A watershed for the sector

Museums have learned a huge amount while acquiring items related to the pandemic and it could have a lasting impact on the sector. Simon Stephens reports
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Simon Stephens
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The Museum of London studied how the capital’s Muslim community experienced Ramadan during lockdown, as part of its Collecting Covid project
The Museum of London studied how the capital’s Muslim community experienced Ramadan during lockdown, as part of its Collecting Covid project Museum of London (c) Shabna Begum

The Covid-19 crisis has thrown up a range of challenges for museums, not least of which has been collecting material from the pandemic itself. Museums, not always the most fastest-moving institutions, had to quickly decide how and what to collect, while doing it in a sensitive and ethical way.

Those collecting material, as they hastily created Covid-19 collecting policies, quickly realised that sharing information, expertise and ideas with others doing similar work was vital. And they soon found a platform to facilitate this in Slack – an online collaboration hub designed to help teams work together.

“We wanted to develop a network that allowed individuals to contact and collaborate with each other, and Slack seemed like a simple and dynamic interface to use to allow people to do this,” says Elena Carter, collections development archivist at the Wellcome Collection, who set up Slack in early April. “It allows people to connect with others in a way that is fluid and easy.”

As a broad range of organisations was interested in collecting Covid-19 material, from community groups to national museums, it was important that it was also an accessible and non-hierarchical forum.

“A big factor was that it needed to be collaborative, and to be open to anyone that was interested in the topic,” says Carter. “It is just the process of learning from each other, it’s so simple, but it has meant collectors have felt clear unity in wanting to get this right and to do it ethically.”
As it is a global pandemic, the platform needed to work internationally, and Slack made this possible.

“We had an awareness that this was a unique movement in time and that the experience was being shared across the world,” says Carter. “The international aspect is important to us and we are aware that there are things that we can learn from other organisations across the world which might approach things slightly differently.”

Those involved also knew that they had to move quickly if they were to collect material from a rapidly evolving and unpredictable pandemic. Digital technology was a big part of making this happen.

“We have been using technology that already exists, but it is about being agile and not waiting for things to be signed off,” says Carter. “That’s something to take forward.”

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Digital technology not only helped those involved support each other, it was also an important way to collect the material itself, particularly during lockdown when physical contact was largely prohibited.

“We have been able to collect material using an online form for the first time, utilising our recently redeveloped website,” says Danielle Patten, curator (research) at the Museum of the Home in London. “It has allowed us to reach a more diverse group of participants and be able to sort through the material quickly, so we can use it almost instantly on our website and social media channels.”

Patten has found that this approach has helped to generate further submissions and build relationships with participants in its Stay Home project, which has been asking people to share their experiences of home life during lockdown by answering seven questions and submitting photographs, videos and voice recordings. People also had the option to submit lockdown diaries to record daily changes and struggles.

We had an awareness that this was a unique movement in time and that the experience was being shared across the world

Elena Carter, archivist, Wellcome Collection

“A method of reaching people easily and quickly has been especially important, as the channels we usually use, such as youth groups, community centres and health services, have been closed or are diverting their resources towards the crisis,” says Patten.

Despite the challenges of collecting during lockdown, many museums managed to acquire a dizzying range of Covid-19 material. Among the items that National Museums Liverpool now has in its collection are a facemask featuring Hilda Ogden, a former character in TV soap opera Coronation Street, as an example of an independent maker’s diversification during lockdown; a police notice left on a local resident’s car asking “why are you here today?”; and hand sanitiser made by craft-beer company BrewDog. The collection also includes furlough letters; locally made “I Love the NHS” T-shirts; knitted nurse dolls wearing facemasks.

Museums Sheffield has added knitted nurse dolls wearing facemasks to its collection Museums Sheffield

Whatever is being collected, the aim of many organisations is to find material that shows how people are experiencing a worldwide event at a local level.

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Kay Jones, the lead curator of urban and community history at the Museum of Liverpool, says the key stories she is trying to tell include how local people have responded to the pandemic through examples of community activism and collective action, the inequalities in society that are being exposed by the crisis, and how rules are communicated and enforced – and the consequences, or not, of breaking these rules.

Amgueddfa Cymru’s (National Museum Wales) Collecting Covid: Wales 2020 questionnaire has been asking individuals, communities and organisations to document their experiences of living through the coronavirus pandemic.

The mass-observation approach has been used by Amgueddfa Cymru to collect information during previous times of rapid societal and political change. It started to use questionnaires as a collecting tool in 1937 and continued to do so until the 1980s. The Collecting Covid questionnaire is the first to be launched by the museum in the digital age.

