Collecting, hoarding, touching and not touching: thinking about museums and the Covid 19 crisis

On the morning of Tuesday, March 23 our University Museum received an urgent request for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) from the Glasgow Night Shelter for Destitute Asylum Seekers. They were coordinating, with Simon Community Scotland, hotel accommodation in Glasgow and Edinburgh for people who are homeless and could not therefore socially distance during the Covid 19 public health emergency. Their outreach teams urgently needed PPE: nitrile gloves, masks and aprons were requested. We went to one of our stores and procured 20 boxes of purple nitrile gloves and a couple of boxes of FFP3 face masks, which we handed over whilst observing social distancing protocols. Other museum services in Scotland and across the UK have been doing likewise, making available gloves, masks, and other equipment to those who needed them, including NHS workers. One of the serious realisations last week for several of us is that museums are not an essential service, much as we might like to claim otherwise. Frankly it was good to be at least moderately useful. Purple nitrile gloves themselves have an interesting recent history in museums, and a way into thinking about two themes I’d like to explore with respect to museums, contemporary collecting, and the current crisis, namely museum storage, and museum touch. I want to look at stockpiling, collecting, touching, not touching, and social distance.

Museums’ moves towards having open and visible storage is an important trend which indicates both a willingness to make accessible stored or reserve collections, but also perhaps an anxiety to reveal, to make explicit, quite how much material museums hold. Trust or the absence of trust is critical here: to reveal and make explicit might be to be democratic, but it might also, relatedly, reflect an acknowledgement that devolved trust to institutions and authorities is absent [1]. What does the imperative to become literally transparent reveal? [2]. Why has it becomes so important for collections storage to be, above all, see-through? [3].

Additionally, retention and possession of large amounts of stuff is recognised as not in itself being sufficient to justify the cost of such retention and possession. Museums can and should justify why they have so many things, particularly when the historical and ongoing political consequences of accumulating, possessing and displaying culture are fully engaged with [4]. Large and ambitious new storage facilities and collections study centres where facilitating access to the collections by diverse publics is central, continue to be the dominant model for new capital projects. All of these projects emphasise the utility of collections: collections are there to be used, to be put to work. The value, and perhaps the legitimacy, of collections, is demonstrated by their utility and their accessibility. This is, of course, quite a different argument to a traditional appeal to connoisseurship and custodianship.

Even if it is in fact the case that visible storage is highly stylised and a highly inauthentic representation of actual storage and actual storage work, the motivations for it should be reflected on and considered [5]. If there is anxiety, why? Is it fundamentally because museums need to justify their existence? Is it because many of them recognise that they have, as the 2003 report by the National Museum Directors’ Conference, put it, Too Much Stuff? [6] Do they have too much stuff, or not enough storage? Have they perhaps, as Jennie Morgan and Sharon Macdonald have noted, specifically collected too much stuff at a certain point in time, namely the 1970s, 80s and into the 1990s? [7]. Have (relatively) recent profligate collecting strategies, motivated through very sincere desires to preserve and to safeguard – and the very sincere if sometimes misguided belief that collections will ultimately be catalogued, researched, made meaningful – become a burden to museums? Morgan & Macdonald suggest that many museum professionals are well aware of the limitations of their collections, but feel unable to move on from them, and this might prevent frankly better, or at least different, forms of future collection and collections development policies. Things take up a lot of space. The sheer materiality, existence, or thingy-ness of collections can be both a blessing and a curse.

