Collecting Contexts – Why Do We Collect?


During the summer of 2019, I volunteered at the V&A’s Lansbury Micro Museum in Poplar, East London, to help run an exhibition called For the Love of Things. The exhibition put the personal collections of the museum’s visitors on display, its shelves changing throughout the summer as people contributed different groups of objects: antique woodworking tools, glass bottles, toys, zines, and mudlarking finds, to name but a few. Advertised as a ‘storehouse of personal collections’ to celebrate ‘collecting as an innate human endeavour’, the exhibition asked visitors to think about how each of us decide what to treasure, keep and collect.

In part, the exhibition at the Lansbury was designed as a precursor to the sprawling V&A East project in Stratford, where an ‘open storage’ design will give visitors access to some of the objects that the South Kensington museum had previously hidden away at Blythe House. By showcasing the collections of people who came to see the exhibition, For the Love of Things tried to thin the boundary between the V&A’s imposing array of internationally-renowned pieces and the personal treasures of its visitors.

The Lansbury Micro Museum. A small museum is set up behind a shopfront. A billboard welcomes visitors in the foreground. A sign in the window reads "For the Love of Things"
Figure 1. The Lansbury Micro Museum

The conversations I had throughout the summer were illuminating. The exhibition asked visitors ‘what do you collect?’ but more often we’d end up talking about why they collected. I heard about ‘collectible’ objects kept for their rumoured monetary value (china tea sets and Beanie Babies), objects kept for study (fossils), travel objects (foreign banknotes, holiday souvenirs), and objects that were just curious (a collection of promotional biros). A lot of visitors collected objects to remember things now lost, or photographs and letters as reminders of family and places they felt connections to.

As I explain in my recent ‘state of the field’ article for History on the history of collecting, the fact that absolutely anything can be (and probably has been) collected makes the phenomenon daunting to study. While volunteering at the Lansbury, I was at an earlier stage of my ongoing PhD and feeling overwhelmed by the breadth of this very topic. My project looks at how private collections started to become public museums in England after the Restoration, so I’ve been dealing with collectors whose seemingly insatiable appetite for things included books, manuscripts, natural history specimens, scientific instruments, fossils, antiquities, art, and other curiosities. 

Volunteering at the Lansbury helped me to refocus my research on why people collected, and how they understood the objects they gathered. When Sir Hans Sloane published a catalogue of his collection of Jamaican flora and fauna in 1707, he said he was doing so for ‘the Advancement of Natural Knowledge’.[1] Meanwhile, writers like Joseph Addison were ridiculing natural historians like Sloane in The Tatler for their obsession with collecting, and what Addison called the ‘refuse of nature’. This didn’t stop the Parliament buying Sloane’s collection at his death in 1753, and using it to create the British Museum.

It’s a clear illustration that one man’s (national) treasure is another’s trash, and it reminds me that collecting is all about the contexts we create for objects. During my time at the Lansbury, I discovered that Robin Hood Gardens, a block of council flats near Poplar now in the process of being demolished, is a clear illustration of this collecting process. Held up as an example of mid-century brutalist architecture, the block of flats gained a reputation as a hotspot for crime, though many residents say this was exaggerated, and some claim that the council deliberately ran it down into disrepair so it could be sold for redevelopment.

Building front of Robin Hood Gardens. A wide building containing many windows.
Figure 2. Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London

One Lansbury visitor, a former Robin Hood resident, had saved a scrap of wallpaper from their home there. Another visitor told me they had gained access to the demolition site, to capture on film the eeriness of the abandoned building. Meanwhile, the V&A was in the process of acquiring a three-storey section of the building to add to its architectural collection.

Robin Hood Gardens was being absorbed into three different collections: a box of personal keepsakes, an album of photographs of urban exploration, and a public museum. In new hands, fragments of the building lose some of the meanings it had when it was in use, but they also give it new meanings by putting it in dialogue with other kinds of objects and memories. This is the root of what collections do – creating and manipulating contexts.

Of course, new ownership raises questions about the responsibilities and privileges of creating new contexts for objects. Hans Sloane’s Jamaican collection depended on the expertise and labour of indigenous and enslaved communities, which he often failed to acknowledge, and in his collection the stories and experiences of these people were repackaged as his property. 

After acquiring a section of Robin Hood Gardens, the V&A decided to exhibit it at the Venice Biennale in 2018, attracting criticism that in the process of celebrating the building’s aesthetic qualities, the museum was ignoring the social issues surrounding its redevelopment, as well as the broader gentrification of East London, in an act of ‘artwashing’. Stephen Pritchard wrote that artwashing ‘creates a veneer of social responsibility which disguises the oppression of marginal community members’ – it takes the object out of context.

Portrait bust of Hans Sloane. He wears an elaborate period wig.
Figure 3. Portrait bust of Hans Sloane

The issue of collection contexts has become a battleground in discussion about how the UK’s public museums should present their collected objects. Responding to public pressure to change how the UK displays its statues, the British Museum and the British Library have recently recontextualised portrait busts of Hans Sloane to reflect a more critical engagement with the objects. New contexts mean they are no longer straightforward celebrations of Sloane but historical artefacts with complex histories.

V&A director Tristram Hunt weighed in on the issue of collection contexts, responding to calls for the restitution of British colonial loot with the provocative statement that ‘to decolonise is to decontextualise’. Sumaya Kassim, a critic of Hunt’s, suggested that in fact the V&A’s implicit claims that it presents its collections neutrally is itself an act of decontextualisation. Sharon Heal also contested that ‘to decolonise is to add context that has been deliberately ignored and stripped away over generations’.

As debates about collection contexts gain more public exposure, the question ‘why do we collect?’ is an increasingly important one. It lets us think critically about our relationships with the material past, about the stories we want to tell about objects, and about the authority with which those stories are currently told. My conversations with Lansbury visitors taught me that seeing our own objects in an exhibition is a potent way to start asking these questions, and to start putting curatorial decisions themselves on display in the museum gallery space.

Will Burgess is a PhD student in the English Department at Queen Mary University of London, where he studies the emergence of the public museum in England, 1683–1753. He recently published an article on the history of collecting in History, and is currently assisting on a research project about James Cuninghame’s Chinese botanical watercolours. He volunteers with the museum development team at the Museum of London, and tweets as @Bill_Wurgess.

[1] Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (London: for the author, 1707) sig.[Ar]

Figure 1. The Lansbury Micro Museum, London. Photograph taken and supplied by the author.

Figure 2. Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London. Photograph taken and supplied by the author.

Figure 3. J. Michael Rysbrack, Terracotta portrait bust of Hans Sloane, The British Museum. Available for non-commercial use under Creative Commons license and suggested by the author.

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