Contemporary collecting has become an important aspect of Leeds Museums and Galleries’ drive for relevance and inclusion. Historically, it has grown out of co-curated community projects when artworks, films, objects and stories are accessioned as part of the project’s legacy.
But we are also trying to see contemporary collecting as a collective responsibility, and as a dynamic and reactive response to a constantly changing population and city.
During the last year some interesting examples of contemporary collecting have arisen, which have made us consider our different approaches.
Occasionally, as individuals, we find ourselves in the middle of history as it unfolds. Recently our projects curator, Lucy Moore, was involved in the Reclaim the Night demonstrations in Leeds. In the midst of her activism, she recognised that what was happening around her was an important picture of Leeds in 2021.
She spoke to the organisers and participants, and asked if they would consider donating any items to the collection. She then helped to pull this together in a proposal for the Collections Development panel.
Having a panel like this is vital – especially as organisations take part in more “personal” collecting. The boundaries between our beliefs and interests as individuals, and our integrity and balance as professionals can be somewhat established by involving other staff in this process.
During the climate crisis demonstrations of 2019, two members of staff in the community team looked out of windows of the city centre based Leeds City Museum, and realised that hundreds of people congregating on Millennium Square in Leeds was a unique sight. They hurriedly gathered business cards and headed out into the square, where they spoke to as many people as possible, explaining that what was happening was significant and would need recording.
They asked people to consider leaving any discarded placards and leaflets in the museum at the end of the demonstration, along with their contact details. The community team arrived at work the next day to a whole host of placards (although, sadly, no contact details).
Working in small groups with people from different communities in Leeds often gives us a privileged insight into gaps in our collections. If a group is bored or disenfranchised by the objects we show, we know we need to do better, in collaboration with our community partners and friends.
When thinking about contemporary collecting, at the forefront of our minds are questions like “what will future people of Leeds need to see and hear to understand what Leeds is like now?”
The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example of this. Plenty of material culture has been created which visually represents the pandemic – masks, hand sanitiser, social distancing signs. But it also seemed vital to record people’s experiences. Assistant community curator Marek Romaniszyn actively asked for people to submit items relating to the pandemic and lockdown.
He made links with groups he had previously worked with and used social media channels to put an open call out. The response was overwhelming: unique artworks, photographs, and community and individual art projects. Individuals in Leeds could curate their own response to the pandemic to help the museum curate a diverse, personal and relevant record.
Leeds Museums and Galleries still actively collects items as part of community projects. Recently we have acquired: a series of items documenting the grass roots Rock Against Racism in Leeds; a film and certificate from a midwife who migrated to Leeds from St Kitts in 1958; and homemade items of clothing worn to Leeds Pride.
Partnerships with local groups such as West Yorkshire Queer Stories has seen Leeds Museums and Galleries begin to house community collections. But by simply observing and taking part in Leeds, we can react to events as they happen and help nurture communities to find the best way to record these events.
It is not straight forward – we still need to navigate ethical considerations particularly regarding shared decision making and consent as well as logistical issues regarding storage and space.
But by seeing collecting as a collective response to life as it occurs, we can ensure that multiple experiences of Leeds are preserved for the future.
Lucy Moore, Marek Romaniszyn and Esther Amis-Hughes are projects curator, assistant community curator and youth engagement officer at Leeds Museums and Galleries