1 November 2017




Welcome back to Greatest Hits, where I bring back some of the great work of past contributors! One of the greatest parts of writing this column is the chance to see what questions, ideas, and museum innovations were circulating in the recent past. So far, I have been shocked to find that the innovations in the museum world today aren’t so new after all.

My latest dive into the Musings archive led me all the way back to Alexandra Jeffery’s June 2014 post, Contemporary Collecting. I was absolutely shocked that this article, written over three years ago, discussed rapid response collecting, a trend I had thought was pretty new to the museum world.

Rapid response collecting, as Alexandra describes in her article, is a museum collecting practice that emphasizes collecting items of cultural significance in the moment that they become significant, so collecting items of the now in the now. I have become increasingly aware of this new approach to collecting, but I had no idea that the Victoria and Albert Museum had been engaging in rapid response collecting and exhibiting since 2014. The museum’s first rapid response exhibit in 2014 evolved into an ongoing collecting practice at the museum.

The V&A have an ongoing commitment to Rapid Response Collecting. Source.

The V&A Rapid Response Collecting team focuses on collecting items related to design and manufacturing that can provide a window into our world today. Alexandra’s article ponders how collecting and exhibiting objects of immediate significance could lead to valuable insights about contemporary culture, but she also questions if this collecting practice could lead to a devaluation of collections down the road when museums are faced with an overflow of ephemera of little value.

Alexandra’s article brings up some of the major issues facing museums that engage in rapid response collecting, especially concerns with collecting items that may not hold lasting significance, but a lot has changed since then. The practice of rapid response collecting has reacted to the massive political turmoil of our time.

A recent New York Times article In an Era of Strife, Museums Collect History as It Happens explores how the National Museum of African American History and Culture has responded to unfolding racial tension in America by collecting posters, buttons, clothing, gas masks and countless other objects from rallies, protests, and other historically significant moments. 

Two shirts collected by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Source.

In the article, Aaron Bryant, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, states “we are in times that require us to acknowledge that history is happening before our eyes.” Rapid response collecting acknowledges the significance of now, and it preserves these moments of extreme tension and strife for the future.

Rapid response collecting is one of the ways museums can reactively adapt to a society in turmoil, but I am left wondering how many museums will rise to the challenge of responding to the tensions of our times by adapting existing practices and adopting new approaches.

In the past year alone, museums have reacted to political upheaval in various ways. In February, when U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order that led to the now infamous "travel ban," the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts responded with #Art-Less. The project removed over 20% of the gallery's artwork, all of which was created or donated by immigrants, to show the devastating reality of a world without immigrant contributions. 

The Davis Museum temporarily removed artwork made or contributed by immigrants as a response to the travel ban. Source.

Project #Art-Less and rapid response collecting are more radical examples of museums adapting to political turmoil, but museums have also responded to crises within their societies in subtler ways like offering free admission on January 20th, the date of Trump's inauguration. 

Rapid response collecting, like other reactive developments in the museum world, is an opportunity for museums to enter into dialogue with contemporary life and present turmoil. I think it is critical for museums to respond and adapt to the society they exist within, and this new form of collecting offers an opportunity to reflect a rapidly changing society in the collections.

Do you think museums have a responsibility to adapt their practices? Should rapid response collecting be adopted by more institutions?


  1. I am wary of rapid response collecting. As museum professionals we have to be stewards of our collections and have the means to preserve what we have. We are always preaching to smaller museums that they need a strong collections management policy to reign in and access what they collect. How many of us gave a collections management policy that covers rapid response collecting? Modern artefacts need time to develop stories. Let's give them that time.

  2. Great point Evelyn! I think movements like rapid response collecting hold great potential, but the possibility of integrating this practice is likely beyond the scope of many institutions, especially smaller museums.