Ideas

Rapid Response Collecting: Social and political change - by Alice Millard

Alice Millard on how adopting a rapid collection strategy allows museums to keep up-to-date with social and political changes

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The V&A has acquired a Pussyhat worn at the Women’s March attended by an estimated 500,000 people in Washington on 21 January 2017 – the day after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The pink hat was knitted by Jayna Zweiman, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of the Pussyhat Project, which called on people to turn the Women’s March into a ‘sea of pink’ and create a strong visual statement of solidarity for women’s rights in protest against the Trump administration. The hat is now on display in the the Rapid Response Collecting gallery exploring how current global events, political changes and pop cultural phenomena impact, or are influenced by, design, art, architecture and technology.

So this is not breaking news any more, I am more than slightly late for the party, but I think the V&A’s decision to adopt a new strategy of ‘Rapid Response Collecting’ is very cool. Institutions have been collecting contemporary items for years, but in 2014 the V&A deliberately made it their business to immediately collect items from breaking events around the world. For example, they accessioned their first phone app, Flappy Bird, after its creator made the mildly controversial decision to remove it for sale when the public got too obsessed with it. I don’t know how they plan to conserve the app, but it is nevertheless a valuable asset to a museum focused on design and its impact upon society.

My favourite, however, is the pair of cheap and dull trousers from Primark. An item that is so easily collected anyone could do it. But what makes this item collection-worthy is the shared experience of thousands of factory workers employed at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to make Primark clothing. The building collapsed on 24th April 2013 killing 1133 employees and injuring thousands more. This event brought to light the dangerous working conditions of those employed, just so Britain could buy cheap garments. Also, the tragedy highlighted the rapid changing of clothing trends, and the need of the market to keep up, much to the detriment of large communities of people.

It is hard not to be awed by the complex history of a simple pair of trousers. The way that the V&A have constructed this new strategy allows them to respond quickly to modern events without the paperwork and committees needed for new acquisitions. In turn this also allows them to collect in the moment, theoretically meaning that the item chosen will have a stronger historical connection in a few decades.

Museums are no longer places that solely put the past on display. Museums are evolving into spaces for reflection on current events, and although the public engage more critically with what they’re seeing, museums have a unique advantage in that people still trust them as an institution. This unique trust should be put to good use. Adopting a rapid collection strategy enables museums to keep up-to-date with social and political changes, local or global.

The People’s History Museum in Manchester created a wooden ‘EU tunnel’ as a place for visitors to discuss the EU Referendum. Another example is the installation of life jackets worn by refugees in an exhibition called Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond by the Migration Museum Project. The project leaders saw the opportunity to purchase the life jackets and ship them to Britain for the exhibition, and thought it would be a compelling collection that would challenge how visitors view migrants and refugees.

On an more local museum scale, the M Shed in Bristol has a permanent exhibition about the Occupy Bristol protests in 2011. included in the exhibition are items such as a radio, placards, and other objects collected from the protest camp site. The M Shed actually opened a few months later, showing that the decision to accession these items matched the thoughts of the V&A’s Rapid Response strategy, but on a local scale.

Museums are, at heart, democratic. They should be “by rule of the commoners” and the freedom for the public to expect, and demand, exhibitions and events that reflect the rapid way in which we experience the world should be adopted as at least a ‘way-of-thinking’ in museums. Working it into museum policy would be even better.

Alice Millard works with the Learning and Engagement team at The Novium in Chichester to deliver the museum’s learning programme via school workshops, museum sleepovers, and other children’s events. Recently graduated with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she is now building her career in the museum and cultural heritage sector. Alice has a strong passion for museums and archives and is currently working towards a Masters in Cultural Heritage and Resource Management. She writes the Museum of Musings blog: museumofmusings.com.