But the value of collections through use and through meaningfully making them accessible to a diverse set of audiences, publics and users, in a democratic fashion, has absolutely been a fundamental factor in the move to collections study centres. Physical and intellectual access has been greatly improved through centralising collections, through a dominant recent museum mode, namely the “decant”. University museums are but one type within the sector for whom a central mode of caring for and comprehending collections over the past 15 years has been in the act of moving them: from (often inadequate and inaccessible) remote multiple sites to (invariably much better equipped) centralised ones. It’s important to emphasise that these are projects of, amongst other things, circulation and transportation: expertly and carefully moving things around, in professional moving vehicles and in trolleys [8]. As with many museum projects, there is the sincere belief that the project will end, will achieve completion. The belief that all can be collected, or a truly systematic or universal collection or account of nature or of things can be assembled and displayed… these are all sincere utopian historical motivations for collections and museums. Decants appear finite, like a survey, but in practice become almost a permanent mode: skilled movement, circulation, transportation becomes a critical, permanent museal disposition. Arguably, the role of the collections manager is as important here, if not more important, than that of the curator. The packaging, transportation, inventorying, cataloguing, surveilling, barcoding, of stored collections in a way that is professional and safe has been an incredibly dominant mode of museum work. And, it is a job done often wearing purple gloves! I don’t mean this to be flippant: I think that the purple-gloved museum professional is a really important modern museum persona, and one which we are familiar with if we think about representations of museums and museum work by those museums themselves, on social media and elsewhere. That, in those social media posts, sometimes the purple-gloved hands are holding up objects in ways which we would not consider best practice is unfortunate, but a lot of of the time what we are seeing is excellent handling practice being put on display.

In Fiona Candlin’s (2010) Art, Museums and Touch the rise and fall and rise of touch is historically outlined [9]. Candlin highlights that there has always been a politics as to who gets to touch, and who does not, and that there has likewise always been an implied hierarchy of senses. The ocular, or visual, usually predominates, and indeed the visual, since at least the late 18th century, has often been held as the most serious, sophisticated, objective, and indeed masculine of the senses. But, not all the time: sometimes touch, and handling – the haptic – is presented or conceived of as the most serious, sophisticated, objective. Candlin outlines a history of sophisticated touch, connoisseurial touch, in which the curator demonstrates their superiority by being allowed to touch things, but also through which they learn things through expert touch. She also notes how this declined at roughly the same time that a desire to make collections meaningfully accessible became popular. Touch became associated with simplicity, unmediated and therefore basic. Touch and “handling collections” often became associated with what were sometimes cast as unsophisticated, popular, engagements with collections items: touching became synonymous with accessibility, and accessibility was sometimes conceived of as synonymous with simplicity. At the same time, the complexity and sophistication of touch by and for all potential users and engagers has been recognised and appreciated. Immediacy as a concept needs to be unpacked, and the validity of plural sensory encounters (touch, but also sound, smell), not as substitutes for vision, but meaningful in themselves, has become increasingly appreciated. With the rise of the centrality of collections management as a professional discipline, I’d suggest that touch and the gloved-hand, on display, has become associated with a new form of sophistication and professionalism, that of collections care, obviously similar to the established discipline of collections conservation, but with an emphasis on utility: putting objects to work and ensuring their long-term survival through best practice. It’s very interesting to consider that what is in effect PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, has become something of a metonym for modern and progressive museum work. It hints at an imaginary that is anti-elitist, functional, an authenticity that comes through precise yet honestly physical, skilled labour. There is a complicated history and politics of touch and its representation in museums, in other words.

Contemporary collecting doesn’t mean rushed collecting, despite the possibly misleading connotations inherent in the name ‘Rapid Response Collecting’, which you might have seen at the V&A in the recent Secrets of the Museum programme on the BBC [10]. In the current crisis, hand sanitisers, facemasks, purple nitrile gloves and virus testing kits are all suddenly objects imbued with new significance which could lend themselves well to collecting and display. Contemporary collecting requires engagement, exploration, interaction, all of which might be quite curtailed for the moment. The problems caused by the current sudden lack of access to existing collections are not dissimilar to the difficulties of collecting the very things we might want to preserve to account for and record the current situation: we can’t touch, and we can’t meet. What other sorts of things might museums want to collect or at least document? The concept of “social distance” and “social distancing” is pretty interesting, a sudden term which needs a lot of explaining, and indeed is not actually often very helpful in its lack of explicitness. Museums can and should be thinking about how to document rapidly changing conventions and behaviours, not least because “keep your distance” is a pretty stern policing of public space. What are the class and racial politics of this? What are the class politics of confinement? Are we all in this together? Does everyone intrinsically know what a distance of two metres looks and feels like? These are things which we are all learning rapidly. How many objects in collections are exactly two metres long [11]? What data do you need in a content management system in order to interrogate that kind of question?

