Call for papers: Ethics of Contemporary Collecting

I’ve been working on a book proposal with Susanna, Jen and Rosamund, all about the ethics of contemporary collecting. If you’d like to get involved then drop us a line, submissions due by the 7th Feb 2022.

Download the PDF or find more details below:

Call for papers

Ethics of contemporary collecting

Editors: Susanna Cordner, Jen Kavanagh, Ellie Miles, Rosamund Lily West

In early 2020, museums across the world were forced to close their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These closures then coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, with institutions having to engage with the public in new and remote ways. There have been growing calls both internal and external to the sector to decolonise museum collections, highlighting the need for museums to change their models and approaches to collecting now and in the future. 

A public response to the role cultural organisations play in society and where objects on display come from has played out on social media and in popular culture. This public response has run in tandem with professional discourse and debate on ethical approaches to contemporary collecting. 

A new edited publication aims to answer a sector need. Following the release of three of the editor’s 2020 Arts Council funded ‘Contemporary Collecting: An Ethical Toolkit for Museum Practitioners’, as well as from discussions within the Contemporary Collecting Group, a collective of 300 people engaged with contemporary collecting in museums, a new book is proposed that delves deeper into the subject of ethical contemporary collecting.

This book seeks to:

  • Address a pressing and pertinent issue with individual practitioners and institutions alike in this cultural moment
  • Explore and critique the balance of power between museums and the people they work with, including audiences, project participants and donors 
  • Inform, train and educate the next generation of curators and collection professionals
  • Reflect on how practices are evolving or in flux in the current moment through reflective, comprehensive, usefully critical text of theoretical, practical and historical relevance

SUBMISSIONS

We welcome international proposals for both chapters and case studies from museum and gallery professionals, academics and researchers. Proposals from those with practical experience of assessing and evaluating outcomes in this field are particularly welcome, as are contributions which detail practical experience of innovative programmes, or which present the results of the impact of new initiatives. Submissions should address the work of institutions which face the issues of scale associated with larger and national museums and galleries.

Aspects and questions of interest include – but are not limited to – one or more of the following: 

  • Experience of non-custodial collecting: Have you experience of working with models of collecting which are actively non-extractive? Do you care for objects that communities have access to for contemporary cultural use?
  • Collecting of active, community-initiated memorials: Museums confer a set of meanings to an object and memorials have their own tradition of patterns of meaning. Have you experience of navigating those different meanings? 
  • Creating an absence by collecting: How have you considered the absence created by removing an object from its origin or place of context and adding it to a collection? Have you had experience of waiting for an appropriate moment to collect material? 
  • Deliberate collection gaps: Are there gaps in your collection created due to the challenging or ethical nature of the subject? Have you seen a gap as it’s been formed, but felt it unwise to intervene? Was this perceived as a failure – either by yourself or as your institution?
  • Environmentally conscious collecting: Have you had to consider the scale of a collecting project due to the environmental impact of its outcomes? What processes have you gone through to fix the scale of your collecting? 
  • Rapid collecting: When are we best placed for rapid collecting? Have you deliberately avoided rapid collecting and collected contemporary material at a slower pace for ethical reasons? 
  • Risk management: How is risk perceived and managed in contemporary collecting?

Have you worked on collecting initiatives driven by the perceived risk of ‘missing out’? Do you have examples of collecting an issue being seen as too risky? 

  • Obligation to collect: Do we feel obliged to collect histories less told within museums without authenticity and sensitivity? Who benefits, and what is the legacy of this? How are you ensuring sincere collaboration? How are they empowered in this process?
  • Staff safeguarding: How are staff safeguarded in contemporary collecting? What ways do museums approach their duty of care and what support is available to staff? Is there pressure and responsibility to collect certain material without consideration for the impact on the individual doing the collecting?
  • Role of ‘niceness’: What is the role of ‘being nice/niceness’ in contemporary collecting? What impact does this have on staff? How can relationships be created and also ended sensitively?
  • Collecting hate: How do you manage collecting ‘hate’? What is the risk of endorsing or validating hateful perspectives when collecting this material? What is the role of collecting extremism in museums? Conversely, have you ever collected something to endorse a point of view?

SUBMITTING A PROPOSAL

If you are interested in being considered as a contributor, please submit a proposal and a short biography in Microsoft Word format. Proposals should be 300-500 words in length and biographies 100-200 words.

You can propose to submit either a chapter or a case study. Both would be 3000-4000 words in length. Images and photography are encouraged. Please prepare your proposal with these parameters in mind. The work should not have been published elsewhere. All contributions must be submitted in English – translation services will not be provided. Any images submitted need to have been cleared of copyright for use in the publication.

The deadline for proposals is Monday 7th February 2022. Please email your proposal to the editors at ethicsofcollecting@gmail.com. Any queries in advance of submission should be sent to the editors.

March 2020

Back on 9th March I gave a talk about Margot Eates at the Society of Antiquaries London. It was one of the last ‘pre-pandemic’ things I did: I quite clearly remember being a little unsure whether I ought to be shaking people’s hands or not.

“with the museum building [closed], almost all its clerical staff elsewhere and the collection stored out of sight the controlling and ordering processes of the museum were disrupted”

I was talking about the London Museum in 1942 and had no inkling that two days later I would clear my own desk, that I’d be furloughed for a couple of months, or that the museum would close.

In April the talk went online and I wasn’t in quite the right mental space to review it. With everything going on it sort of slipped my mind. The video popped up today as I researched for a ‘Women at Work’ wikipedia editathon.

