Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 12]: Contemporary Collecting during COVID-19 with Judith Hickson

We’ve been collecting COVID-19 items including hand sanitiser, rainbow “honk for the helpers” signs and of course, face masks. On the Museum Revealed podcast today is Judith Hickson, Senior Curator of Social History who gives us an exclusive insight into contemporary collecting for the museum.

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Let’s meet our guest: Judith Hickson

Judith Hickson joined the Queensland Museum in 2016 as a Curator of Social History in the Cultures and Histories Program. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Southern Queensland and a Bachelor of Arts degree with honours in anthropology from the Australian National University. From 2011 to 2015, Judith worked as an assistant curator and curator in the Australian social history, environment and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.  Her curatorial experience extends to research, development and curation of permanent and temporary exhibitions, website design and development, online collection development and the identification, acquisition and documentation of objects that have both national and international significance. Learn more here.

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RB: Welcome to the Museum Revealed podcast brought to you by Queensland Museum Network.

Join me Dr Rob Bell as we chat to the people that make museum’s so fascinating, from curators to scientists and researchers. We dive deep into conversations with these storytellers that inspire us to be curious about our past and make sense of the present and help us consider the future.

Now, I’m joined by the Curator of Social history, Judith Hickson.

Judith, you are involved in contemporary collecting. And so my question, I guess, is. What is contemporary collecting? Most people think of a museum as a place that is either full of old stuff to say, or maybe animal specimens, but contemporary collecting is not really either of those things.

JH: No, Rob it’s, not. Contemporary collecting is a relatively new field of collecting. It’s been around 50 years, I guess and it’s evolving and changing all the time, most recently because of the situation with museums that we have very big storage problems.

Everyone’s running out of storage, every institution, libraries etc and we can’t keep collecting forever. And I also think people are much more aware of environmental concerns these days that we can’t keep producing,  we can’t keep collecting and what are we collecting for?

And another issue with museums is that 95 per cent of the collections never see the light of day. They’re in storage. They’re there for people to come and research, but really, the public never gets to see what’s in museums anyway, so it’s caused a massive rethink about what we are actually doing as museums and what our relevance is and what our obligation is to the public that fund us.

RB: So then contemporary collecting, I’m guessing, for its name, if nothing else, is collecting items, things that are a snapshot of how things are today?

JH: Yes, so contemporary collecting as a field of collecting for museums began in the 1970s with Sam Doch, which was the collection of Swedish museums who realised that we weren’t collecting exactly as you said earlier, that museums were collecting objects from the past.

But the trouble with those collecting objects that have existed 100 years ago have come to us much later is we don’t collect the context, the history, the stories that go with those objects. So most of the objects that are in museums today, there’s an enormous amount of research that has to go into those to find the stories that are attached to them.

Whereas when you are collecting in a contemporary sense, you are right there where the objects are, where they come from. We meet the people, we see the context, we know the history, and we record all that with the objects. So there’s a lot of work that goes into assessing an object for its suitability, identifying it first and then recording as much detail as we can so that curators of the future can understand those objects much more fully than they did in the past.

RB: So I guess because the present is obviously destined to become the past, time travels forward. So it’s a matter of, I suppose, finding those things that we think in 20, 30, 50, 100 years times will be the sorts of things that we want people to know in the future about the past, those significant kind of events or stories.

JH: Yes, that’s true. And I think that that’s one of the tricky, I guess, issues that we deal with is that there’s so much happening in the world today. What do we concentrate on?

And that really does come down to the amount of staff that are available and the different collecting passions that each had, the interests that people have, and also the availability of storage. So we have to be much more discretionary about what we choose to collect. We have a couple of examples of this where people have just donated a whole household of goods and the museum has taken them all in and catalogued them all. And they’re all sitting there.

But we don’t know anything about how they were used, what their relevance was, and even do we want 50 matchboxes? Do we need 500 toothpicks. What sort of things? And these are just taking up space there also, and conservation time and a lot of that.

A lot of funding goes into those departments in museums, so what we’re trying to do now is to be objective, to be much more objective about what we collect, as well as subjective and contemporary collecting. If it’s done well, it can allow us to do that.

We have what we call multifocal objects, which means that they can tell multiple stories. And we look at the issues, the big issues of today. I think we have to be very careful about the range of issues that we’re looking at. We obviously can’t collect everything, so when we’re collecting around a particular story, say if it’s climate change, we look at the stories that we think will successfully convey the type of actions and thoughts, passions and interests that were going into those ideas at the time.

So that’s what contemporary collecting is. And as you said, it will become something of the past, in the future. But I think the more information that we can supply makes them so much more relevant than if they were just an object that we collected for its own sake.

