Gareth Southgate roundel

#AskaCurator

What does a Documentary Curator do?

Gareth Southgate roundel
Gareth Southgate roundel @ London Transport Museum

When Southgate station was renamed ‘Gareth Southgate’, when Transport for London staff members took part in Brighton Trans Pride, and when the tube driver Harvey Mitchell stopped his train to make his tribute to the victims of the Grenfell fire, London Transport Museum was at the ready to follow and record these stories and to bring them to the museum. I’m Ellie Miles, I’m one of the museum’s curators and I have the amazing job title ‘documentary curator’. Susanna and I work as Documentary Curators, and it’s our responsibility to work with the people who experience them to bring current events and everyday life into the museum’s collection.

Ellie Miles, Documentary Curator

These news-worthy events are one side of the contemporary collecting work that we do. Sometimes we collect the exceptions: the things which don’t happen every day. Sometimes we collect the typical: things which seem ordinary now but will be hard to get hold of in a few weeks, months or years. Working with groups like OUTbound (TfL’s LGBT+ Staff network) means that sometimes we can find stories that aren’t shared elsewhere. As well as reacting to unexpected events, there are some things which we can plan for. Over the next few years we’ll be collecting in two local areas with new Crossrail stations, to see how the new line changes them. We always try to collect objects that tell us about the times we are living in.

OUTBound at Brighton Trans pride event, 21st July 2018, photo © Andy De Santis, used with permission
OUTBound at Brighton Trans pride event, 21st July 2018, photo © Andy De Santis, used with permission
Trans pride roundel, in the curators’ offices at London Transport Museum, 20th August 2018, photo © London Transport Museum
Trans pride roundel, in the curators’ offices at London Transport Museum, 20th August 2018, photo © London Transport Museum

This can be difficult because sometimes the ‘real’ object has been destroyed through use and we might only be able to get hold of related material – for instance, the designs or plans for a piece or project. There are some new things that we are still learning to collect: for example, we have a lot of old tickets, but maybe it’s time we collected oyster and contactless journey data.

When we find a suitable object, we propose it for review by the Museum’s Collections Development Group. If the group agree it’ll be a good addition to the collection, is in manageable condition and fits our collecting policy, then the Museum will then preserve it alongside the rest of its objects. Sometimes these things get out on display straight away, but most are kept in the stores, for the future.

Harvey Mitchell, 24th July 2018, photo © London Transport Museum
Harvey Mitchell, 24th July 2018, photo © London Transport Museum

Although we are usually free from discussions about repatriation and the questions that other museums must face about human remains, we still need to think about how we collect responsibly. It’s important that we are inclusive; work respectfully with the people who donate their stories and objects to the museum; and ensure that the acquisitions represent London’s diversity. If we don’t, then we aren’t telling the true story of transport in London at all.

I love working to collect the stories of transport in London today, there is so much so learn and so many fascinating things to discover. We couldn’t do it without everyone taking part and sharing their stories. If you have a contemporary object or story for the Museum send us an email, we’d love to hear it – documentarycurator@ltmuseum.co.uk

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