Curatorial activism and Rapid Response Collecting at the V&A Museum [conference presentation]
Updated: Aug 7
I will present in a panel about Future Policies and Politics of Heritage at the Fifth Biennial Conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS), 26.08.20 – 30.08.20. The conference’s theme – Futures – aims to engage critically with the often stated aims of heritage to address the concerns of future generations, whilst also asking participants to think expansively and creatively about the future of critical heritage studies as an emergent field of focus across a range of academic disciplines.
Hello, and thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this panel about museological policy, the study of care and the ethics of custodianship.
This paper comes out of ongoing research about how museum ethics and procedures evolve in the face of crisis, looking specifically at the Rapid Response Collecting programme at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Rapid Response Collecting at the V&A was conceived by a team of curators in 2013 to enable the acquisition and immediate display of objects that manifest economic, political, social and technological change and convene debate about associated issues in real-time. This concept was tested with a special community heritage project at the Shenzhen Biennale that year and was formal acquisition strand at the V&A by 2014. Today, Rapid Response Collecting is a key part of the contemporary Design, Architecture and Digital Department and features heavily in the Museum’s future plan. The collection is a diverse grouping of objects which includes surveillance tech, race-conscious fashion, political ephemera, architectural materials, and more.
I first learnt about Rapid Response Collecting in June 2019 when I was devising a project to salvage a local authority archive in Mozambique after the cyclones. In this context, I could not help but link Rapid Response to ambulances and fire engines, and expect this programme to communicate with disaster-management principles as well. I soon found, however, that the V&A’s use of the term is largely functional – to designate the accelerated process for bringing in contemporary collections.
I began my research in January 2020, when a deep search on Google for the term “Rapid Response in museums” turned up very limited results. I found many instances of curators undertaking this type of work, but very few institutions were calling it that. In March, our circumstances changed, and I found myself suddenly working through a global pandemic. Now, of course, the phrase is everywhere.
I’m telling you this origin story because the difference between these interpretations of “rapid response” was for me an early indication of how crisis is consumed, projected and performed, and the evolution of this project since has given emphasis to this original reflection.
The popularity of the V&As work has a massive role in the popularization of Rapid Response as a museological practice, but there is something to be said as well about the domestication of certain political concepts. In an ecosystem that is marked by crisis, where military rhetoric is used to describe public services, epidemiology, and good citizenship, it is only natural that emergency discourse should also permeate the realm of civic institutions like museums.
I set as benchmark the International Council of Museum’s new proposed definition of the Museum (ICOM, 2019)
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
The project combined ethnographic research methods with media and archival research. My questions were
1. What makes an inclusive, democratic and polyphonic space?
2. How does the timeline for an acquisition impact community engagement and our understanding of due diligence?
3. How does the documentation of distinctly activist collections shape the long-term visibility of the objects and the critical narratives and networks associated to them?
My paper today draws from conversations with curators from the V&A, Shenzhen Biennale community stakeholders and academic peers about these questions and what it means to do socially responsible museum work in a timely manner. I am grateful for the time and wisdom each participant has shared with me. Thank you.
I will now present three hypotheses about Rapid Response Collecting which address museum temporalities, the ethics of contemporary collecting and custodianship in moments of socio-political change and will consider what this approach offers to the Future Museum.
My observations are as ever, open to debate and critical feedback.
1st proposition: The museum is a polyrhythmic space. Rapid Response Collecting is an act of syncopation that uses collecting as the medium of communication for activist work
I call the Museum a polyrhythmic space, because curators bridge complex temporalities as they arrest or set themselves outside of time to assess an object’s value, relevance and networked identity. I use the concept of syncopation to describe Rapid Response Collecting because syncopation in music or poetry signals an intentional change in emphasis or rhythm within a composition.
One notable and early example of this work in the V&A is the collection of a pair of Primark trousers in 2013. When a garment factory collapsed and killed over 1000 people in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, the curatorial team which would later establish the Rapid Response Collecting programme, purchased a pair of jeans from the high-street retailer Primark and advocated for its inclusion in a future survey exhibition about Indian textiles.
Internally, the proposal sparked wider discussions about what it means for the Museum to perform a public service and care for its local and global audiences. In direct acknowledgement of the significance to the story to contemporary museums publics, including the local Bangladeshi community, the jeans were used as props at public events about the ethics of fast fashion, global consumerism and modern slavery before provenance research and due diligence work was complete and a new artefact was formally acquired.
Rapid Response Collecting engages a new temporality by tethering the “value” and “relevance” of an object to public discourse and popular culture now, rather than its genealogy; and following the methodology of the living archive, capturing events as they occur. It is an intentionally disruptive and tactical use of collecting because it:
1. Reaches the broadest possible constituency of the Museum, involving governance, various departments and publics
2. Modifies museum processes, so that the display of an object can precede or run in parallel to its accession
3. Renders counter-narratives visible, or at least discoverable, for perpetuity. After all, it is notoriously difficult to de-accession an object.