In our current situation going outside is allowed in certain circumstances: what radically new forms of (social) conduct on the street are being developed on a daily basis? New hand gestures, new eye contacts, new warning signs, new forms of policing? Could we document and collect those? What’s the best way to collect and document gestures? What new public health signs, memes, hashtags, clothing, hairstyles, are arising? Importantly, is it the role of a museum consciously collecting the contemporary to collect these kinds of things, or perhaps to facilitate reflections on these kinds of things? New artwork in response to these greatly changing circumstances is going to arise: should we be focusing on collecting and perhaps commissioning this, rather than the literal collection of material culture, or indeed gestural culture, or could we do all of these things? If relative confinement and restricted and policed movement feels new and uncomfortable, those for whom none of this is particularly new should be listened to. Disabled and ill people for whom staying at home is the norm are experts already. People incarcerated in prisons and detention centres know all about lockdown. For many Black Britons, giving an account to the police of your presence on the street is not novel.

Collecting PPE might be a bit obvious, but documenting the discarded disposable gloves that are beginning to accumulate on the pavement, like cigarette ends, might be a good idea. Hoarding and stockpiling and its representation is also an obvious topic to consider. We’ve seen toilet roll and its stockpiling as a signifier, and we’ve seen how the proliferation of images can rapidly help to reinforce, amplify or multiply certain behaviours. Constantly reproduce images of empty shelves, and you encourage people to empty shelves. We appreciate how extraordinarily rapidly images, and images of objects, take on precise and nuanced meaning and signification. Again, collecting and displaying toilet roll, or the absence of toilet roll, seems kind of obvious, but perhaps interesting. Maybe we should focus more on the work to which images of objects is put: shaming, social control, diffuse forms of conditioning that rapidly induce or coerce new forms of behaviour, quite possibly for the best, but coercive nevertheless. There was a lot of class-shaming in the representations and discourse upon stockpiling and storing going around in the first week of the Covid-19 restrictions, and there’s now an increasing amount of class-shaming in the representations and discourse upon social distancing.

Nevertheless stockpiling and hoarding are obviously not just topics for the contemporary museum’s response to the current crisis, but also deeply interesting museal dispositions. Indeed the history of collecting and the history of museums could be considered the history of claiming that certain accretions of stuff have meaning, and others don’t. Or, my set of objects is a collection, yours is a hoard [12]. Our very large room full of stuff indicates our refinement and our right to possess many things, your room full of stuff is just junk, and indicates your lack of refinement. We appreciate things, you desecrate them. We are hunters, you are poachers.

If we are interested in material culture in the age of pandemic then we should pay attention to hoarding, accumulation, personal and remote storage, and in particular “prepper” culture. TV shows like Storage Wars and Extreme Couponing give insights into (specifically suburban American) accumulation culture. On Extreme Couponing, massive stockpiles of (often low quality) long-life foodstuffs are accumulated for tiny sums of money due to the dedication and ingenuity of full-time “couponers” who combine store deals with brand deals, collect and swap coupons, and learn elaborate hacks at the till [13]. The coupons themselves become prized collections, carefully classified and ordered in massive binders and logged in spreadsheets; cupboards, spare rooms, basements and garages are turned into storage. Tellingly, the distinction between a store and a hoard is often made. Hoards, one featured couponer insists in the very first episode of Season 1, have dust on their things. Couponers, by contrast, have no dust on their “collection”. Such television programmes are often exploitative, but there is also a tendency to dismiss the ingenuity and labour that goes into accumulating and managing the inventory of these elaborate stores because of the way that the labour is gendered and classed. Undertaken principally by lower middle-class and working-class moms, this is discriminating collecting and collections management, but (according to bourgeois norms, just the kind of norms that museums reinforce) the wrong kind! Prepper culture, or variants of it, in particular has come to the fore during the current crisis: who is prepared, who is self-sufficient, who has an emergency plan, who is unable to do this, and who gets judged as being prepared or not prepared? As museum professionals interested in the meaning in which objects, possessions and collections are invested, in other words, as scholars of material culture, we might want to think about how preppers, like hoarders, or couponers, store, display, label and discourse upon their things [14].

