Collecting the Pandemic: From the Museums Association Conference 2020

As you know, the ITP team attended the Museums Association online Conference, #Museums2020, from 2nd to 6th November 2020.  Following on from the daily series of blogs from the sessions we attended, Collecting the pandemic is the last session we wanted to share in more detail. 

As Covid-19 began to affect lives across the global in unprecedented ways, museums around the world started collecting both physical and digital objects, and experiences of the pandemic. The notes from this session introduce four collecting initiatives from London, Amsterdam and New York with colleagues sharing their collecting criteria; aims and objectives; ethical considerations and reflections on their learning for the future.

Ellie Miles, Documentary Curator, London Transport Museum started her session looking at the work being done at the London Transport Museum who focussed, of course, on the role of transport in London during the pandemic.

In March 2020 LTM had just published a contemporary collecting ethical tool kit for museum practitioners aiming to ensure accountability, to improve practice, to shine a light on good work and resources across the sector and make sure that they were shared.

Here is the link to the toolkit –,venture%20into%20complicated%20ethical%20territory.

The toolkit addresses five issues which became their key principles for collecting:

Balance – should museums present both sides.  What is the role of hate and hateful/damaging material? How contemporary collecting can be set within decolonisation and decolonising museums. Climate justice and contemporary collecting’s role within and around that. Trauma and distress. Preservation.

The approach taken:

Short term – responsive collecting as unprecedented events unfolded.

Medium term – leading distinctive, structured collecting projects that hold space for participation ie. people telling their own stories.

Long term – retrospective documenting to ‘round out’ the story.

Short term collecting began in March 2020. Ellie started planning to collect ‘lockdown dairies’ but felt, at that moment, she could not send it out to people as it would be adding to people’s burdens in life.  This project was paused and they have just one transport diary.  They will revisit this method.

They collected public health and information posters; experiences by high-profile figures; digital objects and they began shortlisting physical objects.

Medium-term collecting will take place from September 2020 to March 2021. This will see a move into more structured projects such as interventions into the landscape to promote safety for travel in terms of walking and cycling; the effect on retail and station units; relaunching the ‘lockdown diaries’ in a different way with friends; looking at cleaners experience in the  pandemic; what happens in terms of workplace violence for frontline workers and the use of body cameras to support those stories.

Long-term collecting will continue from April 2021. This will see the benefits of being able to reflect on the virus, assuming at some point in spring 2021 the worst effects may have passed.

There will be the opportunity to safely collect material – objects and interviews – personally.

The team are training as mental First Aiders to be able to provide support to those they interview.

There may be more information regarding a public inquiry, and they can look at how their collecting is affected by that.

And this collecting is likely to take place over a long period of time – potentially decades.

Here is the Museum of London link to the project –

Next Lindsay Turley, Vice President, Museum Collections, Museum of the City of New York introduced their COVID collecting project.

Lindsay started by providing some background for the Museum of the City of New York which was founded in 1923, moving to their current home in the east Harlem neighbourhood in 1934.  The museum has around 750,000 objects in the collection dating back to the city’s early days as a Dutch trading colony in the 17th century up to the present day.  Objects in the collection include manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, costumes, decorative elements, photographs and prints and vehicles.

Their current collecting policy is to add to the collection to support exhibitions – they don’t seek to create an encyclopaedic collection.  This was something they had to consider when deciding how to collect the current pandemic.

The Museum of the City of New York began their project with an open call to their local community in April.  Initially using an Instagram engagement campaign which asked for images documenting experiences that New Yorkers and visitors to New York had during the pandemic throughout the five boroughs.  The photographs recorded experiences in homes, on the streets and going about daily life.

Originally, they didn’t intend to look at submissions for the collection, the goal was to create a means for interacting with their community and the public while the museum was closed.  As submissions were received, they were reviewed by the curator of prints and photography, and the strongest images were shared on the Museum’s digital channels (with permission of course).

The MCNY received over 8,000 submissions with images still coming in and now they are reviewing the images to nominate acquisitions for their permanent photography collection.  They don’t currently have a digital collection so the selected images will be printed and accessed into the collection as physical objects.

When they launched the open call, they issued an ‘ask’ to individuals to send in descriptions and images of objects that they thought told a story of COVID in New York City.  Initially they did a ‘soft ask’ as they weren’t sure how they would physically start accepting objects as they only had a few staff on site so the idea of arranging shipments was beyond their staffing model at that time.

