top of page
  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices

Caring for Pain Between Passing Life and Institutional Time

By Lesley Cheung

This reflection follows a British Art Network (BAN) workshop titled ‘Collections of Spontaneous Memorials: Value, Ethics of Care, Trauma-Informed Practice and Vicarious Trauma’ on 14 December 2023, which was supported by Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and convened by Dr Kostas Arvanitis, University of Manchester. Through two case studies of the Manchester Together Archive and the memorial and archive in progress on the Grenfell Tower fire, this essay discusses the representation and performance of care in spontaneous memorials, as well as what an ethical approach to such memorials may mean to their stewards and audience.

I tend to think of museums as knowledge management institutions, but unlike the decentralised and instantaneous nature of digital communities, museums hold a special kind of knowledge, one whose value is often ascribed by specialists to be made accessible and relevant to a public. As museum work became institutionalised and professionalised, what used to be collected on personal whims and by chance are now subject to rigorous collections policies and acquisition processes. It is now one of museums’ chief responsibilities to rationalise their collections, both retrospectively and pre-emptively. As a result, materials that society deems significant and valuable at a given moment may take months or years to be officially accessioned and, if resources permit, exhibited.


It is not to say governance compromises societal commitment, but museums by their very nature operate on a different scale of time from the broader society where the public they serve lives. Since the founding of the International Council of Museums in 1946, the quality of permanence has been enshrined in the museum definition, with revisions made over the years to other aspects (Lehmannová, 2020). I find permanence a rather problematic attribute to be made universal, but the assumed permanence of museums’ existence means the knowledge they hold shall be perennial or continuously renewed. If the worlds in and out of museums were wheels that collectively drive humankind forward, how then would museum time come to terms with dynamic social phenomena and happenings?


Contemporary collecting provides for a more agile form of knowledge building, for museum collections to better reflect, respond to and engage with societal needs or aspirations. Contemporary collecting is concerned with materials that ‘reflect the recent past and what is happening today’ (Museum Development North West and Kavanagh, 2019, p. 6), and involves ‘people making decisions about preserving lived experience, knowledge, stories and objects’ (Miles, Cordner and Kavanagh, 2020, p. 3). The Victoria and Albert Museum introduced rapid response collecting in 2014. With objects ranging from a painted umbrella used in protests in Hong Kong to a pair of trousers made in Bangladesh for Primark (n.d.), through rapid response collecting the Victoria and Albert Museum interrogates the potential and implications of industrial design and production. In the spirit of ‘prophetic archaeology’ discussed by Jameson (2005, p. 99) who cities H. G. Wells’ fictional museum, the practice of contemporary or rapid response collecting speculates, and in turn reifies, an object’s future value in relation to the recent past or events still unfolding.


The use of contemporary collecting also meets recommendations by the Museums Association based on two years’ research. In order for collections to be relevant, museums are recommended to ‘collect strategically and in partnership with museum users and communities’ (Museums Association, 2020, p. 16). This direction is made on the premise that collecting activities need not be costly to be impactful, particularly in view of financial constraints facing museums, and contemporary collecting may be regarded as a manifestation of such. As the cases discussed below would demonstrate, the costs of contemporary collecting may not necessarily come from acquiring prized materials, but more so from building staff capacity and creating favourable conditions to handle distressing or controversial materials, or the sensitivities and risks associated with addressing them. Nevertheless, recognising the value of community participation in collections is a progressive move for museums to democratise knowledge production from the source.


Materials concerning conflict and death are a common but demanding subject of contemporary collecting. The Imperial War Museums were instituted as a national contemporary collecting exercise and established on 5 March 1917 in the midst of the First World War to document events and experiences of mass mobilisation (n.d.). With the subsequent outbreak of the Second World War and Korean War, the Imperial War Museums expanded their scope to ‘all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces had been involved since 1914’ (n.d.). On a more local level, traumatic events have also inspired offerings – which may be expressions of grief and solidarity or calls for justice – in-situ or in prominent public spaces as spontaneous memorials. That these materials are found worthy of protection raises key ethical questions of by whom and how they shall be preserved and cared for. In the UK, the Manchester Arena bombing and Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 spurred distinct but comparable trajectories of aftermath, where spontaneous memorials have been, or are proposed to be, housed in an archive.


