Signs of the Times: Archaeologists and Contemporary Collecting During COVID-19

Dr Sara Perry and Lara Band

Archaeology, at its very core, is the study of past human societies through the objects and material traces left behind. This can include everything from beads to buildings, and all that’s in between. However, some events leave little lasting physical evidence. 

Various contemporary archaeology collecting initiatives have cropped up in response to the COVID-19 crisis, some launched by archaeologists themselves, some by collectives of different people, some by museums, universities, and more.

We’ve been following several of these projects, which are many and growing:

  • Viral Archive: an archaeologist-led, social media-based initiative to document the signs, marks and graffiti of COVID-19
  • Museum of London - Collecting COVID: the Museum’s response to COVID-19, seeking Londoners’ experiences and objects that reflect their lives during this period of time
  • Historic England - #PicturingLockdown: a week-long competition (29 April – 5 May 2020) launched by Historic England to gather “the 50 most evocative, informative and inspiring” photos of people’s personal experiences of lockdown. Submissions will be paired with 50 of Historic England’s “professional offerings”, to create a catalogue of 100 images for the Historic England Archive
  • Elphinstone Institute – Lockdown Lore: a University of Aberdeen-based collecting project concerned to gather Scotland’s handicrafts, stories, songs, tunes, poems and digital activities associated with COVID-19   
  • Christine Finn - Leave Home Stay: a long-running artistic documentation and reporting project by Christine Finn, which continues to evolve with COVID-19
  • Museum of the Home – Stay Home: a questionnaire and photo-based documentation of people’s home lives during COVID-19, whose contributions will become part of the Museum’s permanent Documenting Homes archive

Many others could be listed here, including local projects like Novium Museum’s ‘Chichester District Remembers’ or Edinburgh City Archives’ call for residents’ diaries and journals of COVID-19. Several of the initiatives noted above are close to our hearts because of our longstanding collaborations with those involved. As one of the major contributors of material to the Museum of London’s archives, we are interested in the forces that will shape its acquisitions in the future. Likewise, last year, colleagues Nigel Jeffries and Louise Fowler spent 10 days rapidly recording and assessing a household assemblage from artist and former journalist Christine Finn’s family home, held in a storage container in Deal, Kent. We’re curious about the unique lens that archaeology (and its various subspecialities) might bring to these collecting activities, the questions and methods that underlie them, and their ethics.

With ethics in mind, we’ve also been following conversations around and compiling existing resources about contemporary collecting, including:

We are intrigued about whether and how an explicitly archaeological lens applied to these ethical resources might change, challenge or elaborate them (if at all).

Some of this work - and links to other contemporary collecting initiatives that pre-date COVID-19 – is nicely reviewed by Kostas Arvanitis in the first of a multi-part series on “What collecting spontaneous memorials can tell us about collecting COVID-19”. We’re also keeping our eyes on existing efforts to explore method and theory around broader forms of digital (and analogue) collecting, including the recent National Museums Scotland, Digital Collecting in Museums conference, and the Contemporary Collecting Network.

Are you an archaeologist involved in contemporary collecting initiatives? Do you have resources to share, ideas to explore, or questions to ask about the contribution archaeology brings to these initiatives? If so, we are keen to hear from you. Get in touch with us by email, or on Twitter @ArchaeologistSP.

If you are considering contributing to one of the above initiatives, please ensure that you follow current government guidance while doing so. 

  • Research

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