So you know that we have 50 Mrs Pot’s Irons, for instance. There’s more, but not one single Mrs. Pots Irons with a story of who used that and why they used it and when they used it and where. And so that’s really what contemporary collecting is. It’s not necessarily new, but it’s evolving constantly. It’s similar to contemporary collecting what they’re calling the newest form collecting is what they call rapid response collecting, which is rapidly responding to something that happens. So, for instance, the National Museum of Australia is very good at this. They have quite a lot of funding and staff available, so they’ve been doing a lot of rapid response collecting in relation to the recent bushfires in the Snowy Mountains. They’ve gone down to the communities. They’ve recorded stories from people down there. They’ve got objects that tell really amazing stories. I think one of the objects that I’ve heard recently that they’ve collected is a telephone box where the phone has melted into the box. And that was the only form of communication for a lot of people who had lost homes and mobile phones. So I think it will tell a story about communication and lack of communication, fire damage, disaster, people’s stories. And that’s the type of collecting that people are looking at now that it’s very, very contemporary. It’s on the run, really rapid response collecting that museums are very keen on doing at the moment, because there’s so many things happening that we’re going to have to respond really quickly to the events. So if there’s a big street march for climate change that we know about, we will just take staff over there. Photographers take our collection books and off we go and get the stories on the ground from the people who are there.

RB: Getting the stories as they happen almost. Join us back again shortly because we’re going to delve into COVID and what you might collect from COVID. And we’re also going to find out if you at home might actually be a contemporary collector and not know about it. So we’ll catch you soon.

AD BREAK

Welcome back to the Museum Revealed podcast. I am chatting to Judith Hickson who is a curator of social history, and we’re talking a little bit about contemporary collection and collecting things around bushfires. But the other very contemporary thing, the elephant in the room, maybe it’s the virus in the room. COVID.

Are you collecting things, items around COVID? I don’t know what it might be, a face mask or what sort of objects are you collecting, I guess, to remind us of this period? Hopefully it’s a very short period of history eventually, but I guess we don’t know at this point.

JH: No, that’s very interesting because, yes, we are in the moment of time, that we have available and the scope that we are working within at the moment. We’re trying to collect material that relates to the COVID-19 crisis, because of course, this is one of the biggest catastrophes to basically to hit humankind, and I think will be in over a century.

In terms of disease, I’m not counting war, but. So of course, right at the beginning we were very keen collecting lots of COVID-19 related items. The two big items that we that were in the news quite a lot at the beginning of the crisis were hand sanitiser, which everybody was short off, and facemasks, and two very innovative Brisbane companies at that time were producing both of those. One of them was a men’s grooming company called The Bearded Chap, which is very small bespoke company based in Woolloongabba, and they were producing this very up-market, I guess, men’s grooming products for beards and hair and one of the men who was the director there, his wife, his partner at the time, was an emergency doctor at the Gold Coast Hospital, and she had come home and said that hand sanitiser just wasn’t available. So they quickly decided that they could turn their hand to manufacturing hand sanitizer, but then, of course, ethanol was very much in that short supply as well. So apparently this story was that they were rushing around Brisbane to all these small hardware companies and service stations looking for ethanol and they’d buy five litres here and 10 litres there. And finally, one day, one of them was in Bunnings in Ipswich and happened to mention it to the shop assistant whose son worked on ABC Radio, so the story went out on ABC Radio and within a few short hours, there was a call from one of the government ministers saying, we can get you all the ethanol you want, just let us know how much you need.

So that was when the Bundaberg Rum Distillery came into the picture, so the Bundaberg Rum Distillery donated huge amounts of ethanol to this company to start producing hand sanitiser. So while we have some very lovely specimens of these lovely hand sanitiser, which they donated to our collection, it’s got a very slightly rummy smell to it, but definitely not unpleasant.

RB: This is an actual example of where you talk about it’s not just the object. Obviously, there could be a bottle of hand sanitizer, but it’s the story that you’ve just told us that goes with that object. I think that’s what encapsulates things in the collection.

JH: Yeah, that’s right. Because we’re a Queensland Museum, we collect Queensland stories. That’s a very Queensland story and of course everybody knows Bundaberg Rum.

It’s a very, very famous rum distillery known around the world, and so that was a fantastic story, and they have gone on to continue to make hand sanitiser and have done particularly well out of that. So they very, very kindly donated bottles of samples of their hand sanitiser and other products that they’ve made, which has been fantastic.

Another company that have donated generously to us is a company called 3D One, and they were a 3D printing company here who decided that they would start making face shields because face shields were in short supply and they put out a call Australia wide.

Anyone with a 3D printer could make face shields, and they received, I think, about 100,000 face shields, so many that they haven’t, in the end, been able to distribute them. They had bundles of them. They may have since been able to do that. They continued to refine the designs. So they have different designs. They’ve donated different iterations of the face shield. And so we have some examples of those. These are just two of them. And they were two of the biggest stories, I guess, facemasks and sanitisers. And then there was the community involvement. What happened in the community during that time?