On 22 May 2017, the terrorist bombing attack of Manchester Arena killed a total of 23 (including the bomber), directly and from sustained injury. As spontaneous memorials grew in St Ann’s Square and other parts of the city centre, the Manchester City Council in June 2017 delegated Manchester Art Gallery to decide on their handling (Arvanitis, 2019). Facing this unprecedented task, the team led by Amanda Wallace, then Deputy Director of the Manchester Art Gallery, made a number of museological decisions around contemporary collecting that create meaning for what became the Manchester Together Archive: preserving the entirety of some 10,000 items to capture the scale of mass participation (instead of selecting for representativeness), allowing creative disposal and recycling as ‘memorial performance’ for the Manchester Together Archive to stay dynamic and relevant (instead of resisting change) and facilitating spatial manifestation and embodied experience from the original site to the new home (instead of digitising items only) (Arvanitis, 2019, p. 520). These decisions demonstrate how museums may use institutional permanence to the advantage of ephemeral events by contemporary collecting. Memorials may be spontaneous, but the making of the Manchester Together Archive was not circumstantial: it took strong commitment of a public institution, open-mindedness of the team, trust from the bereaved and availability of professional counselling support for participants throughout the project. Contemporary collecting enables not only new objects as knowledge, but process of the endeavour as well, and such knowledge arising out of a museological context deserves to be celebrated by museums.

Figure 1. The spontaneous memorial in St Ann’s Square. Manchester, June 2017 (Image by Manchester City Council. Used with permission).


The Grenfell Tower fire in London, on the other hand, is more contentious and discussion about the afterlife of spontaneous memorials is still under way. On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out in council housing Grenfell Tower in Kensington and took the lives of 72. Prior to the incident, residents, an independent assessor and a fire authority had raised concerns of fire hazard in Grenfell Tower (Grenfell Tower fire, 2023), so in the aftermath the Grenfell community grappled not only with grief but anger at what they regarded as a preventable disaster. This destabilises public trust in the government and complicates responsibilities in the legacy. After the fire, the bereaved, survivors, neighbouring community and public authorities formed the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission (Commission) by February 2020 to explore the development of a memorial at the tower site (2023). The Commission also acknowledges the significance of the spontaneous memorials that blossomed around the site and continue to evolve as of November 2023, and thus considers an archive and exhibition of them as an additional way of remembrance (2023). Recommendations for such, based on community consultation, include the archive could take digital form, a public exhibition could be curated for educational purposes in collaboration with existing museum spaces, and both the archive and exhibition shall be in a separate location from the permanent memorial lest they become a tourist attraction (Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, 2023). It remains to be seen how the archive and exhibition would take shape as the Commission prepares to release initial ideas in 2024 (2023).

Figure 2. ‘Grenfell Forever’ installation on the memorial wall outside Grenfell Tower (Image by Matt Brown under Creative Commons 2.0 licence).

The issue of responsibility illustrated by the two cases above is discussed in museological literature as a key value in an ethic of care. Tronto (1993) postulates four ethical values underpinning the behaviour of care, which are attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness. Responsibility is not seen as obligation, but an intersectional understanding and reflection of one’s actions and/or omissions that lead to a need for care (Tronto, 1993). In the case of the Manchester Together Archive, though the responsibility of care was assigned to the Manchester Art Gallery, it was positively embraced and duly exercised in caring for spontaneous memorials and contemplating their future. As Arvanitis (2023) presented at a British Art Network (BAN) workshop, for the team at the Manchester Art Gallery, the decision making and action in delivering care bridged the sense of personal and social responsibility. In London, the Commission recommends working with museologists to create the archive of spontaneous memorials, while also supposes it may benefit from having the same ownership and management as that of the proposed memorial (2023). It is premature to speculate how the responsibility of care for spontaneous memorials would be carried out, but the agency of the bereaved and the community is evident here in deciding how the archive shall live on. A principle of shared responsibility would be conducive to restoring trust between public institutions and the affected. There may be something to be learnt in this regard from how museums come to reflexively address their contested history: the breakdown of trust immediately following the fire may take a radical trust (Lynch and Alberti, 2010), proactively forged by public institutions, to be rebuilt.


