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. This was introduced in 2014, and it isn’t a ‘new’ idea per se, institutions have been collecting contemporary items for years, but the V&A have deliberately made it their business to immediately collect items from breaking events from around the world. For example, they accessioned their first phone app, Flappy Bird, after it’s creator made the mildly controversial decision to remove it for sale when the public got a little 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 that focuses upon 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 that 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, and also a building that collapsed in 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 purchase 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, and no longer do the public take interpretation as gospel. 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.
museums are not just bystanders or “witnesses to history”, they are becoming a voice and a force in shaping the social future. Museums are looking to create emotional experiences that inspire visitors to take action.”¹
This unique trust should be put to good use, and adopting a rapid collection strategy allows museums to keep up to date with social and political changes, local or global, it doesn’t matter, just engaging with their visitors. This does require a LOT of guts, many local museums perhaps do not have that levity to risk rocking the boat with local communities, as many people do still see museums in the classic, traditional framework.
Museums are also becoming more transparent in their operations and processes, involving the public more and more with the complete ‘museum process’, would this not be a brilliant time to invite visitors to discuss issues in a increasingly transparent society? The People’s History Museum in Manchester, for example, created a wooden ‘EU tunnel’ in their gallery as a place for visitors to discuss the EU Referendum. Another example, perhaps more troubling, is the installation of life jackets worn by refugees, and the stories of those who wore them, 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 these life jackets and ship them to Britain for the exhibition, and thought it would be a compelling collection of items 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 each museum. Working it into museum policy would be even better.
¹ Brown, Clare, ‘Future of Museums: Social Impact + UX + PHYGITAL’ from http://www.museum-id.com/idea-detail.asp?id=283