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Contemporary Collecting in a History Museum

The History Trust of South Australia cares for literally thousands of historically significant objects, from trams to trinkets, printing presses to pin cushions, ketches to crockery. Nothing is too big or too small for our collections if it contributes to our mission to encourage current and future generations of South Australians to discover our state’s history in all its richness and diversity. We believe that understanding and appreciating our connection with those who came before us, and the things they did and thought, is critical to who we are today and who we will become in the future. Understanding our present, the histories that are in-the-making, is no less important. Because of this the History Trust of South Australia collects contemporary as well as historic objects, images, and stories.

Contemporary collecting may not be something most people associate with history museums; in fact, it may even seem like an oxymoron. But what is the present for us will be the past for our children, and their children, and if future generations are to explore what it was like to live in 2020 we must collect and conserve this moment for them. Unlike much past collecting which tended to focus on the lives and stories of the rich and powerful, and in doing so to present a very one-sided view of history, contemporary collecting in underpinned by a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and engagement. What this means in practice is that museums like those run by the History Trust of South Australia (namely the National Motor Museum, South Australian Maritime Museum, Migration Museum, and Centre of Democracy) are keen to collaborate with communities to ensure that their stories are told and that the objects that illustrate them are collected. Collecting in partnerships with individuals and communities ensures that the process is creative and dynamic and the outcome is far richer, more diverse, and potentially more representative, than it could possibly have been if it were undertaken by a small number of museum professionals.

Without contemporary collecting, many stories – in particular those of more marginalised groups – will be lost. This not only impacts future generations, it also adversely affects current visitors who do not find themselves represented in museums and who, as a result, may feel unrecognised, not valued, stigmatised. People also visit museums in order to find out more about other people and cultures and so the more inclusive our collections, the better equipped our museums are to inform, delight, extend, challenge and inspire visitors.

Museums, it has been said, change lives, and one of the ways they do this is by providing spaces and opportunities for discussion and debate, reflection and sharing, learning and growth. These things occur most readily when the content museums present resonates with audiences, when it speaks to them ‘where they are at’. Giving the past a future, then, means connecting it to the present, to the things that contemporary visitors care about, understand, and do. Similarly, contemporary events, ideas and practices become more significant when connected to the histories that made them possible. Contemporary objects play an important role in these forms of engagement and the diverse possibilities to which they give rise. Consider, for a moment, the kinds of discussions that are currently taking place around the COVIDSafe app: the past events and technologies it may be associated with, the kinds of futures to which it might contribute, the benefits and dangers with which different people associate it. This app provides us with a mean by which to gauge contemporary idea(l)s about the social good, and it is interesting to imagine how the app and the discussions and debates it engenders, might be viewed in the future, and to what ends they might be deployed.

Another, more practical, benefit of contemporary collecting is that collecting something soon after it is produced means that it’s more likely to be in good condition than it would if it were collected years or even decades later. This is particularly true of objects such as flyers, stickers, placards, digital images and so on, that are not made to last and which people often don’t think are worth keeping since they have little or no monetary value. In terms of the crisis in which we find currently ourselves it is easy to imagine that many of the things that have become part of daily life – signage outside shops and at beaches and parks, face masks, disposable gloves, and toilet rolls and hand sanitizer that have taken on a new significance – may well not be widely regarded as collectable. And yet, they (can) say so much about a time that is undoubtedly historically significant, and will not ever come again, as least not as it has for many of us, like a bolt from the blue. Contemporary collecting plays an important role in shifting public perceptions about what is museum-worthy, and by association, whose voices, stories, lives, matter.

But it is not only objects that can help us, and future generations, to understand this moment we are living through. COVID-19 has brought with it a plethora of new terms and neologisms – ‘social distancing’, ‘new normal’, ‘self-isolating’, ‘super spreader’, hand hygiene, PPE (personal protective equipment), WFH (working from home), lockdown, isolatte, covidiot, ‘flattening the curve’, ‘drive-thru testing’ – that have very quickly become part of contemporary vernacular. New forms of interaction have sprung up too – zoom meetings, webinars, Tik Tok lip synching and synchronised dance performances in lounge rooms across the globe, drive-in festivals, live happy hours, and remote learning – and like language, these things map the dynamic nature of society and its (un)becomings. So too does the shift from hand shaking to elbow bumping, the popularisation of air kissing, and the variety of other changed and changing gestures we make when we encounter others either in person (at a distance of course!) or online; and likewise, the donning of ‘business wear’ on the top and pjs on the bottom; ‘dressing’ for bin night; the newly fashionable ‘regrowth’. Strange as it may seem to some, documenting and collecting these more intangible aspects of everyday life and culture is also part of what museums interested in contemporary collecting are busy doing.

The History Trust of South Australia is collecting all of these things via a number of different channels. One such is the Centre of Democracy’s Stitch & Resist project which grew out of the question of how we can continue to resist injustice, engage in the everyday practice of democracy, and take care of our wellbeing in the midst of a pandemic.

Stitched by: Britt Pattern designed by: Britt

Stitch & Resist is a craftivist (craft + activism) project that invites individual change-makers, community groups and organisations from around the world to make and share political messages created in cross stitch. The works produced demonstrate that the ‘gentle art’ of hand stitching can be deployed as a powerful tool of active citizenship; a way to raise awareness about, and speak out against, the plethora of issues engendered, exacerbated, or highlighted by COVID-19 – housing and homelessness, domestic violence, climate change, inequality, and even kindness. Through partnering with organisations who  run closed online workshops – safe spaces in which clients and members can discuss issues that are pertinent to them – Stitch & Resist also provides an avenue for self-care and the care of others: a sense of belonging is more important than ever during isolation, as are activities that are known to have meditative effects and to lower anxiety levels. The works produced by participants and uploaded to the Stitch & Resist online gallery constitute an archive that documents the historic moment in which we find ourselves, and it is our hope that many of the pieces will become part of the History Trust of South Australia’s collection, either in digital form, or through the donation of the works themselves.

You can find out more about Stitch & Resist by visiting our website (which contains lots of amazing resources including free patterns) and following us on Facebook @stitchandresist.

About the author – Nikki Sullivan

Dr Nikki Sullivan is Manager of the History Trust of South Australia’s Centre of Democracy. She is co-author, with Craig Middleton, of Queering the Museum (Routledge, 2019).

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