It being nearly the end of the year I found myself thinking a bit about what I’ve achieved in 2020. Having experienced a (very different) moment of systems disruption to the ‘controlling and ordering’ processes of museums I don’t think I’ve managed anything comparable to the exhibition Margot and Hartley produced. I’ve done my best this year to do good work, to act kindly, to support colleagues and work from a place of compassion. Next year I’ll do the same, and I’ll do better.

Any other museum workers engaged in contemporary collecting and reflecting on the year please save the date: 3pm on the 8th December 2020.

Parental leave

How does shared parental work? What pay and benefits am I entitled to when I’m on leave? How long should I take off? What are keeping in touch days? What are my rights to request flexible working on my return? What if my fixed-term contract expires during my leave? What if my employer restructures while I’m on my leave?

I spent quite a bit of my maternity leave discussing these questions with other new mothers at various baby groups – and thank goodness I did! It never hurts to be clued-up about your employment rights, especially if you’re taking parental leave. Even major national museums sometimes get this wrong, so don’t assume you will just be ok. As well as Nikki’s courageous case, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about parental leave – from the relatively minor and awkward through to employers trying to act against the law and dismiss employees. I thought I’d note down some things I learned along the way – tho of course I don’t have experience working freelance, so these are all for people who aren’t self-employed.

My first bit of advice to anyone looking to start or add to their family would be: join a union (if you haven’t already). Your union will be able to advise you on your rights, and if worst comes to worst, they’ll be able to represent you and take your case on, on your behalf. My union had lawyers on hand to advise in tricky circumstances.

My second bit of advice would be to have a chat with someone at work who has recently returned from parental leave, and see if they have any tips for managing this time in your career, especially with reference to your employer. I had a great chat with someone at work before going on leave which was brilliant at helping me to set my expectations and intentions in the context of my workplace. I did wonder whether it might be useful for the Museums Association to set up a kind of parental leave-mentor system, to put people in touch with one another as they navigate this, but informal networks are fantastic.

My third would be read the acas website, and the government website. These explain the law and your rights – and your manager may not necessarily have read them. With museum work there are often fixed-term contracts and temporary projects and restructures so it’s not always obvious where you stand, legally. Read up on this and sites like Maternity Action, to know what you’re entitled to. If you’re still unsure, ask your union rep if they can help clarify, and then speak to HR. One thing to be aware of (if you’re not already) is your employer’s legal obligation to offer ‘suitable alternative employment’ if your job role is made redundant.

My fourth bit of advice would be print off all your company policies before you go on leave. It will be helpful to have hard copies to refer to when you can’t login. It’s an obvious one, but very handy to have, for example, the flexible working policy in black and white, should you need it.

There’s plenty more good advice out there, and I’d love to hear about more ideas and experiences, if you have some to share.

2018 reflections

This year’s been a big one for me as I started a new job and recommitted to my work and values. It’s been a whirlwind and I’m proud of lots of what I’ve achieved:

I wrote myself a little manifesto back in July, I’ll copy it here:

The approaches and systems that I’ve been using to collect aren’t producing inclusive and representative collections, so it’s time to change how I collect and curate. I’m going to be working on this with lots of people over the next few years and I’m going to get better about sharing what works and what doesn’t. So give me a yell and let me know if I’m getting something wrong, (or right!), if you can help, if I can help you, if there’s anything I ought to be writing about or reading, or if you want to talk.

I’m pretty confident that I’m making progress with all this and some of the areas I’m most excited about next year are:

  • Mentoring! I’ve got two formal mentees lined up for next year and I’m looking forward to meeting them and getting to know their work a bit better
  • I still really want to do more reading and interviewing and publish about two 20th century curators I’ve been researching: Margot Eates and Hartley Ramsden
  • Building up trust in LTM, building up the collections that LTM needs, and working with more people to do it
  • Learning more! There is so much I’m excited to discover about mobilities, urban change, queer history (the subject of ‘pink depots’ is one I want to find out more about next year), decolonizing museums, digital preservation, participatory collecting projects, contemporary collecting, shared collections… I am so excited to learn more about all this
  • Getting more displays updated, and turning all the learning and collecting to changes that our visitors see
  • Something I found rewarding and thought-provoking last year was nominating colleagues and other figures for awards. I am going to keep this up next year and make sure that I’m helping the work I value get the recognition that I think it deserves

Specifically I want to:

  • Get more confident in front of the camera and record some videos
  • Do more talks, radio and podcasts. Maybe start a museum podcast?
  • Deliver outstanding collecting projects for London Transport Museum
  • Go to conferences! They are so fun
  • Improve BAME representation in the museum’s collections and the museum, support my BAME colleagues better
  • Learn to be a good mentor
  • Visit more exhibitions next year

Where are all the women?

Ever walked through a museum and wondered where all the women are? Why they’re missing from history? Ever tried to improve representation of women a museum and found the collection lacking information, stories and objects?

With the support of Arts Council England we are working to change that. I’ve put a request out to ask the public to submit their stories of women in transport, to enrich the collection and hopefully the museum’s displays.

If you’ve got someone to nominate (and don’t be shy, it can be yourself) then please let us know! https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/collections/projects-partnerships/where-are-all-the-women

It’s a basic idea, just to ask where the women are, but it’s shown me how women get excluded from the historical record, how our systems are set up to exclude women, how our interpretation is designed in ways which don’t embrace the history of women’s work. And so I can’t wait to change it.

Half a history is just not enough.

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