“The reflective style of the questions allows people to voice their emotions and feelings, as well as their hopes and fears for the future,” says Elen Phillips, the principal curator, contemporary and community history, at Amgueddfa Cymru. “We are receiving deeply moving accounts of loss and trauma, anxiety and loneliness, alongside stories of community resilience and kindness.”

A person who is shielding gets shopping delivered during lockdown National Museum Wales

With the public experiencing a range of challenging emotions during the pandemic, museums have had to be mindful of their ethical obligations to the communities that they serve.

“The ethical side of collecting Covid-19 has been a key part of our thinking,” says Clara Morgan at Museums Sheffield. “Being mindful that this is a difficult and unprecedented situation, and that everyone has their own personal experiences, worries and sadness has been hugely important throughout the collecting process.”

Morgan says that, apart from local artists who have made work during this period that Museums Sheffield would like to acquire, it has not directly approached anyone, as this might be intrusive and potentially upsetting. As the situation moves forward, it hopes to engage in more direct conversations.

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The work of many of those involved has been underpinned by the Museums Association’s statement on the ethics of Covid-19 contemporary collecting, which was issued on 3 April (see box).

Those collecting Covid-19 material have learned a lot in a short space of time, including how to how to collect ethically, how to make best use of digital technology, and how to engage and support communities during challenging times.

“This is an ongoing process and we’ll continue to think carefully, reflecting on the past few months and looking at how the period can inform what we do going forward,” says Morgan. “Collecting through a major shared experience such as this is unlike anything we’ve done before though, and there’s likely to be some valuable learning that comes out of it.”

Many are keen for there to be a positive legacy from this period, and want their work to be more collaborative, responsive and agile. Much of this has been achieved using digital technology, which will have a big impact on future ways of working. People are also thinking about the impact it might have on their relationship with communities

The beer company Brew Dog switched production to hand sanitiser during lockdown Image courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Amgueddfa Cymru has received funding from the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Sustaining Engagement with Collections Fund to revisit 800 questionnaires in its archive. The aim is to use this collecting methodology as a foundation to develop a new way of working with communities in post-Covid-19 Wales.

“We want to achieve a radical rethinking in the way that we work with communities across Wales – one that draws on our existing collection and collecting methods of the past for its intellectual and social inspiration,” says Phillips at Amgueddfa Cymru. “We want this project to be the catalyst for creating a network of community collectors across Wales, so that we are well equipped in the future to deal with collecting opportunities when they arise. Our aim is also to reach communities whose histories and voices are not currently represented in the collection.”

The Museum of the Home also hopes that its Covid-19 collecting work will result in new relationships with communities.

“A hugely beneficial impact for the museum and our audiences lies in the shift Stay Home has initiated, moving away from collections engagement purely in a physical way on our site, towards a digital format we can use more dynamically and disseminate widely,” says Patten. “We need to make participation in these projects as accessible as possible. We are looking at ways of breaking down barriers, so that more people feel empowered to contribute in the future.”

MA’s statement on the ethics of Covid-19 contemporary collecting

While it is important that museums record the Covid-19 pandemic, which is having an impact on the whole of society on an international scale, we clearly need to be approaching contemporary collecting with sensitivity and respect.  

Museums have responded incredibly well to the crisis, supporting staff and volunteers, closing institutions and ensuring their collections and spaces are safe and secure, as well as donating food and equipment to points of need. It is important that we put the needs of our communities and the public first in this crisis.  

In regard to contemporary collecting we should think about being respectful, sensitive and ethical. In the current crisis all three principles of the Code of Ethics apply to the work of museums and we should bear them in mind in all that we do.  

Public benefit and engagement: we should be thinking about how we keep our public engaged when our institutions are closed; there has already been a huge amount of digital innovation, from putting collections online to repurposing existing tours and content. 

In addition we should consider how we engage the public in any contemporary collecting of Covid-19 material in a supportive and considered way. We should also consider how we support our communities and community partners and seek to add value where we can to wider efforts. 

Stewardship of collections: the Code states that we should acquire collections “with transparency and competency in order to generate knowledge and engage the public.” We should be open about what we are collecting and why, and should consider the interpretation and care of digital items including social media posts and other material.  

Individual and institutional integrity: the Code states that museums should uphold the highest levels of integrity; this especially applies when collecting contemporary items in this crisis. We should be open about what we are doing, clear about our motivations and respectful of people’s emotions and feelings. This also applies to our support for staff and volunteers. 

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