Contemporary Collecting: An Ethical Toolkit for Museum Practitioners

By Ellie Miles, Documentary Curator

Keeping records of the times we are living through is part of the work of many museums. Collecting the here and now brings up all sorts of questions. It is a complicated process working out what stories, objects and experiences can or should be added to museum collections. There are lots of ways to decide and lots of decisions that need to be made.

Over the last year, we’ve been finding advice for how to approach this work from a group of museum workers. We began discussing some of the challenges during a workshop for the Contemporary Collecting Group at London Transport Museum in spring 2019. Then we carried out an online survey for further discussion. In summer the contemporary collecting toolkit was published by Museums Development North West, and we began producing a document which could sit alongside the 2019 toolkit and shed light on some of the complex ethical issues that come up.

We found five important themes:

  1. Balance, both sides and hate
  2. Decolonisation
  3. Climate emergency
  4. Trauma and distress
  5. Digital preservation

We knew we needed a strong set of contributors to share their experience and started contacting people we’d like to hear from on the range of subjects the workshop and consultation had identified. Working together, we’ve produced a toolkit for ethical contemporary collecting which is ready and live now. It has contributions and case studies from some fantastic and fascinating projects – including museums collecting Snapchat content and Extinction Rebellion protests, as well as museum workers collecting around subjects like homelessness and responses to terrorist attacks.

You can find downloadable versions of the toolkit on our website.

The idea is that this version of the toolkit will continue the conversation. We’d like museum workers, researchers, collaborators and students to use this toolkit and also let us know what they’d like to see in a future edition. Do you think you will find it useful? What advice, topic or case studies stand out to you? What would you like to have further information on? Who else do you want to hear from? What other topics, within the overarching subject of the ethics of contemporary collecting, would you like to address in the future?

We are keen to encourage the use of the toolkit to prompt discussion, collaboration and support across the sector, and hope that, as practice and dialogue on the topics included evolve, that the toolkit can evolve, too.

If you would like to arrange a meet-up or connect to a reading group meet-up, then please send an invitation or email to the Contemporary Collecting Group mailing list.

Shaping London since 1980

By Sam Mullins OBE, Museum Director

When London Transport Museum opened 40 years ago in the old Victorian Flower Market in Covent Garden, it was an anchor development in the revival of the area. The Flower Market had moved out in 1974, but when we opened our doors on 28 March 1980, hoardings still surrounded the Central Market Hall and many of the historic buildings had yet to be restored. Over the past four decades the area has been transformed, with the Museum contributing to the personality of this vibrant quarter of London.

Traders in the Flower Market in Covent Garden © David Thomas Photo Reportage Ltd, 1970s

The relocation of the Museum to Covent Garden from Syon Park was of profound significance. Being part of a newly renovated area of central London with a strong identity and a rich cultural, dining and retail offer, enabled the Museum, its collection and charitable mission to flourish.

The collection has grown from around a thousand objects in 1980 to over 450,000 items, many transferred directly from London Transport. Today our collection is designated of national importance and covers the rich spectrum of transport and society in London; from heritage vehicles to maps and signs, photographs, poster art and architecture as well as audio-visuals and oral histories.

Watercolour darwing of the museum showing the collection of red buses and trolleys
London Transport Collection by Bob Miller ca. 1978

Our charitable work reaches well beyond Covent Garden, across every London borough; our STARS programme teaches every 10-11 year-old Londoner about the safe use of the public transport network. We inspire young people to consider a career in engineering and transport through our Enjoyment to Employment and Inspire Engineering programmes. Our popular Hidden London programme of tours of disused stations and sites of heritage significance further extended our reach and audiences.

In our first year in 1980, the Museum attracted nearly 250,000 visitors. Today we engage almost 400,000 visitors annually. That’s nearly 10 million visits in total since 1980. With some justification, we can boast of being the world’s leading museum of public transportation!

