Contemporary Collecting – learning from others

One of the joys of working on the Play Your Part project is the opportunity to go out and learn from inspirational colleagues across the country.  We’re currently starting to think about the contemporary collecting strand of the project and I wanted to find out more about two similar projects that are collecting activist heritage.

Preserving Protest at Bishopsgate Institute in London aims to capture the digital archives and websites of contemporary campaigning organisations.  Library and Archives Manager Stefan Dickers explained how at Bishopsgate they’ve identified a collecting niche of contemporary material.  He’s found that organisations and individuals feel more comfortable donating material to an independent institution and he’s actively gone out and approached some of the many community groups around London.  Initially there wasn’t a concerted plan and the collecting policy has evolved.  They’ve focused on London-centric organisations and have stressed that it doesn’t have to be about the ‘big people’, ordinary people’s campaigns are just as important and they have an openness to everything.

The Preserving Protest project specifically looks at collecting digital material, for example photographs and capturing activist websites. Whilst some paper material has been offered as well, the activist archives have been predominantly digital. For example, the Occupy Movement have donated four terabytes of material. At Bishopsgate they are looking at creating an online pool, where groups can drop in digital material and provide metadata about what they are depositing; essentially crowdsourced cataloguing.  Currently, our collections policy doesn’t include the collection of digital material. With organisations and activists increasingly campaigning online, photographs of protests predominantly taken with digital cameras and the decline of print media, this is something that will need to be considered as we think about a contemporary collecting strategy.

Stefan also discussed some of the events and engagement work they have done using their contemporary collection. Trenton Oldfield, the boat race protestor, often uses the library and he has donated his archive, including his wetsuit.  At an event with schoolchildren they used Trenton as a ‘living object’ and the children had to guess who he was, based on ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.  Another project (with the best project title ever!), The Only Way Is Ethics was a youth-led Heritage Lottery Funded, project in conjunction with Emergency Exit Arts and the Museum of London. It focused on the heritage of democracy and social activism by exploring the ethics of protest, ethical choices (including personal and political responsibilities) and the ethics of museums, archives, curating and record-keeping.

Stories of Activism in Sheffield is a collaboration between local activists and campaigners and academics from the Centre for the Study of Democratic Culture and the Centre for Peace History from the Department of History, University of Sheffield.  Over the course of several years, the project will collect and archive campaign paraphernalia, and perform interviews with activists. Starting in around 1960 and continuing up the present day, the project aims to incorporate a diverse range of people and experiences into the project. I met with Gary Rivett who explained the background and future of the project.

The project idea started in 2011 when they put on a one day event about stories of activism in Sheffield, which was originally intended as a standalone event. They found that activists were interested in having their stories collected and the event provided the initial start for a broader project.  Over the next six months they put together a working group of activists, who met in each others front rooms to plan the next, activist owned, event.  From this, they set up a steering group to identify partners and Gary is just about to submit a HLF bid for the next stage of the project.  It will be a two year project with a BME strand and a women’s strand, bringing together stories to produce outputs such as a book and a play.  The project has a constitution which states that at every stage activists must be involved in developing the project.  They were keen on building up relationships, building trust and learning from activists about Sheffield’s history.

Whilst the project collects oral histories and objects and deposits them in Sheffield Archives and Sheffield Museum, the stories are collected not just to be stored, but to inform people of campaigns and organisations that are now taken for granted. They have disseminated stories of activism to new audiences, by using the stories to develop a city activist walk. They have responded to what the activists wanted in terms of how the stories are used, whilst being open and recognising that all stories may not be used. At the beginning of the project they got funding to do a scoping study and employed a researcher to research activist groups in Sheffield over the past 30-40 years and identify individuals to approach. That researcher is now doing a PhD into activism on behalf of marginalised groups in the 1980s. They have also set up a masters course at the University of Sheffield called stories of activism, which aims to develop research from the stories and objects collected.

Both Stefan and Gary highlighted the importance of building relationships and trust with activists and the fact that activists can be well networked.  Activists are often connected with different groups, and once the word of the project gets out, then more groups are keen to get on board.  For example, Gary explained that it took them nine months to get to a critical mass of activists, and contributions snowballed from there.  General calls for material weren’t that successful, it was only by contacting activists directly, attending meetings and building relationships that the project progressed. They also stressed the need to let groups know that what you are doing is important.

Organisationally, we now have a lot to ponder, especially when setting the parameters of the groups we will approach.  Geographically, it makes sense to focus on Greater Manchester organisations as it will practically be easier to attend meetings and build relationships.  However, as a national museum should we be casting the net wider? We also need to decide on which sort of groups to approach.  Many of the campaigns we cover in the museum are leftwing, so, for balance, should we be collecting rightwing material?  Would collecting material from, for example, the English Defence League appear to legitimise an organisation that on a personal level I find abhorrent, or is it important to preserve this element of history so future generations can have a fuller picture of what life was like at the early stages of the 21st century? We already hold material from the British Union of Fascists in our collection, which we use in our galleries to illustrate the opposition between fascists and communists in 1930s Europe.  We need to consider what visitors of the future may learn from material we collect now and be objective in separating personal beliefs from professional decisions.

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