Conversations around Contemporary Collecting

A guest post from Irit, Cat and Harriet on contemporary collecting

Throughout the content planning and development process for our new South Asia Gallery, a small group of us (from across the collections, conservation, learning and engagement teams) have been doing some background research into contemporary collecting as a means of gathering objects and stories from our local communities. Over the last year, we have visited a number of organisations and spoken to various individuals who have used contemporary collecting in a variety of different ways and with varying degrees of success.

As part of this work, a group of 6 museum staff attended a Contemporary Collecting Working Group meeting at the People’s History Museum. This was a great opportunity for us to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges around contemporary collecting with other interested museum professionals, and to share our own experiences, around the life jacket, Shabtis: Suspended Truth, and the creation of the Memories of Partition exhibition, on which Harriet writes more below:

I was really excited to be part of the presentation given by Manchester Museum at the Contemporary Collecting Group meeting a couple of weeks ago at the People’s History Museum. It was a great opportunity to hear from other institutions about their approach to collecting and to think about the Memories of Partition project within that rich and diverse context. I have spent the last year interviewing members of Manchester’s diverse South Asian communities, collecting oral histories of direct witnesses to the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. I have also recorded the feelings and experiences of subsequent generations who were keen to explore the legacy of Partition and its ongoing impact on British Asian identity. These stories formed the basis of the Memories of Partition exhibition which has been open to the public at Manchester Museum since August 2017. In addition to the oral history interviews, I collected a range of personal objects (ranging from photographs to domestic items) that interviewees wanted to loan for inclusion in the exhibition.

Presenting my experiences of coordinating the Memories of Partition project led to some interesting discussion about what happens to stories and objects once a time-limited project has been completed? How do we keep momentum going and respond meaningfully to individuals and communities who have become inspired to learn and do more after their initial participation? I was particularly interested to hear from a representative from Islington Museum who is currently developing and delivering a project exploring the stories and significance associated with the recently closed Holloway Women’s Prison. Like Memories of Partition, engaging with former inmates, staff and family members impacted by such a significant institution may open up traumatic memories and legacies. Who is responsible for unearthing and honouring these memories? How do we, as museums, facilitate those conversations and provide closure for those sharing their memories? Would a longer-term approach to this kind of collecting lead to more meaningful engagement for both museums and their audiences? If so, how can we support these relationships to ensure that they continue in the longer term?

Harriet talking about Memories of Partition

These ideas and questions around how we successfully engage communities and individuals in our contemporary collecting strategy, will require further thought and discussion as we move forward with our work towards the new British Museum partnership South Asia Gallery, as part of the Courtyard Project.


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