Interesting to note is what the Grenfell community believes best represents the legacy of the loss and how it influences perceived competence of the owner and manager of the memorial, and possibly by extension the archive and exhibition. The Commission reports that the memorial is suggested to incorporate natural features of water, garden and light to evoke a sense of peace and solace, as well as a building or structure for practical facilities or comfort, whereas mentions of spaces serving museum or learning purposes are particularly few (2023). Though the expertise of archivists and museologists is welcomed in the making of the archive and exhibition, the Commission cites the Royal Parks as an example of an established charity with relevant experience of running public spaces of national interest that they would entrust overall management. This association seems to suggest that even though museums and gardens broadly are, or aspire to be, public spaces of commemoration and reflection, holding assets in the service of society, the expansiveness and affective outcomes promoted by the latter may mitigate threshold fear in the former and take precedence (Gurian, 2005), especially following a traumatic event. I must admit, however, that considerations for a memorial are not so much comparable to the Manchester Together Archive but the Glade of Light, which was separately commissioned, funded and maintained, and not within scope of this article. In respect of contemporary collecting as a practice, this discussion is limited by the varying pace of both archives’ development, and recommendations for the proposed archive and exhibition about the Grenfell Tower fire are now preliminary at best. Having regard to the potential for empathy and healing of museums and gardens, perhaps discussions about trauma-informed practice could be broadened to facilitate more knowledge exchange between caring professions so the public may be better served by integrated or hybrid solutions.


How does the wheel of museum time come to terms with that of dynamic social phenomena and happenings? Returning to this same question having journeyed through how two cities reckon with a collective trauma unique to their own, merely three weeks apart, it occurs to me if there was any distance between the two wheels, it might well be the necessary time for insight, reconciliation and growth. It is the time for suspension of disbelief that, if social phenomena and happenings do compel a collecting activity, it may benefit from museological processes to give it meaning. As such, to salvage is to value and resist oblivion, with the eventuality of knowledge and longing for enchantment, as in Remembrance of Things Past the moment just before the narrator meets his memory from tasting the madeleine is poetically encapsulated:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection (Proust, 2003). 



Lesley Cheung is an MA candidate in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research interests include meaning making, co-production and discursivity in art institutions and practices.


Arvanitis, K. (2023). 'Introduction and Context', Collections of Spontaneous Memorials: Value, Ethics of Care, Trauma-Informed Practice and Vicarious Trauma, Manchester Art Gallery. 14 Dec 2023.

Arvanitis, K. (2019). ‘The ‘Manchester Together Archive’: researching and developing a museum practice of spontaneous memorials’ Museum and society, 17 (3), pp. 510-532

Grenfell Tower fire (2023): Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 31 Dec 2023).

Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission (2023). Remembering Grenfell: Recommendations and next steps to a memorial. London. Available at: (Accessed: 31 Dec 2023).

Gurian, E. (2005). 'Threshold Fear', in Macleod, S. (ed.) Reshaping museum space: architecture, design, exhibitions. London; New York: Routledge, pp. 203-214.

Imperial War Museums (n.d.) The History of IWM: Imperial War Museums. Available at: (Accessed: 30 Dec 2023).

Jameson, F. (2005). Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso.

Lehmannová, M. (2020). 224 YEARS OF DEFINING THE MUSEUM: International Council of Museums Czech Republic. Available at: (Accessed: 30 Dec 2023).

Lynch, B. T. and Alberti, S. J. M. M. (2010). ‘Legacies of prejudice: racism, co-production and radical trust in the museum’ Museum management and curatorship (1990), 25 (1), pp. 13-35

Miles, E., Cordner, S. and Kavanagh, J. (2020). Contemporary collecting toolkit: An ethical toolkit for museum practitioners. London. Available at: (Accessed: 30 Dec 2023).

Museum Development North West and Kavanagh, J. (2019). Contemporary Collecting Toolkit. Available at: (Accessed:  30 Dec 2023).

Museums Association (2020). Empowering Collections. London: Museums Association. Available at: (Accessed: 30 Dec 2023).

Proust, M. (2003). Swann’s Way - Remembrance Of Things Past, Volume One. Urbana, Illinois: The Project Gutenberg. Available at:

Tronto, J. (1993). Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. Georgetown, Canada: Taylor & Francis Group.

Victoria and Albert Museum (n.d.) Rapid Response Collecting. London: Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at: (Accessed: 30 Dec 2023).



bottom of page