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!