal.


Disposal by exchange 

  1. The museum will not dispose of items by exchange.


Disposal by destruction 

  1. If it is not possible to dispose of an object through transfer or sale the governing body may decide to destroy it.
  2. It is acceptable to destroy material of low intrinsic significance (duplicate mass-produced articles or common specimens which lack significant provenance) where no alternative method of disposal can be found.
  3. Destruction is also an acceptable method of disposal in cases where an object is in extremely poor condition, has high associated health and safety risks, or is part of an approved destructive testing request identified in an organisation’s research policy.
  4. Where necessary, specialist advice will be sought to establish the appropriate method of destruction. Health and safety risk assessments will be carried out by trained staff where required.
  5. The destruction of objects should be witnessed by an appropriate member of the museum workforce. In circumstances where this is not possible, g. the destruction of controlled substances, a police certificate should be obtained and kept in the relevant object history file.