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What is Contemporary Collecting?

By Ellie Miles, Documentary Curator

When Southgate station was renamed ‘Gareth Southgate’, when Transport for London‘s staff members took part in Brighton Trans Pride, and when the tube driver Harvey Mitchell stopped his train to pay tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, London Transport Museum’s Documentary Curators were at the ready to follow and record these stories and to bring them into the Museum’s collections.

Gareth Southgate roundel
Gareth Southgate roundel

These news-worthy events are one side of the contemporary collecting work that I do alongside my colleague Susanna Cordner; sometimes we collect the exceptions – things that don’t happen every day – and sometimes we collect things that seem ordinary now but will be hard to get hold of in a few weeks, months or years.

Ellie Miles, Documentary Curator

As well as reacting to unexpected events, there are some projects that we can plan for. Over the next few years we’ll be running a collecting project in places where Crossrail stations are being built, to see how the new line changes the local areas.

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

Working with groups like OUTbound (TfL’s LGBT+ Staff network) means that sometimes we can find and record stories that wouldn’t be shared elsewhere.

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

Our aim is to collect objects and stories that tell us about the times we are living in. 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 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 future fruition.

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

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 to 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 that you would like to share, please send us an email at documentarycurator@ltmuseum.co.uk.