Collecting ethically, sustainably and responsibly during a crisis - Museums Association

Collecting ethically, sustainably and responsibly during a crisis

Jenny Shaw from Wellcome Collection shares its approach
Jenny Shaw
Women health zines Wellcome Collection
Preserving material in our collections for future generations is vital to our mission at Wellcome Collection and we have been exploring what collecting during the coronavirus outbreak means to us as an organisation which aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health. How to approach collecting during a public health emergency can feel overwhelming and it can be difficult to know where to start. We have been taking the time to really think about how we collect, rather than what, so that our approach is ethical, sensitive and collaborative. Here are our tips:   1. Play the long game
Covid-19 is going to impact on our lives for many years and will probably fall into several different stages. Museums should think about who they already work with, and what support those organisations might need.
Right now, the Wellcome is prioritising by focusing our current collecting on what might disappear or be quickly superseded and replaced. We are also looking at our existing relationships with external organisations, such as charities working in mental health. They will be creating material about their response to this pandemic and we can reach out to them to offer support to ensure that historically important records are preserved for future transfer to our collections. Good digital record-keeping is unlikely to grab any headlines, but it will prevent records of Covid-19 disappearing into a digital blackhole. 2. Build on your strengths
Consider how to build on your existing collection strengths and look for material that intersects with work you have already prioritised. You might find this a great place to start for acquiring new material.
We are continuing to work within the remit and spirit of our Collections Development Policy As part of our commitment to access, diversity and inclusion we’re interested in balancing the expert medical voice with lived experience of health. The Museum of Ordinary People in Brighton is doing great work in collecting lived experience too; you can follow its work on Twitter and via #TheseTimes. At Wellcome Collection we are interested in whose voice is included or excluded from our collections, and we are bringing this into our Covid-19 work. It is already clear that the impact of the disease varies considerably based on ethnicity, age or gender.   We are looking where material is being created in relation to our active collecting over the last few years – for example, there has been some wonderful creative responses in the form of zines and comics that express lived experience and intersect with issues around disability, gender, sexuality and fertility that build on the strengths in our collections.
3. Be generous
Through the generous sharing of knowledge and expertise we can all achieve so much more than working alone. It is amazing to see how heritage organisations across the world are connecting to think through the what, how and why of collecting Covid-19. We are benefitting by learning from other experienced organisations, such as the Oral History Society and the UK Web Archive at the British Library, and in return we are sharing our experience as widely as possible. It is vital that we support each other and do what is best for all of our incredible collections rather than cherry-picking material that is easy to collect or high profile. 4. Be sensitive and mindful of others
This is probably the greatest collecting challenge we have faced, but it’s important to remember that Covid-19 is a fatal disease that is having wide-ranging impacts on lives.
Many individuals and organisations are overwhelmed by the present situation and some are at serious risk. Many collecting institutions are living with funding uncertainties and threats of closure themselves. We are trying hard to ensure that the method and tone of our collecting is respectful and not distracting anyone from work directly related to the pandemic response. Remember to look after yourselves and your colleagues too.      5. Think digital
With workplaces closed it is difficult to acquire material in physical formats. There is a need to adapt and think practicality.
Acquiring digital material is still feasible (technology permitting) so we are continuing to acquire small amounts of digital material. We have adapted a lot of our own processes to be digital and remote. Our regular collections development meetings are now held via Teams and we are using digital signatures for transfer paperwork. The great news is that, with so many people responding to this situation digitally, there is a wealth of opportunities out there. A Journal of the Plague Year is an interesting project that invites people to share their stories from their experience of this coronavirus outbreak for the future.

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