View of London Transport Museum from Covent Garden Piazza by Luca Sage, 2020

The choice of location in 1980 has proved to be inspired. The Museum was placed in Covent Garden to help create a destination that has proved to be very popular. This has enabled the development of a highly successful heritage museum, a key institution for London, an educational charity which uses the story of London and its transport to ignite curiosity and shape the future.

We are marking the Museum’s 40th anniversary with a whole weekend of birthday fun, starting with a special, free Museum Late on Friday 27 March. Find out more here and join us for the celebrations!

New discoveries at Clapham South’s deep-level shelter

Siddy Holloway, Hidden London Engagement Manager

At the southern end of Clapham Common stands a rather peculiar, circular structure that many Londoners walk past every day without thinking much of. Very few people would know it to be the entrance to a Second World War bomb shelter located beneath the Northern line, but that is precisely what it is.

A circular concrete building in the middle of a green area
The entrance to Clapham South’s subterranean shelter, 2018

Clapham South’s deep-level shelter totals over a mile of tunnels and has had an incredibly varied life: originally opened as a wartime shelter in 1944, it was turned into temporary accommodation for thousands of people coming to Britain to visit or live after the Second World War, and it’s now one of our Hidden London sites.

When the Hidden London team first visited the shelter with the aim of doing tours there, it had recently been an archive and racking was covering the walls of the entire site, stretching for over a mile. We cleared most of the racking and started to run tours in 2015.

A an walks between rows of bunk beds in an underground shelter
Archive racking along the walls of the shelter.

The shelter itself is divided into 16 sub-shelters, all named alphabetically to help those who stayed there to remember where in the colossal structure they were bedding down for the night. Every sub-shelter had been used for archive purposes and the original bunk beds in the shelter were converted to archive racking by raising the top bunks up slightly.

Close-up of the top of a wooden bunk bed
Bunk beds converted into archive racking.

While designing the tours back in 2015, we decided that we would take people into seven of the 16 sub-shelters, so that visitors would get a good sense of the place without having to walk for over a mile. We focused on the selected shelters, clearing them up and getting them back to their authentic state, but that meant that the other nine shelters were left largely untouched, awaiting the day we would have the capacity to explore the shelter further.

A sign with arrows and names of the sub-shelters listed in alphabetical order.
An original wayfinding sign in Clapham South directing visitors to different parts of the shelter. Each sub-shelter was named in alphabetical order.

Over the last two years, we have had the opportunity to start clearing out the remaining racking in the shelter and what we found was astounding: hundreds of different messages written on the walls of the shelter by people who had stayed there between 1944-1953. Everything from names and addresses, to the purpose of their visit, and even a few love letters, were all unveiled when we cleared away the racking.

Graffiti on a wall
The history of the shelter written on its walls.

These messages and notes have helped us fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the people who came to stay in the shelter after the Second World War. We knew the shelter had been used as a hostel for Windrush migrants in 1948 and for visitors of the Festival of Britain in 1951, but discovering these graffiti really highlighted the role that Clapham South had played in London’s history during and after the War.

Due to the devastation of the Second World War, with over a million homes destroyed or damaged, anyone looking for accommodation in the Capital had very few options available, and that’s where Clapham South came to use. The shelter housed thousands of people during the War, but even more after it, providing a haven for those who needed it, whilst the country was being rebuilt.

A concrete staircase leading on to a tunnel
The central staircase in Clapham South c. 1942. Since the 1960 that staircase had been filled with racking for the storage of archival materials.

Although the areas we recently cleared are not accessible to the public just yet, removing the archive racking has also restored the main staircase to its former grandeur, to the delight of visitors of the Hidden London tour of Clapham South: Subterranean shelter.

Visit our website for more information about the tour and to book.

Exploring London’s Signs and Symbols

By Stephanie O’Neill-Winbow, Family Learning Officer

It feels like Christmas was just here, but already it’s February half term! If you’re looking for somewhere fun to play and explore during this school holiday, visit the Museum from 15 to 23 February.

We’ve got something very special planned for you:  we are sending you and your family on a mission to explore our galleries and discover the signs and symbols that make London’s transport system the most recognisable in the world. It’s amazing to see how even the littlest of children are able to recognise the roundel as the symbol for the Underground. We’ll be celebrating these visual, familiar and accessible areas of transport through dressing up, role play, object handling, colouring in and problem solving.

