Contemporary collecting is a specialism

Ellie Miles, Issue 119/02, 06.02.2019
Informal networks are helping connect people working in this vibrant field
There’s no subject specialist network for contemporary collecting in the UK – because not everyone agrees that it’s a specialism.

Collections 2030 argued that contemporary collecting was “widely viewed” as being at a low ebb in museums, despite acquisitions at UK museums last year including, to name only a few: contemporary art; menstrual products; smartphones; printed ephemera; social media posts; maps relating to forced migration; fashion, costume and textiles; oral histories; part of a fatberg; plenty of placards; Mo Salah’s football boots; computer games; ferry signs; a booth from a curry house; and petrol coupons from an army base.

The Collections 2030 report stressed the need for networked thinking and support if museums are to sustain collections expertise, as these networks can help collections knowledge survive staff moves and short-term projects. The breadth of contemporary collecting activity makes it a vibrant field, but the sheer variety of material being acquired means it’s difficult to support through the subject specialist network structure.  

There’s a significant tradition of contemporary collecting in many disciplines, and trends within each of these. Many of us have seen what seem like contemporary collecting mistakes, and these can have serious (and expensive) repercussions, when accessioning is more straightforward than disposal.

In place of a formal, funded network, informal networks have stepped in to make connections between people working on what’s important to preserve about today. One active collective is the Contemporary Collecting Group, which holds several events a year, and now has a mailing list.

It includes people working with collections focused on design, medicine, cartography, sports, music, conflict, transport, science, ethnography, political ephemera, contemporary archaeology, social history, industrial history, local history and digital preservation. It’s a light-touch network with an open remit that links the UK web archive, which collects millions of websites a year, to pop-up museums, which have no permanent collection.  

Through discussions, we’ve found that although different disciplines bring their own methods to acquiring contemporary material, we have questions in common. Sharing information about techniques developed for different material has brought interesting fresh approaches and suggests new collaborations. An ecosystem of collections, in which museums work together, rather than vying for high-profile objects, feels closer.

Understanding contemporary collecting as a cross-disciplinary specialism would be a huge step forward in helping share best practice.
 
With recognition and support, it could flourish properly for a long time to come. At its most fundamental, contemporary collecting is keeping the material of today for tomorrow, and without better support, we risk losing our own work.

Ellie Miles is a documentary curator at the London Transport Museum

This article was written with insight from Susanna Cordner, a documentary curator at the London Transport Museum

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