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Contemporary Collecting: Why the present matters to museums

This week is another tumultuous one. The first federal and provincial budgets delivered during a pandemic, the anxiety of the weekend’s COVID numbers and further restrictions, continued social unrest due to racism … it’s a lot. Every week is a lot. There have been memes going around over the past 13 months saying, “I’m getting tired of being part of a major historical event.” I feel like most of us can identify with that sentiment.

Living during a time of not only turmoil but massive social change can be exhausting. We find ourselves in the midst of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, the race towards racial and social equality, an economic crisis, an ongoing climate crisis, and a misinformation epidemic. Whether we like it or not, we are experiencing many simultaneous, significant worldwide events, and with each day that passes, the present becomes history. Most of us are utterly exhausted, are in information overload, and maybe we feel like we just want to get away from it all. But these are moments we should collect and preserve.

One way we can ensure that our present challenges inform the education of the future is by contemporary collecting, or accessioning the present. We know that the primary function of museums is to collect artifacts from the past. Contemporary collecting ensures that — very much like a time capsule — objects, artifacts, and stories from current events will provide a snapshot of our present culture for future interpretation by curators, archivists, researchers, and the public. Whether we respond to our current circumstances well or poorly, there are always lessons to be learned and multiple viewpoints to be represented. Just as we currently use historical artifacts and images to connect with those who came before us, contemporary collecting connects us with those who come after.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Exploration Place has further embraced contemporary collecting as a community service for our region’s future. The images and items we’ve accumulated will show future generations how this time has impacted the museum and our community in many different ways. This collection will be invaluable for those building exhibits that document the age we are currently living through and the impacts it has had on all of us, both large and small.

We’ve collected various masks — a favourite is the “Speaking Moistly” mask, made by a staff member as an homage to Justin Trudeau’s unintentional catchphrase of 2020. We’ve collected hand sanitizer made by local breweries, memorabilia from the Women’s Curling Championship that never was, and hundreds of photos. One artifact we’re hoping to acquire from the city is a sign promoting social distancing, with graffiti that clearly shows not everyone is on board with that particular restriction. The often polarizing discussions we are now having about infection control and the social good will be immortalized for future generations, just as we can now look back on the 1918 flu pandemic and see the similarities to the issues we are currently facing. (Spoiler alert: They didn’t like masks either.)

We also collect other items like the latest version of the Prince George-opoly board game, specialty beer cans from local breweries, Mr. PG-related items, and objects from the more recent past, like Champ from The Northern. Collecting things such as these now, while they are in good or excellent condition, will make our successors’ jobs easier when it comes to preservation.

Contemporary collecting also means we can tell the stories of underrepresented groups that may not have been reflected in traditional collecting. Much of what resides in the archives of museums around the world focuses on the rich, the powerful, and often, the white. Many of these items were not donated by choice. We have the chance now to collect and tell stories from a more inclusive perspective, making our collections more representative of our world and community as a whole. In addition to being collecting institutions, museums have taken on the role of being forums for discussion, debate, and often difficult conversations. Museums are about people, the experiences of all people, and the impact of those experiences on our collective culture.

Contemporary collecting means looking ahead. It means keeping objects and images that may seem to be without much intrinsic value but that future generations will look back on, learn from, and appreciate. The historical donations that people bring us add to an already extensive collection but represent a tiny sliver of the entire spectrum of our region’s history. By preserving the present, we hope that future generations may see a much more complete picture of their past. Today is, literally, history in the making.

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