A drawing collected by Rugby Musuem and Art Gallery

How are museums collecting during coronavirus lockdown?

Rebecca Atkinson, 03.04.2020
Museums urged to consider ethics as collecting projects get underway
As coronavirus lockdown continues, many museums are starting to look at how they document this extraordinary moment in time.

Some organisations are asking their audiences to share their thoughts, feelings and activities while stuck at home. Others are looking to collect official signage and objects such as face masks, or are documenting responses to the crisis on social media platforms and elsewhere online.

The Museums Associations has released a statement detailing how museums can approach contemporary collecting of Covid-19 material with “sensitivity and respect” and act in an ethical way.

“We should consider how we engage the public in any contemporary collecting of Covid-19 material in a supportive and considered way," the statement says. "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.

“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.”


Earlier this week, London Transport Museum’s (LTM) published its Contemporary Collecting Ethical Toolkit, which aims to help museums navigate the ethical considerations when collecting contemporary material.

It includes guides and case studies for contemporary collecting projects on a variety of subjects, such as traumatic and distressing experiences, and includes advice on digital preservation.

The Contemporary Collecting Ethical Toolkit is available as an online pdf.

Discussing contemporary collecting on Twitter, Ellie Miles, a documentary curator at the LTM and one of the guide's editors, wrote: “It's okay if you don't have a collecting project underway right now on the subject of the pandemic.

"Don't burn out racing to get a responsive project underway in a race against time. Not a criticism of anyone who has work underway, just to recognise that not everyone can or ought to right now.”

People's History Museum in Manchester is taking this approach. It is creating a detailed plan examining themes and trends as well as the ethical considerations.

The museum's collections officer, Sam Jenkins, says a lot of forthcoming conversations will be about future collecting when the building has reopened.

"I think it feels like we all need to be collecting now, but if I've learnt anything from collecting Brexit, it's that people know they're living through a historically significant moment, and will most likely still have this stuff when it comes to an end," she adds. "Slowing down and thinking through things won't mean we miss out on collecting."

Jenny Shaw, collection development manager at the Wellcome Collection in London, has identified a number of points museums looking to collect coronavirus material might consider:

  • Do nothing that exacerbates the crisis, detracts from the emergency response or distracts those who are involved in it.
  • Respect the impact of the crisis; be sensitive to the fact that lives are at risk and may be lost, and that requiring staff and collaborators to work on a matter that may also affect them directly can cause harm.
  • Ensure that organisations work within their collections development policies.
  • Maintain standards of assessment, documentation and planning but recognising the additional need to record appropriate consents for future use and, potentially, next of kin information.
  • Ensure that producers and artists are paid a fair price for their work, and that wherever possible collecting institutions provide active support back to those they seek to collect from.

Below are a selection of examples of how different types of museums are approaching the documentation of Covid-19 lockdown.

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) launched its rapid response collecting programme five years ago, adding 35 objects to its collections. Despite the name, senior curator Corinna Gardner, who leads the programme, says it is currently “observing and interrogating” the world-changing Covid-19 pandemic before making any decisions about what design objects “speak of the moment” and have traction.

Gardner says knowing when to act and acquire an object is challenging under normal circumstances, but the fast-paced environment we currently find ourselves in makes this even more tricky. In addition, key to the rapid response programme is knowing when putting the contemporary objects it has collected on display – which is a challenge with the museum closed until further notice.

Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Winnipeg

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights is asking people to create and share videos responding to the question: “What acts of kindness have lifted your spirits during the Covid-19 pandemic?”

Selected videos will then appear on the museum’s website.
 
The Museum of Cardiff

In Cardiff, Cardiff People First, an advocacy organisation for people with learning disabilities, approached the Museum of Cardiff for advice on how to tell the story of people with a learning disability in Cardiff during lockdown.

Victoria Rogers, the Museum of Cardiff’s museum manager, says: “This is part of the work we're doing at the moment around Covid-19, both in terms of accessing our services in different ways and in terms of collecting. This particular aspect demonstrates how our long standing community partnerships are.”

The museum has invited other community partners to collect their experiences too, through the written word, videos, interviews and so on.

“In terms of what we'll do with the material - we're going to be really open.  I think I'd say it's too early to say yet,” Rogers says. “It'll all enter into our collection in some way so it'll be there for the long term, but in terms of short or medium-term use we're going to see what the appetite is in terms of how people want us to use it (online  or in an exhibition for example) but also when they'll want to see it.

"This material might not be of interest or wanted as soon as we're all allowed back out of our houses.”

Tenby Museum and Art Gallery

Tenby Museum and Art Gallery in South West Wales has launched a Museum of Memories project that asks people to “create a snapshot of history from your own home” by collecting newspaper and magazine clippings; drawing pictures and writing letters and diaries; and keeping scrapbooks.

The museum plans to put on a display of objects when it reopens and will also share material via its Facebook page.

Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

The Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum in Northern Ireland has a contemporary collecting project called Covid-19 and Me.

It is inviting people to share their experiences of this time, through stories, photographs, drawings and videos.

The Museum of Ordinary People, Brighton

The Museum of Ordinary People has invited about 150 people in Brighton and the wider UK to keep a journal documenting their ordinary daily experience of the crisis.

Lucy Malone, one of the museum’s co-founders, says: “These Times project is a response to thinking about who collects experience, who tells the stories and how they are told. It is a way of thinking ahead of the curve, about what might be important to record and to learn about in the future. Rather than letting large institutions collect and direct, we lead and represent.”

Journals have been delivered to participant, but how they document their experiences is up to them.

Rugby Art Gallery and Museum

Rugby Art Gallery and Museum is using Facebook and local press articles to invite people to help capture their experiences of lockdown.

Collections officer Penny Arscott says it has had a lot of responses, including diaries, videos of the NHS applause and photographs.

“We will look at accessioning some of the objects and at putting on an exhibition,” she adds.

Heritage Doncaster

A group of Doncaster-based curators is opening a digital Living Room Museum today, which will feature stories of objects people have on display in their own homes.

The exhibition, which aims to tackle social isolation during the lockdown, will also help promote the opening of the new Danum Gallery, Library and Museum later this year.
 
National Football Museum, Manchester

The National Football Museum is in the early stages of launching a collecting project exploring how football clubs, players and fans are reacting and responding to the crisis.

Curators and volunteers are searching social media platforms for examples of how clubs and players are responding and being affected by coronavirus.

The museum is also interested in collecting printed programmes for matches that were subsequently cancelled, documenting clubs that are doing other work during the lockdown.

Leeds Museums & Galleries

Leeds Museums & Galleries has used its social media platforms to ask people to share their experiences around the coronavirus outbreak. Head of collections and programmes Yvonne Hardman says it has had about 20 responses so far – “some poignant, some humorous, but all very human”. Some may be added to the permanent collection.

The museum service has also put a call out for signs such as shops not accepting cash. Hardman says these objects will be included in the Money Talks at Leeds City Museum in February 2021.

Leeds City Museum’s young volunteers, The Preservative Party, is working on a display about mental health, and during the crisis they are using Twitter and Instagram to discuss issues around this. The stories being collected will be used in a short animation about isolation.

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