Category Archives: Contemporary Curating

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.