On 23 March in The Metro I read an article about projects to do around the home if confined or isolated during the coronavirus crisis, which included suggestions for decluttering and tidying following the KonMari method. The enthusiasm for, and criticism of, Marie Kondo, is helpful for some considerations of museum collections storage, retention, and also retrieval. In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying (2011) Kondo emphasises that she is a tidying expert, not a storage expert: storage experts are hoarders, she insists [15]. Another important distinction, between tidying and cleaning, is made in Spark Joy (2017): “tidying is the act of confronting yourself; cleaning is the act of confronting nature” [16]. Central to the KonMari method is to discard a lot of things. If it does not have a use, and if it does not “Spark Joy”, it should be discarded, with urgency. The concept of sparking joy has at points been ridiculed, as has, perhaps more interestingly, the implication that objects can be animated. Some of this criticism from, for instance, book collectors, has misunderstood that sparking joy does not mean only “nice” things should be retained. The critique of animation being possessed by objects, not people, is at points hypocritical: in other contexts Western culture is very happy to conceive of objects, buildings, for instance, as “toxic”, literally, not just metaphorically. Why the resistance to thinking of other household possessions in this way? Aren’t we right now starting to conceive of doorknobs, handrails and surfaces as toxic? Also critical for us is the emphasis that objects might have had a use or indeed value in the past, but that use or value might have passed, might be of the past. Kondo says of a book which you have in fact never read despite being on your shelves for years, that not only will you never read it, but that its value or function was to teach you about what you like and don’t like to read, and it has achieved that function or use, and thus can be discarded. This is a pretty interesting argument if applied to museum collections! There is also a strong emphasis on the impermanence of objects, or on the possibility that objects can be renewed or replaced. This has some similarities to the understanding within certain cultures that an object retains its aura or authenticity even if all parts of it are replaced, recycled, or rebuilt, such as a temple, which may be rebuilt continuously with contemporary materials, but once blessed, is still the temple.

The method of determining whether an object sparks joy or not is absolutely problematic from a museum perspective: Kondo insists that we should pick up objects and hold them close to us to determine their value. There are plenty of collections objects for which this is highly inappropriate handling! Nevertheless, is it not the case that we have, – in an attempt to extract value or determine value from museum collections, and indeed to make them accessible, including taking seriously the needs of people with a variety of impairments and disabilities – emphasised the haptic as a valid and sophisticated form of interaction? Why the resistance to a form of collections engagement that elsewhere we – literally – embrace? Might also reticence to touch highlight how certain visible storage configurations whilst emphasising a type of access, are in fact highly conservative, a return to the mere dazzling effect of a mass of objects behind glass, to be seen, but not to be touched? Other than the proposal to radically reduce the number of things we possess – which on the one hand is at odds with pretty much all museal dispositions, but on the other hand does actually embody quite a lot of best practice disposal desires – the KonMari method does have a very striking similarity to visible storage aesthetics and dispositions: everything should be in principal visible, on display. This is achieved in part by the reduction of the volume of stuff, but also through folding and vertical storage. Within this method, there really is no distinction between the backstage or the front stage, the interior and exterior, or the display or exhibition and the store. Everything is visible pretty much all of the time, and there is a strong claim that if things are not visible, they will be neglected (which we could dispute a lot!), and also that things have value through being visible, or, things have value through being accessible. This is remarkably similar to the kind of argument which will make much of the proposed new V&A East one massive transparent immersive store, I would suggest, with the complication that items are both to be visible but also touched.