There was a lot of community interaction. People were at home. Well, were all in lockdown, and the only people who were out and about were the health workers. And of course, there was a big shout out to the health workers who were at that time, we assumed were going to be risking their lives for us. So we’ve got a beautiful banner that was made by three very lovely little boys, little brothers who made a beautiful banner and hung it on their fence. It’s got a lovely rainbow and it’s got honk for the helpers. And apparently the dad said that people are still honking when they drive, even though the banner is safely in the museum collections now. So we’ve got that and they are actually our youngest donors to the museum. So that was a fantastic story. We’ve also got leaflets, flyers, everyone remembers the parks were all closed down. The gyms and the swings were all roped off. So we’ve got posters that we took afterwards, not while the signs were up. And they’re the sorts of things that we’re still collecting. And we would love people to call in if they think they have a great story with a COVID-19 related story. That’s the sort of thing that we feel will tell a great story in the future. It’ll tell people in 100 years’ time what it was like to live through this, and that’s what we really want to do. We want to give people of the future experience of what it’s like for us now, what we’re facing. The things that it’s brought out in our community. The good things. The not so good things. So that’s what collecting is all about. Storytelling.

RB: You’re talking about COVID and obviously, that’s something we don’t have a vaccine for at the moment. You do have something in the collection that’s sort of, I guess, a reminder of, I mean, that was a very successful vaccination campaign. Tell us a little bit of that.

JH: So, yes. Recently I was just thinking about its relevance today, even now, we have a beautiful, quite an incredible object. It’s a large cabinet containing, I think, 67 dolls in traditional costumes. It was an innovative idea by the one of the Brisbane Rotary Clubs Brisbane Inner North Rotary Club back in 1970s. And it was to raise awareness for and to raise funds for the polio vaccination campaign and eradication campaign. The eradication campaign has been sponsored throughout the world by the World Health Organisation. But also to a huge degree by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s one of their biggest health campaigns. And so the Rotary Doll’s cabinet tells a worldwide story of how much involvement around the world with Rotary and the World Health Organisation, but it tells a very local story as well.

And one of the reasons that we were very keen on collecting it, not just to tell a polio story, was to tell the vaccination success story. At the moment, unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 crisis, there is a concern that polio may again spread because people haven’t been able to access the vaccines in particular areas. There was, I think at one stage, they were hoping that the only cases of polio in the world were what they called wild polio virus, which was something that just appears. It’s not spread. It just appears in particular circumstances, but they were the only cases, now unfortunately, because of the recent crisis that’s reappearing in large numbers. But without vaccination, most people today don’t realise there are 200,000 people living in Australia today who have experienced polio, who were living with polio, and are also experienced with what is now becoming very obvious as another degree, which is called post-polio syndrome, where people are still experiencing even though they recovered years ago, they’re now becoming sick again and are losing their mobility through what’s become known as post-polio syndrome.

So vaccination is really, really important, and we really wanted to counteract some of the anti-vaccination campaigns that were appearing quite a lot, particularly in relation to measles, which seems to have gone off the radar slightly since COVID-19. Of course, we’re all just hanging out for a vaccine and we can see it as our only solution. So I think the story of vaccination particularly is really, really relevant today. And we will be collecting in that area. I know that the University of Queensland is doing a lot of fantastic research and development in that area, and we will be in touch with them, as we also have been with another unit at the University of Queensland who are producing facemasks made from Queensland Wool, and experimenting with a wool company here.

There’s some really fantastic, innovative things in Queensland that are happening here, and we will be collecting them as we can in the next few months. But of course, we just have to be very careful that we don’t rush in too early and that we wait and we’re not hampering any efforts when we do. We don’t want to get in anyone’s way, but certainly we’d love to hear from people.

RB: Indeed. Excellent. My last question, I suppose, is more of a selfish one in a way, but it also probably pertains for a lot of people out there. So when I was younger, I collected 50 cent pieces, not just any 50 cent piece, but in particular there were Commonwealth Games 50 cent pieces from when it was in Queensland, in Brisbane. So at the time, I guess that was sort of contemporary collecting because I just wanted to see how many of these things I could get. It was probably a good way to save money as well. I branched out to other 50 cent pieces. I recently found that collection. Now, I guess it’s a snapshot of the past. Are there people out there that I suppose are doing their own contemporary collecting and not realising it?

JH: I think there are. Rob, I think there’s a lot of people who are collectors to some degree. And I think with your 50 cent piece collection for the Commonwealth Games, we did it as a small exhibition at the museum on Commonwealth Games a couple of years ago when it was at the Gold Coast. And it was incredible how many small collections from small boys, things that they collected, hats memorabilia from the games that were donated to the museum. People collected them and put them aside and probably were going to throw them out. They came forward and they were very much a part of our exhibit.

RB: So all of those things you’ve got there that are gathering dust, you think, that no one wants that. You never know the museum. You keep your contemporary collection. It’ll become the past. It may become something very, very interesting.

JH: That’s right. Even matchboxes. We have a collection of matchboxes that the Redhead Matchbox company put out with that were relevant to the Commonwealth Games as well.

RB: So there you go museums, not just full of old stuff and animals as people may have thought before, but, now you know. Thanks so much for joining us. And thanks everyone else for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. What did you uncover this episode?

Keen to learn more? Well, you can follow the Queensland Museum on social media @qldmuseum or head to our website qm.qld.gov.au  And while you’re there, sign up for the e-news list. So be the first to know everything that’s going on at the museum. Until next time. Stay curious.

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