Contemporary collecting: Recording history as it happens

This blog post is part of an ongoing series titled Connecting with Collections. The series offers readers a peek inside the collections at Museum of Tropical Queensland, highlighting objects and their stories.

Global Strike for Climate march in Townsville, September 2019. Image by Sophie Price, Queensland Museum

What springs to mind when you think of museums? How about words like old, ancient, artefact or taxidermy? That’s not surprising.  Museums have a long history of collecting and displaying ‘curiosities’ just like that – ancient artefacts, taxidermy specimens, dinosaurs and mummies. In movies, they are often portrayed as dark, musty places filled with forgotten things.

But the concept of museums, and the theory behind what we collect and why, is constantly evolving. This topic is even more prominent right now, with the COVID-19 pandemic engulfing everyday life.

People all over the world are realising that we are living and experiencing a key moment in history, the likes of which have not been experienced since WWI, and the ‘Spanish flu’.

Covid-19 will be recorded in history books, and perhaps more importantly, in the form of quarantine memes and tik toks. It begs the question of how we can preserve these iconic moments in time, when they are happening around us.

Contemporary collecting is necessary in museums – world history isn’t just ancient history. It’s modern, it’s current, it’s happening as we speak and, it’s defining us.

History in real time

In March last year, Queensland Museum Network began collecting items associated with another contemporary, current phenomena: the School Strike for Climate movement.

The movement originally gained worldwide attention in August 2018, when the unwavering 15 year old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, began striking from school outside the Swedish Parliament, to call for stronger action on global warming and climate change. Now the public face leading the worldwide movement, Greta is renowned for her hand-made sign which she used at this protest, with a simple yet effective message: “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (School strike for climate).

By September 2019, more than 7.6 million people joined Greta for a week of protests and strikes for climate action worldwide. In Australia alone, more than 300 000 school children and adult supporters took part in over 100 separate rallies during the nationwide strike on 20 September, to protest the lack of climate action by Government bodies and politicians. In Australia, 2,500 businesses allowed employees to take time off to participate in the strikes. To date, the September strikes are the largest climate mobilisation and protest in history.

The student driven School Strike for Climate movement focuses on one of the most important social and environmental issues of the 21st century: climate change and climate action.

There were three key demands of the September strikes and the School Strike 4 Climate movement in Australia. They were no new coal, oil and gas projects, 100% renewable energy generation and exports by 2030; and, for the government to fund a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and communities. The campaign emphasised how Australia is already in the grips of the climate crisis, with the effects of prolonged drought, flash flooding, bushfires, cyclones and heatwaves causing damage to people and environments throughout the country.

The movement recognises that, as one of the greatest threats to future human existence, global warming and the ongoing effects of climate change directly threaten the future of today’s children. Young people will continue to drive the movement with unwavering passion.

Preserving the movement inside the museum

As the September 2019 strikes neared, staff at from Queensland Museum Network looked for ways to record the historical event. The answer was clear: what better way to capture the meaning of the movement than through documenting the messages of the protestors?

The following collection of protest posters and signs highlights the attitudes of the young people involved in the Townsville School Strike for Climate rallies, and whose livelihoods and futures depend on the outcomes of the protests. These items are now officially part of the State Collection, recording this moment in our history for generations to come.

High Res_Alice de Fouchier_photographer Matthew Lewandowski
Alice de Fouchier has carried her homemade protest sign in three climate rallies. She kindly donated the sign to Museum of Tropical Queensland after the September strikes in Townsville. The sign reads, ‘we need to save the world’. (Object no: H49889). Image by Matthew Lewandowski
Tia Goltl, William Loveday
James Cook University students Tia Goltl and William Loveday with their protest signs. Tia’s sign reads, ‘don’t be a fossil fool’, and William’s reads, ‘the climate is changing, why aren’t we?’ (Object no: H49893). Image by Sophie Price, Queensland Museum
Brookyln O'Hearn,
Local school student Brooklyn O’Hearn at the Townsville rally. The reverse side of Brooklyn’s sign reads, WORD OF THE WEEK ‘CLIMIGRATION’ (Object no: H49890). Image by Sophie Price, Queensland Museum

Extinction Rebellion (XR), an international socio-political movement with a primary focus on nonviolent civil disobedience produced the following two signs: The Rebel Agreement – a summarised understanding of the movement, and a poster that was distributed to participants.

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This poster was produced by Extinction Rebellion, a global grassroots organisation who promote nonviolent acts of civil disobedience in the protest for climate action (Object no: H49891)
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The Extinction Rebellion ‘Rebel Agreement’ (Object no: H49892)

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator, Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland