Social Stations – A contemporary collecting project

By Susanna Cordner, Documentary Curator

When I first told friends that my new job at London Transport Museum would involve seeking out social stories about transport, a common response was to ask, Can you find out who keeps the plants at Kew Gardens station so neat? Or Who writes the ‘Thought of the Day’ board at Oval? and other questions along those lines.

I could see there was a strand here: a set of social stories based on the individuals or groups who, through projects and interventions great and small, are making the most of spaces at stations, and making an impact on the staff and passengers who pass through.

A lot of the narrative around transport tends to focus on the means, modes and methods of travel. Before any discussion on what form of transport you use and where it allows you to go, comes a place, a stop or a station. These stops and stations act as both defining pillars of the local area and gateways to a wider world. This makes them a particular breed of public or community space, ripe with opportunities to engage and relate to local need.

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Customer Services Assistant Glen Sutherland with a poster ‘Thought of the day’ at Oval station, 2012. Photo by Stephen Berry from London Transport Museum’s collection. Ref. 2012/56080

I set up our Social Stations Documentary Curator collecting project to celebrate the ways in which these community and grassroots projects are reclaiming, or re-calibrating, spaces at stations for public and/or environmental benefit. Whether simply boosting the mood of passers-by or actually contributing to the local economy and culture, these projects link local people to a local need, and make the most of previously underestimated public spaces which are experienced every day. They can also contribute to your sense of space and community even when you’re en-route.

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Energy Garden’s community gardening at Overground stations
Some of the most exciting moments as a curator come when you can give a new understanding to an object in a collection, and in so doing use it to tell a different story. Through contemporary collecting, you have the opportunity not just to help shape how the present will be remembered once it becomes the past, but also to make people reassess the world around them now. As a result, contemporary collecting involves a lot of conversations, consultation and observation. This means that some of the sources contemporary curators use to gauge a subject and its significance are a little more informal, and perhaps more social, than you’d expect.

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Mural by Aliza Nisenbaum depicting Victoria line staff at Brixton station

For this project I’ve spent a lot of time on messaging boards and social media feeds hunting out the truly local projects that don’t get the credit they deserve on wider platforms. I found the majority of examples we’ve explored because someone had shared a post or comment saying the difference a detail like this makes to their day.

We look forward to sharing some highlights from this collecting project with you soon, and invite you to get in touch with us if you know of a local project you think we should capture, by emailing us at documentarycurator@ltmuseum.co.uk.

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