4. Calls to question how Museums determine and prioritise specific types of knowledge such as provenance and authorship. Because how can you irrevocably establish the origin or creator of a mass- produced pair of jeans that arrives to the UK via a complicated global production chain?
2nd proposition: The inclusive and polyphonic space involves external stakeholders and communities of practice within the Museum. Rapid Response Collecting signals the democratization of institutional authority, where curators are agents of social and cultural change
I started with the assumption “museums are an expression of community” but gradually came to question my understanding of that word. One major turning point in my research was to broaden my line of enquiry from measuring the programme’s engagement with the V&A’s publics outside of the museum, to think about the agency of communities of practice within the Museum’s walls.
My interviews with the V&A curators Kieran Long, Kristian Volsing, and Corinna Gardner, and the Collections Documentation and Procedures Manager Pam Young, revealed the degree to the identification of new Rapid Response acquisitions is linked to the expertise and citizen engagement of the curatorial team. The curator that developed an exhibition about contemporary videogames, for example, was instrumental in the collection of the Museum’s first app “Flappy Bird”.
The team also developed a series of other values-driven exhibitions, The Future Starts Now, about emerging and speculative design practices, and All of This Belongs to You, about the making of public spaces and role of public institutions in contemporary life.
What is significant about inclusion of Rapid Response objects in these exhibitions is how the objects articulate politically charged narratives whilst remaining mindful of the Museum’s legacy, and the body of its collections. In All of This Belongs to You, the first street light was exhibited alongside architectural spikes which make surfaces uncomfortable to sit on, and previously incited protests and negative publicity on Twitter via the hashtag #AntiHomelessSpikes. The exhibitions interrogate what or who signals, or generates, socio-political and cultural value.
3rd proposition: Cataloguing is an arena for curatorial activism and collective resistance. Museum technologies are not well adapted to the logic of Rapid Response Collecting
The catalogue is a consumer object that acts as a contact zone for present and future audiences. It is performative because it distributes just as it produces knowledge. The catalogue can be a site of activism and resistance because transparency about an object’s journey to the museum submits expert knowledge to critical feedback. Linked data also offers the visitor a certain independence in exploring interconnected narratives and networks.
Looking at the institutional and public records for Rapid Response objects I noticed a discrepancy between the quantity of descriptive data in each. I believe that the succinctness of certain collection does not, however, arise from a lack of care because the curators openly shared the view that their responsibility was to collect evidence of change and spark public imagination, rather than to bind an object to one narrative or interpretation. The challenge seems to arise, instead, because museum technologies are out of sync with the objectives of Rapid Response and its reverse logic.
The content management systems we use now are designed for a more traditional type of knowledge-production where the identity of an object and its networks are marked at the point of its acquisition and is not well suited to a living archive whose history is still in the making.
The interactive process through which contemporary narratives develop is evident in a comparison of the XR collection to Rapid Response objects that were used in formal exhibitions and were therefore subject to additional curatorial work.
The system relies on a check-list approach to due diligence and documentation flags incomplete records, for example, but does not, for example, flag when a record is concise. But both the catalogue and the content management systems ultimately function through a database, which is governed by software and code and is not able to pose the critical question - how much metadata makes a record communicative?
The documentation of distinctly activist collections codifies crisis and activism. To register the gradual development of these contemporary narratives, and the interactivity and spontaneity which produces new truths in hypermodernity, technology must also be more flexible.
What then does rapid response tell us about the values, ethics and working practices of the Future Museum?
The role of Museums in the knowledge economy is changing, and Rapid Response Collecting is evidence of our capacity to adapt our ways of working to respond to the needs of our audiences now.
In a fast-paced, media-driven society, the museum retains its referential function. The object visualizes and formalizes a narrative which might otherwise fall out of culture. And the exhibition becomes a symbolic space where the public confronts itself.
In shifting the emphasis from interpretation to discussion, Rapid Response Collecting transforms the cabinet of curiosities to a living archive and positions the Museum as a space in which diverse publics participate in the co-production of knowledge.
I want to end this by asking, if we collect to convene debate and spark public imagination now, why do we collect for the future?
Here, I cannot help but talk about metadata again. Metadata tags are marginal and appended to the object, but they are also in dialogue with it. This gloss makes an object mobile by connecting it with the rest of the V&A’s collection and keeping it visible and relevant after the critical moment which warrants its collection has past.
Mindfulness and activism in the museum space extends beyond diversifying our collections and audiences to also interrogating the systems and technologies that maintain the status quo. The way we collect and recollect objects must permit them to stand and speak for themselves.