In the Transportorium on the ground floor, families will be able to take part in fun games – think party games with a transport twist: you have probably played Simon Says before, but what about the ‘Sign Says’? We’ll also be playing Bingo with symbols instead of numbers. We promise it’ll be quite the laugh! These Transport Games will be running six times a day, every day from 10:45 for about 20 minutes each, so there’s plenty of opportunities for families to join in.

All Aboard play zone

Alongside these special activities, we have our two dedicated All Aboard play zones for children under 7, and our big red buses, trains and a tram that you can climb aboard. Our Customer Service team are friendly, helpful and always ready to share lots of knowledge about the history of London’s transport.  There’s also our Hidden London exhibition, an engaging and exciting glimpse of what goes on underground in London, particularly appealing to older children and adults in your family group.

A child and his mother pretend to use a phone exchange from the 1940s
Hidden London: the Exhibition

As usual for each of our school holidays, we will also run an Explorer Event for families with children with additional needs, on Saturday 22 February from 8:30 to 10:00. During this time, half term activities will be available while all the sounds around the galleries are turned off or turned down, and extra sensory resources are available. If this sounds like the right event for your family to visit the Museum, do make sure to book your place here.

February half term is a busy and energetic time for the Museum – every year we are so lucky that lots of lovely families choose to pay us a visit. This time around, we’re hoping to welcome even more of you!

Museum Late: Night on the tiles

Our Museum Late: Night on the tiles is all about the history of London’s rich nightlife from Victorian music halls and night clubs, to subcultures which have influenced London and the world. Guests can party like the Victorians with Lee Jackson of Victorian London, explore LGBTQI nightlife spaces with Ben Walters of Not Television, and get crafty at workshops with artist Nick Murray and creative producer Christina Tubb.

The Museum of Youth Culture will also be joining us to talk about their latest collecting project, Grown Up In Britain. The museum is a non-profit collection of over 100,000 photographs, ephemera and objects celebrating 100 years of being young in the UK.

Lisa Der Weduwe, Cultural Projects Assistant at the Museum of Youth Culture said:

Everyone has stories about being young and their experiences growing up, from first loves to school days, and the events that shaped who we are today. The Museum of Youth Culture is working to pull together all these incredible stories and build a picture of what it was like growing up in Britain over the last 100 years. 

Launched in November 2019, Grown Up In Britain is a crowd-sourced project that asks a simple question – show us your youth. Whether you have one photograph, some flyers from your favourite gigs or an amazing story to tell, we want you to be part of the Museum of Youth Culture. 

You can submit your photographs and ephemera here.

A carousel of black and white pictures of young people through different eras
A small selection of photographs from the Museum of Youth Culture’s collection.

The Museum of Youth Culture team and our Documentary Curators will be welcoming you at our Museum Late and be on hand to show you some of the items in the Museum of Youth Culture’s collection, and to collect your stories of going out in London and travelling on the night bus or night Tube.

We invite you to bring an item or photo that reminds you of a special night out to show and tell, and celebrate our history together.

Visit our website to see the programme highlights and to book your tickets to our Museum Late: Night on the tiles on 28 February 2020

Celebrating London’s tramways past and present

By Georgia Morley, Curator

We are starting the new year with a celebration of London’s tramways in our new Poster Parade on display at the Museum from 10 January to 26 March 2020.

Drawing of a fleet fo red trams running in the nightime

London’s Tramways, unknown, circa 1929 

The first horse trams in London were introduced in the 1860s, operated by private companies. Although banned from operating in the City and West End, which were still dominated by the omnibus, an extensive tram network developed across the rest of the city.

The arrival of the electric tram in the early 1900s brought cheap transport to the masses. Trams could carry twice as many people as motor buses, and in greater comfort. They were cheap to run, so fares were low, and they were quick and frequent. Despite competition from the first motor buses, the number of passengers using trams grew.

