Again, what are museum objects for? And who cares anyway?

April 7, 2020
We use Nitrile gloves when we handle most of our objects. When the museum closed to the public because of the pandemic, we donated our stock to the NHS. Photo by Neil Hassall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many of us are at home, practising social distancing or self-isolation as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Friends and family have been sending me messages about how they are spending their time, and sharing their feelings and thoughts, in a period where both communication and loneliness have intensified.

At the museum, until very recently, we thought that the exhibitions, events and collections management projects we engage with every day as part of our work would continue as planned. Then, all of our museum sites suddenly closed to the public. We cleared our desks and waved our colleagues goodbye – from a distance – not knowing when we would see each other again.

Furniture from a dolls’ house. Photo by Neil Hassall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In this blockbuster-movie scenario, I think of the collection objects we left behind, safely stored in boxes, crates and packages. Curators, technicians, auditors and conservators have been working hard in the past few months to audit, condition check and pack our V&A Museum of Childhood collections, before the builders take over the site for a long period of construction. We all put our hearts, brains and dusty fingers into action to get the objects ready for their move, in preparation for this huge transformation.

Happy, Bashful and Doc soft toys from a set of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Chad Valley Company Limited, England, 1948 – 52. Photo by Neil Hassall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On leaving the museum site for an unknown period of time, I thought again of the relevance of our work, and of those objects that were made before our time. Still and quiet, wrapped in their acid-free tissue paper, these objects are here because someone before us has taken care. They passed them on to us and wrote down what they knew or remembered about them. Since then, we have seen new meanings in them, re-invented their stories and shifted their purpose to suit our present.

We still use our paper archives where there are gaps in our digital records. They hold invaluable information about the objects and where came from and they stretch back to the foundation of the museum in 1872. Photo by Neil Hassall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The current state of uncertainty for ourselves and the people around us forces us to re-think the ways we interact with one another. It has forced us to leave our offices, separate from our friends and family, and be alone. But, it also encourages us to think again of how we look after one another. By performing the actions of documenting, packing, storing and restoring collections every day in our work, we convey an innate human desire to take care – not only of objects that those before us produced and cared for, but of our kin, our peers, and even those far away from us, somewhere else in the world.

Museum Technician Sophie Strong packing some objects for display in the new galleries, including this teddy bear, made in England, 1940 – 45. Photo by Neil Hassall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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