Collecting historic items for our collections comes as second nature, but collecting from within living memory, or even our own life-time, can be difficult. How can we predict what will be of interest to museum visitors of the future? Museum freelancer Isobel Keith shares her experiences of “Saving the 70s”, a contemporary collecting project that took place across Suffolk and Hertfordshire.
The 70s Saved…
During the course of two years, 11 museums and heritage organisations across Suffolk and Hertfordshire took part in an ambitious project – Saving the 70s. It was the second year, after receiving stage two funding from HLF, that things really got moving.
I joined the project team for stage two, supporting and assisting the museums in Suffolk over the course of a year, working closely with the two volunteer run museums. It was a brilliant experience, meeting and working with a varied bunch of lovely people and I certainly learnt a lot more about the 1970s that I anticipated.
It’s almost a shame that the project didn’t happen a little later, has anyone else spotted that there’s a rather big 70s revival going on in high street fashion at the moment? It would have been much easier to find outfits for events if it had.
Why the 70s?
The project itself was, in part, born out of the realisation that objects and stories from the 1970s were being sought after as reminiscence resources by organisations working with people with dementia. As the population ages, this demand will only increase.
It is also a period under represented in many museums. Very few of the participating organisations could identify any objects from the 1970s within their collections, yet the 70s were a significant period of change. In fact you could say the 70s revolutionised the modern world.
By the end of the 70s nearly every family enjoyed gathering around their own television set. In just over a decade television ownership nearly doubled. Supermarkets popped up and people experimented with fast food and ready meals. New genres of music were born, the first video games came out, women’s roles and rights, the three day week and so the list goes on.
At the core of this project was the need to focus on collecting memories and objects from the 1970s. I think it’s pretty easy to get caught up with ‘old stuff’ and sometimes we forget the need to collect more recent objects. And if you haven’t forgotten, the problem then becomes how do you collect it? How do you collect mass produced, generic objects with little or no local provenance, especially if you’re a local history museum (as many of the organisations involved were)? And how can you encourage people to donate those objects?
Contemporary collecting is a tricky soul. As Simon Knell aptly put it “Contemporary collecting is one of the most difficult of practices because of its overwhelming and multifaceted nature, and because we are collecting things that reflect our own society, which we know to be complex. Collecting historical material only seems easier because there is less of it, we know it less well and because historians have constructed narratives which value one thing above another” (Knell 2004, 34).
Indeed one of the difficulties many of the organisations faced was getting people to donate or loan objects in the first instance.
I believe this problem stems from a lack of understanding about what we do. People associate museums with old stuff because a considerable amount of the time that’s what we have on display. How often have you had someone offer a donation of something you already have five of? People donate objects based on what they know we collect, i.e. what’s on display. They don’t know about our hidden caves and labyrinth of boxes, AKA The Collection Store.
However, the objects did come and in the interim eBay helped us fill in the gaps. Many museums found that objects were donated after exhibitions. It seems that once the magic of a pedestal and glass case had been applied and with the plethora of 70s themed events the public began to understand what we were trying to do, but first we had to break down conceptions.
What to collect?
Each museum had a different focus for their activity plan, whether it was digitising photographic collections, working with an archive, or recording oral histories. Their focus dictated the objects donated and collected, but in each case it was the associated memories and stories about those objects that made it relevant to their locale and collections development policies.
Haverhill and District Local History Group ran a reminiscence session at their local library and we took along a few objects and pictures with us. The most popular of these was a Green Shield stamp book. Every single person there connected with object printed in its’ glossy pages. Whether it was something their parents owned or something they had bought themselves, it provided a popular talking point for all involved.
A resounding success for all the organisations involved was the inclusion of an advert reel the History of Advertising Trust created. Full of wonderful (though thoroughly sexist in some cases) adverts from brands such as Hovis and Babycham, the reel proved incredibly popular. Everyone I saw watching it, stayed glued for the full 10 minutes laughing and commenting to each other throughout.
It is these shared experiences and histories that make working with objects and photographs from within living memory so rewarding – they enable visitors to explore their own lives and experiences through the objects.
As a volunteer from Halesworth & District Museum commented “When an exhibition is in someone’s life span… [it] becomes a participatory thing”.
What went well
One of the really positive aspects to come out of Saving the 70s were the connections museums made with their local communities. Each museum had a community partner, from day centres and colleges, to libraries and art shops, these community partners were integral to enriching the project. But they also created links with the wider community.
Halesworth & District Museum were able to hold a pop up shop exhibition Hot Pants in Halesworth in the high street. In one week they had 400 visitors, equivalent to a quarter of their annual footfall. Many local people dropped in whilst doing their shopping with no idea the museum was 5 minutes’ walk away.
Haverhill & District Local History Group were able to run a series of events to raise their profile in the community and forge relationships with their Library and Arts Centre and have continued to work with them.
We also made connections with each other. Working as part of a wider project with multiple organisations, we were able to share resources. From loaning objects to dressing up boxes, the shared comradery and experience between us all provided a supportive platform to work from.
In terms of what we learnt about contemporary collecting – people are interested and they do want to be involved, but unlike the proverbial ‘old stuff’ it can take a bit more effort to break preconceptions about what museums do, and communicate why their orange and avocado green objects and memories are actually really important.
After all it may have been called the Decade That Taste Forgot, but that doesn’t mean we should forget it.
The 11 museums and heritage organisation involved in Saving the 70s were:
- Museum of East Anglian Life
- Halesworth & District Museum
- History of Advertising Trust
- Moyse’s Hall Museum
- Haverhill & District Local History Group
- Mill Green Museum
- Dacorum Heritage Trust
- Garden City Collection – Letchworth
- Hertford Museum
- St Albans Museum
- Stevenage Museum.
A Few Facts
- Between November 2013 – November 2014 the project engaged with 79,387 people through a huge range of exhibitions, community consultations and events.
- 193 volunteers engaged with the project, logging almost 584 volunteer hours’ worth equating to at least £49,262.50 in man-hours to the project partners
- The project succeeded in partnering with SHARE Museums East to provide 18 formal training opportunities with 160 attendees. In addition to these the project orchestrated a further 40 informal mentoring and training sessions involving 56 people