So perhaps the sincere suggestion that in a time of crisis people might want to get their house in order is something for the museum responding to the crisis to pay attention to. The KonMari method emphasises tidying on your own, indeed explicitly says not to tidy with other people: “there’s no need to let your family know the details of what you throw away”, Kondo remarks. What kinds of new solo and enforced solo activity are happening due to the coronavirus crisis? What new crafts are being developed, what new technologies or revived technologies? Should museums be paying attention to that in terms of contemporary collecting? An article in The Metro talking about the home improvement possibilities of the crisis already feels misjudged or perhaps just inadequate, but the home, and household, and how we define ourselves with respect to it, remain crucial. It’s perhaps interesting that the article suggesting KonMari-ing your home explicitly didn’t suggest Hygge-ing your home: solo activity, rather than family/household activity, activity to strip yourself of possessions, rather than comfort yourself in possessions. On your own, rather than with people [17]. Of all the different imagined and projected forms of coping with the current crisis, it’s a given that it is for many it’s going to be austere, but I think it’s potentially interesting that the type of austerity being projected is not a cosy one.

Indeed, increasingly one of the most obvious things that is happening is this emphasis on enforced solitude and distance. Social distancing is demanding a radical withdrawal of touch, not touching things like doorknobs and lift buttons and surfaces, but also not touching other people. It’s critical to remember that for many people nonconsensual touch and assault remain a daily reality unchanged by the present circumstances. Any discourse upon isolation and mandated absence of touch needs to recognise this, needs to recognise the distinction between authorised and unauthorised, mandated and non-mandated: again, we are not necessarily all in this together. We also realise that many of us are going to be reliant on virtual, digital and proxy forms of touching for the foreseeable future. If museums’ professed relevance to the question of well-being and the cultivation of civic mindedness matters, then they should be paying attention to how this might be possible in an immediate future regime of isolation and haptic deprivation [18]. This is a question about loneliness, and its possible alleviation through engagement with museum collections, coupled with the fact that any such engagement will necessarily be digital. Digital Humanities scholar Johanna Green notes that meaningful digital proxies for remote access to rare books and manuscripts (and, surely, museum objects) might not necessarily be oriented around the concept of precision, accuracy, or fidelity, but rather, authenticity might come through a variety of (lo-fi) modes [19]. Green and others have indicated how we don’t necessarily want or need incredibly high resolution, infinitely flat, digital files to remotely engage with an inaccessible material form, but rather, we might need something that takes seriously the physical or material properties of the absent object, and that might be quite a low resolution film of the object glinting in the light, or rustling as it moves, for instance. Green also has very interesting things to say about how the manner in which many of us engage with the digital, namely through touching screens, tapping (on Instagram, for instance, to register approval or “like”), scrolling, zooming in and out, is itself a complex and interesting haptic and intimate activity. Our screens, we realise, are themselves sites of risk and public health, but also sites of physical engagement with the digital. Prior to the current crisis it was a well-known, albeit hard-learned fact that the imperative always to “digitise!” is unhelpful if we are not seriously asking for what the digitisation is intended to do. That’s absolutely the case now as collections are alarmingly unavailable to us for at least the immediate future.

Lastly to make some brief points about potential contemporary collecting with respect to the history of medicine. Firstly, despite my concerns about the literalism of collecting PPE etc, really interesting projects on the social and political aspects of PPE can be found. One really interesting example is currently on display in the Being Human permanent exhibition that opened late last year at the Wellcome collection in London [20]. Artist Mary Beth Heffernan produced hazmat suits with pictures of the concealed faces of the workers stuck to their front, during the 2015-16 West African Ebola epidemic: “hazmat suits offer essential protection for health workers, but the faceless appearance can be frightening… Heffernan produced stickered portraits for treatment centres, to show patients what their carers look like”. Distancing and isolation, and how to overcome it: this is the kind of thing museums should be looking out for to collect. A Education for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing student in Kentucky is manufacturing facemasks with transparent windows so that mouths can be visible, and exploring masks that don’t need to hook over ears, so as to be accessible for people with cochlear implants and other hearing aids [21]. Yes, it’s important for technologies to be accessible, but they also need to be safe: all communities should be entitled to PPE that is both accessible, assistive, but also regulated. Also, perhaps, museums should be learning from those who have great experience and expertise in the politics and culture of masking and unmasking, veilling, veillance, visibility, identity and autonomy. I’m thinking here as much of the political act of concealing one’s face at a protest as I am the cultural and religious practice of covering hair and sometimes faces, and reactionary and Islamophobic misogynist face-covering laws enacted in many European countries in recent years [22]. If PPE is becoming political, as it clearly is, then what it reveals, what it conceals and who gets to choose, is going to be key: the performance and politics of PPE might be something that we want to think about collecting.