Drawing of a woman holding coloured balloons at a regatta along the river

By Tram from Hammersmith, Wimbledon or Shepherd’s Bush, by Fred Taylor, 1922

London United Tramways (LUT) began London’s first electric tram service in July 1901. They electrified lines between Shepherd’s Bush, Hammersmith, Acton and Kew Bridge. By 1906, ten municipal systems had been set up and by 1914 London operated the largest tram network in Europe. At their peak, over 3,000 trams carried a billion passengers a year over 366 miles of track.

After the First World War tramways began to decline as the motor bus competed for passengers. By the late 1920s, the new buses offered higher standards of comfort, while the pre-war trams were shabby and in need of modernisation.

When London Transport took over all bus, tram and Underground railway operation in the capital in 1933, a massive tram to trolleybus conversion programme began. The tram system was in poor condition with trams increasingly being seen as noisy, dangerous to road users and expensive.

Trolleybuses were cheaper to run and soon attracted more passengers than the trams. Within three years, over half of London’s tram routes had been converted.

Poster showing the drawing of blue and red trolley bus

By trolleybus to Kingston, by F Gregory Brown, 1933

Ironically, the Second World War brought a temporary reprieve for the tram, as the work on the trolleybus conversion was interrupted. Necessary repairs and maintenance were done to keep the tram system running to help the war effort.

After the war however, the remaining trams were replaced by diesel buses. In July 1952, the last tram left Woolwich for New Cross amidst scenes of great sadness. Many trams were scrapped, but some were sold to Leeds where they ran until 1959.

Poster depicting a ticket superimposed on the drawing of a tram

Gone but not forgotten, by Tim Demuth, 1977

Trams were re-introduced into London in 2000, originally run by Tramlink but now owned by TfL. The tram network has 39 stops along 17 miles of track serving Croydon and surrounding areas of south London.

London’s tramways Poster Parade explores the history of trams in London and the rise and fall of the largest tram system in the world. Visit our Poster Parade, at the Museum from 10 January to 26 March 2020 to see our stunning posters up close.

Family Volunteering at the Museum Depot

By Sam Clift, Volunteer Resource Manager

This year we have been striving to reach out to wider audiences with volunteering and provide interesting and meaningful ways for people to get involved with the Museum.

On Saturday 26 October, we hosted our first family volunteering day at the Museum Depot in Acton. The event was hosted in partnership with The Family Volunteering Club, as part of a wider pilot series of events aimed at families in London.

The day provided families with an opportunity to visit our Museum Depot on a weekend afternoon, and spend some recreational time together supporting the Museum. The day focused on working with our London Transport Miniature Railway team, who spend a large part of the year maintaining and investing in the miniature railway from track repairs, to signal upgrades and everything in between to prepare the railway for providing public rides at Depot Open Weekends.

Children and adults sweeping leave off a miniature rail track

Despite the weather being wet and gloomy, everyone arrived with bags of enthusiasm. The group were welcomed in the Depot lecture theatre by Keith Raeburn, Depot Logistics Supervisor, Maddy Mills, founder of The Family Volunteering Club and myself, before heading outdoors to see the miniature railway. Families got stuck in with tidying up the grassy areas, clearing leave from the track (yes that happens on miniature railways too!) and loosening screws on the track ready to be replaced.

A child and an adult wearing a hi-vis jacket screw bolts into the tracks of a miniature rail.

As the rain continued we took some respite by heading into the lecture theatre for tea and coffee and to make use of the soft play facilities. The children enjoyed the down time and it gave time for more informal conversations, with one youngster expressing his enthusiasm for 20th century EMU recognition!

Three cildren play with a wooden train model while sitting on soft mats

The volunteers were rewarded for their efforts with a ride on the miniature railway at the end. All the families enjoyed their time with us, and everyone left with beaming smiles on their faces. Some parents commented:

A patient team who made sure each child had a good experience.

My son asked lots of questions and everyone was lovely and friendly to him. Great experience.

Keep an eye on our website for more volunteering opportunities coming up in 2020!