Contemporary collecting

From Our Toolkit

Contemporary collecting, by which we mean the collection of material from the last 50 years, can often be overlooked for organisations. Either there is no mechanism on place to collect current or recent material or collections are reliant on donations from members of the public.

With the latter, it is common for potential donors to perceive that heritage organisations would prefer to accept older items which are deemed to be more ‘historic’ and of more ‘value’ rather than more modern material. As a result contemporary collection needs to be a conscious rather than accidental collection management activity.

What are the benefits of contemporary collecting?

Contemporary collecting means adding new content to collections to address gaps identified in existing collections, supported by a rationale of how new objects reflect our recent histories.

A great benefit of contemporary collecting is that it can be undertaken in partnership with people and communities, and so can be creative and dynamic. Contemporary histories fall within living memory and therefore can be documented with insights from those who experienced these histories first-hand.

Objects have stories and; in collecting the contexts, uses and meanings of new material we add to our collections in collaboration with those who hold this knowledge and information. It allows us to develop rich insights into the recent histories relevant to our museums and audiences.

Contemporary collecting toolkit, Museum Development North West & Jen Kavanagh, 2019

Museum approach

There are two key documents, which can be read together, that outline contemporary collecting practice in museums:

  • Museum Development North West’s Contemporary collecting toolkit which covers why museums should undertake contemporary collecting, how contemporary collecting relates to your collecting policy, how to run a contemporary collecting project and the challenges and considerations of this type of activity.
  • London Transport Museum’s Contemporary collecting – An ethical toolkit for museum practitioners explores how to approach more difficult topics including collecting material relating to ‘hate’, climate emergency, trauma and distress and the decolonisation of museum collections.

Case studies and examples of contemporary collecting

Examples of contemporary collecting policies

There is a Contemporary Collecting Network online discussion group supported by London Transport Museum for those interested in contemporary collecting.

Archive approach

The National Archives’ Understanding Collections Development document covers contemporary collecting as part of a larger collection development strategy.

Museums, Libraries & Archives Council and Collections Trust developed the Revisiting Archive Collections document which gives guidance on how to capture and share multiple perspectives on archive collections.

Museum and archive examples of COVID-19 collecting projects

There have been many projects to collect material relating to people’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A one-page list of all the sections of the Toolkit.