Once the museum received guidance on returning to work, the MCNY reissued their open call for objects in what they called their Community Collecting Initiative.  The themes for the project were:

  • Protests.
  • Looking at public space and how it was being used.
  • Infrastructure for the public (ie transit).
  • Frontline workers, to see how New Yorkers were adapting during the time both at home and in the public.
  • Leisure and creativity.
  • Mental health, to see how people were keeping themselves sane and what they were doing to support their wellbeing.
  • Absence and loss.

The questions they hoped these items would answer are:

  • How are these events changing the city now, and what direction it may take in the long-term? 
  • How are some of the city’s key industries (real estate, tourism, retail, hospitality, culture, performing arts) affected?
  • How are different neighbourhoods or populations experiencing the events?
  • How are individuals coping and responding?
  • How is the moment affecting New Yorkers, thinking of law enforcement and other areas of government and authority?

In the longer-term MCNY have launched direct outreach to organisations, businesses and journalists.

Lindsay shared that what was unique in this situation, is that these collecting goals and questions were directly informed and influenced by the photos received through the initial Instagram campaign.  She also noted the emotion this project revealed when they started to directly engage and how this is a particular challenge for this collecting project.

Here is link –

Margriet Schavemaker, Artistic Director at the Amsterdam Museum then spoke about their response to the pandemic through Corona In the City, an online exhibition.

When the museum shut down, they decided to do something with the staff to collaborate on a digital project.  They launched an open call through broadcasting stations, local newspapers and partner organisations to help to collect stories and images of COVID in Amsterdam.  This turned into an online exhibition, which they opened with almost 1,000 contributions.  To date they have had over 57,000 unique visitors to the site.

Margriet discussed the objects that were collected.  They had a lot of photographs and dairies on the new social distancing policies and what it meant for public spaces.  They also received very touching stories from people who worked in the hospitals, on the ICU wards.  There were also fantastic small stories of people enjoying being more into their own neighbourhoods and talking more with their neighbours.  What they received most of were hundreds and hundreds of photographs of empty streets in Amsterdam which were so extraordinary in a city that welcomes over 8 million tourists a year.

As time goes by and new lockdowns come into place, the project has developed with the opportunity to work with many different organisations, story tellers and makers from the different areas of Amsterdam.  This has allowed them to go into new neighbourhoods and find stories from people who did not respond to the initial open call.

For Amsterdam Museum, a city museum which considers itself a network museum which has several locations in the city centre, collaboration is at their core.  They work a lot on co-creation projects and they often work with contemporary makers which gives them a new, different perspective.

Finally, the chair for the session Domenico Sergi, Senior Curator (Curating London) at the Museum of London, shared his experiences.

At the Museum of London they started to think about collecting the pandemic at the beginning of April.  They launched a big collecting project that had a number of strands included a public callout, some traditional museum-initiated collecting and community-led participatory approaches to collecting.

The types of objects received as part of the public callout reflected the campaigns by the NHS during lockdown; included plenty of face masks; some lockdown Easter eggs together with lots of poems too.

The museum-initiated collecting included the recordings by artists and petitioners to reflect lockdown which included posters; photographs of empty London streets; collaborations with artists to record empty soundscapes and they digitally-collected Tweets that went viral during this period.

They were anxious, in the light of the rates of mortality that particularly affected people of colour during the pandemic, that they wanted their collection to reflect this so, they have been collaborating with the Ubele Initiative which has written an open letter to the Prime Minister of the UK to ask for a public enquiry about the disproportionate number of deaths in the BAME community.

They commissioned oral histories, including an NHS nurse who talked through the direct experience of lockdown and the daily life of a NHS nurse at the height of the pandemic.

Some community-led collecting that they developed reflected on the inability of the Muslim community to celebrate Ramadan during lockdown; other speakers discussed support networks that were made in response to the lack of governmental support in the poorest areas of the city; a number of oral histories, conceived with Mutual Aid, looked at support networks set-up for the homeless. 

They also arranged a number of partnerships and are working on a Pandemic Streets project, developed in collaboration with UCL and Imperial College London to reflect on the changes due to social distancing throughout the city.  They are also working Amnesty International and Black Pride to select digital content for their online programming of Pride 2021.  Finally, they are working with the Refugee Support Networks to record the experience of unaccompanied minors during this time of crisis.