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Contemporary collecting – benefits, challenges and tactics

The Museum of Science and Industry collecting policy states an intention to actively collect material that demonstrates the interplay of science, industry and society in Manchester. Based in Manchester and with established networks and contacts across the city including the University of Manchester, the Museum was in an ideal position to undertake contemporary collecting around the origin story of graphene. This material was soon displayed in the Wonder Materials exhibition, demonstrating the advantage of acquiring contemporary science objects responsively. The exhibition was greatly enhanced by inclusion of unique, authentic material. These items, acquired through new contemporary collecting practices, demonstrate the value of the acquisition of material directly from the lead scientists involved in 2006, only two years after their research was published, and four years before their research into graphene was rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

While there are benefits to active contemporary collecting, there are also practical challenges. Many curators do not have time to dedicate to the involved process of contemporary collecting. Contemporary collecting is resource-intensive in terms of staff time, budget, storage and specialist conservation requirements. These considerations need to be built into any project planning. It is also important to establish who in an organisation has responsibility for contemporary collecting.

This paper demonstrates that relationship-building is the cornerstone of good contemporary collecting practice. Tactics for ongoing contemporary collecting include a detailed review of the networks and contacts a museum has access to. Practically speaking, museum curatorial staff cannot have detailed knowledge of the full range and breadth of areas across contemporary science. They do have detailed expertise in reviewing, analysing and selecting material for museum collections. By maintaining a wide and active network, curators can survey a much broader field of interest. External opportunities involve: analysis of key stakeholders to identify existing useful contacts; accessing decision-making contacts via organisation managers, trustees and advisory board and building relationships through the organisation development and fundraising strategies. While it is important to identify who in an organisation is ultimately responsible for contemporary collecting – usually curatorial staff – it is also an advantage to engage with colleagues across a large organisation. General information and ideas can be gleaned from subject-specific mailing lists and monitoring of local news channels and social media. Hidden, surprising stories that might not have a general press release will be more likely to be unearthed through direct contact with people. Other teams in a large organisation can help to maximise contacts. For example, the learning and programming teams within the Science Museum Group – including five national UK museums and forming the largest group of science museums in the world – open opportunities for contemporary collecting through our participatory practice and through our contemporary science programme.

Once material of interest has been identified, the next challenge is to encourage people and companies to donate material to the museum collection. This is easier if they know that there will be a display opportunity, even if this is for a short time only. The Wonder Materials exhibition showcased graphene and made it much easier to have conversations with potential donors about the benefits of donating material. However, even if an exhibition isn’t planned, one tactic to overcome this challenge could be a dedicated space and programme for displaying new acquisitions, such as the Rapid Response (Rapid Response, 2017) collecting at the V&A where recent acquisitions are displayed in a dedicated gallery space: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/rapid-response-collecting-an-introduction

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181004/016