Secondly, we should be interested in the history and politics of framing accounts and responses around notions such as the concept of (and invariably, the fiction of) a “Patient Zero”. We know from the history of HIV/AIDS how such genealogies are factually highly dubious, and engender certain types of shaming and blame [23]. A lot of historians of medicine have been making comparisons to previous epidemics, including the flu of 1918/19, the plague itself, and HIV/AIDS. Museums, whether they collect things or not, should be involved in the discourse about public health, and in particular should be places to counter incorrect and prejudiced accounts and framings. The heteronormativity of the concept of a household, rapidly being constructed as a natural bounded unit of public health, probably also need some attention. Good and bad, reckless and non-reckless behaviours, are being fashioned and refashioned as we speak. Historian of HIV/AIDS Benjamin Weil has discussed, interestingly, the disciplinary regime that creates a “coronavirus citizen who behaves responsibly”, and others who do not, and cannot [24]. What histories of medicine and public health can we draw on, and can we reflect on the stories about the history of medicine we are currently telling in museums, through our collections, etc? How will they look different when, we hope, we return to the museum?

[1] Onora O’Neill, A Question of Trust: the BBC Reith Lectures 2002 (2002)

[2] Clare Birchall, “radical transparency?”, Cultural Studies<-> Critical Methodologies 14 (1) 2014:77-88

[3] Mark Brown, New V&A East Site to Offer Dramatic 360° Viewing Spaces, The Guardian, Thursday 01 November 2018

[4] Mirjam Brusius & Kavita Singh (eds) Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt (Routledge: 2018)

[5] Nicky Reeves, Visible Storage, Visible Labour? In Brusius & Singh (eds) Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt (Routledge: 2018)

[6] National Museums Directors Conference, Too Much Stuff? (2003)

Click to access too_much_stuff.pdf

[7] Morgan J & Macdonald S (2020) De-growing museum collections for new heritage futures. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 26 (1), pp. 56-70.

[8] Every Trolley from Secrets of the Museum, The Trolleys and Ladders of V&A Rooms 137 & 139, March 2020

[9] Fiona Candlin (2010) Art, Museums and Touch

Book details page

[10] Secrets of the Museum, BBC2, February – March 2020

[11] National Museums of Scotland, social distancing Tweet, 26 March 2020

[12] Katie Kilroy-Marac , an order of distinction (or, how to tell a collection from a hoard), Journal of Material Culture, 2018, 23(1) 20-38


[14] Scott Herring, The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture (University Of Chicago Press: 2014)

[15] Marie Kondo (2011) The Life Changing Magic of Tidying (Vermilion: London)

[16] Marie Kondo (2017) Spark Joy (Vermilion: London)


[18] Desmarais et al, Museums As Spaces for Well-Being: A Second Report From the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Well-Being (2018)

Click to access museums-as-spaces-for-wellbeing-a-second-report.pdf

[19] JME Green (2018) digital manuscripts as sites of touch: using social media for ‘hands on’ engagement with mediaeval manuscript materiality, Archive Journal 6

See also, Sian Jones et al, 3-D heritage visualisation and the negotiation of authenticity: the ACCORD project, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2018, 24(4) 333-353

[20] Being Human, Wellcome Collection website, accessed 30/03/2020

[21] Claire Kopsky, College student makes masks for the deaf & hard of hearing,, 31 March 2020

[22] Rafia Zakaria, Veil (Object Lessons, Bloomsbury: 2017)

[23] Richard McKay, Patient Zero: Why It’s Such a Toxic Term, The Conversation, April 01, 2020

[24] Benjamin Weil, “the “good” coronavirus citizen, the “covidiot”, and the privilege of #StayAtHome”, Discover Society, April 01, 2020

The “Good” Coronavirus Citizen, The “Covidiot”, and the Privilege of #StayAtHome

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