Contemporary collecting: what’s new?

Our post this week comes from guest blogger Ellie Miles, Contemporary Collecting Curator at the London Transport Museum. 

Back in March 2016 London Transport Museum hosted a symposium to discuss the history of contemporary collecting. With so many interesting contemporary collecting projects taking place it was a good opportunity to reflect on some of these, and examine the history of contemporary collecting.

Six speakers gave presentations, and the discussion ranged from web collecting, to making a mobile museum, to collecting tattooing. Here is Ellie’s summary of the symposium and LTM’s plans for developing further projects around contemporary collecting. If you’d like to be involved in future discussions please get in touch by emailing contemporarycurator@ltmuseum.co.uk


Cathy Ross began the session by looking at examples of contemporary collecting from a century ago – discussing the acquisition of penny toys, keys and costume at the Museum of London. Cathy then identified a series of phases of contemporary collecting, each of which was characterised by different aspirations. Cathy outlined the changing ideas curators have about their work and the approaches they take. Starting with the early aspirations of the head of the Museum for it to ‘hold a mirror up to London today’ and reflect all of society, Cathy brought the discussion up through to a twenty-first century model of the museum as a something more like community radio.

With a focus on the present, Catherine O’Donnell then talked about recent collecting work she had been doing: working with activists to acquire material for the People’s History Museum. Catherine’s presentation highlighted that the people and groups that she was working with conducted their own personal contemporary collecting. Her discussion reflected thoughtfully on the challenges of translating these personal collections to museum collections, with different standards or care and criteria around collections management.

Jen Kavanagh shared her work on collecting for an exhibition about tattooing at the Museum of London. Jen’s talk conveyed one of the huge strengths of contemporary collecting for many museums – the scope to collect very rich stories about objects and artworks when they are acquired and commissioned. Jen played an oral history extract during her talk, and showed new photography demonstrating how well this combination of recording worked with her project. Jen showed how museums could collect a practice by collaborating and engaging with people, even when it can’t collect the product.

After a break Jason Webber presented the work of the British Library’s web archive. Jason showed the striking rate of change and decay online, conveying the rate of loss of web material to show the challenge facing the UK web archive. The huge scale of the British Library’s programme was impressive, but Jason also reflected on the challenges and limitations of their work, which continues to develop.

Verity-Jane Keefe presented the making and thinking that went into the Mobile Museum, an art project that she had been producing over the previous four years. Verity discussed how the project developed, and set her collecting in context with the conversion of a mobile library to a museum, as well as the production of a public programme, a film, and a series of publications. The objects in Verity’s collection are presented in a style influenced by the Horniman Museum’s Natural History Gallery, which invites a new way of looking at objects taken from today and the recent past.

Finally Rachael Minott presented the work-in-progress at the London Transport Museum. Rachael introduced the early stages of an experimental project starting up at the London Transport Museum. Rachael discussed the challenges of trying to capture the working life of Transport for London and the kinds of reassurance project participants needed, summarising their need for their participation to be ‘easy, rewarding and safe’. Rachael suggested the potential of social media for social history collections, and touched on some of the issues about learning to manage born-digital objects.

One audience member highlighted that the whole session had a strong focus on social history, and pointed out that it would be interesting to explore this from the perspectives of other disciplines, such as science museums or art museums.

London Transport Museum’s next steps will be to host a meeting for museum practitioners interested in contemporary collecting, to discuss what kind of networks would be useful to develop between museums working in this area.

If you’d like to be involved in these discussions please get in touch by emailing contemporarycurator@ltmuseum.co.uk