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  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices


Kostas Arvanitis, Institute for Cultural Practices

Some of the 2000 soft toys left as tributes in St Ann’s Square, after the Arena attack and photographed by Shaw & Shaw. Image courtesy of Belle Vue Productions
Some of the 2000 soft toys left as tributes in St Ann’s Square, after the Arena attack and photographed by Shaw & Shaw. Image courtesy of Belle Vue Productions

In this 2-part article, Kostas Arvanitis reflects on what collecting spontaneous memorials after traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks, can tell us about collecting (experiences of) COVID-19 and life under lockdown.

Collecting the context(s) and the context(s) of collecting

One of the aims of museum collecting around a contemporary event is to capture, record and preserve its different facets. This recording is, of course, a construction; every action about what to collect and document contributes to the creation of an, at least institutional, memory of those events and people’s experiences of them. In museum practice, it is often the case that the various social, political, economic or other contexts that are contemporary to the event are not included in this documentation process. Instead, they are usually re-constructed at a future point, e.g. during the preparation of a related exhibition. At that point the exhibition team would undertake research to retrieve some of these contexts, which are used to understand, interpret and, indeed, contextualise the objects and stories of the exhibition.

There are several issues – and, yes, benefits – to this retrospective contextualisation of exhibited collections that relate to the distance of time and space and to who does the contextualising. I think there is a strong argument to be made about context being part of the collecting process, rather than the post-event interpretation process, especially when it comes to contemporary collecting projects. The question “what else is/was happening at the same time” is answered differently based on when the question is being asked and answered and by whom. In the case of the Manchester Together Archive (MTA), we tried to at least acknowledge some of the social and political contexts of the Arena attack and people’s responses to it while undertaking the collecting of the spontaneous memorials. This had a dual benefit: first, it prompted us to identify how our own engagement with the collecting process was informed or conditioned by those contexts we were operating in; and second, it informed the interpretation of the collected material. As Amanda Wallace (acting director of the Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) at the time of the Arena attack) said in one of the research interviews (12 June 2017):

“Because I think the more we’re thinking about it, it’s sort of reflecting that the tributes and the way the people responded and the material we’ve got, in terms of what that represents, it’s not just around the way that people reacted to the horror of the event, but it’s also something about the time now, as well, in Manchester and in Britain. Because, if you think about the post-Brexit, post-Trump, all the electioneering, the rise of the Far-right, this feeling of fragmentation, and that actually people came together around this in a way to counter that. So, it was, sort of, more than the event itself, wasn’t it, as well? People wanting to show the sort of community and country we wanted to live in. And our feelings for each other, the connections? So, I think that’s why it’s really important to capture it as well”.

In the case of COVID-19, there is an opportunity to consider and document now the personal, social, local and global contexts that are shaping people’s experiences – especially after the recent events of George Floyd’s killing, the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, related removals of statues elsewhere and Black Lives Matter protests. Often the focus of collecting projects on objects, or even stories, can be restrictive when it is inadvertently or intentionally context-agnostic. I think it would be not just interesting, but also necessary to see COVID-19 collecting projects, whereby the contemporary context is not an interpretive after-thought of collected (physical/digital) objects, but the lens through which the collecting practice is being shaped and, indeed, challenged and changed. In other words, what might a COVID-19 collecting project look like, if one of the first questions the museum professional asked was “what else is happening in [add community, locality, profession, country, etc. depending on focus] during COVID-19 that might have impacted on people’s experiences of it”; rather than “what and how do we want to collect around COVID-19 in our museum”?

Alongside the above “collecting the context(s)”, I think it is also important to consider the “context(s) of collecting”. The latter has to do mainly with the institutional and professional realities that the museums are/were operating at the time of embarking on this; and how the collecting project itself is impacting on the museum’s identity and directions. Again, in the case of MAG (who led the collecting after the Arena attack), its emphasis on “the meaning and usefulness of it in the present (the here and now)” (interview with Amanda Wallace; my italics) was an attempt to frame the MTA in the Gallery’s new direction as a ‘useful museum’, which is the vision of Alistair Hudson, MAG’s director (Civil Society Futures. 2017. ‘Building a user-generated museum: a conversation with Alistair Hudson’). Decisions and discussions around the collecting project were part of a process to consider the implications of the Archive existing in an art gallery context. Inevitably, this has shaped not only the institutional interpretation of the Archive, but also how it interacts with the rest of the Gallery’s collections and how it is used (now and in the future).

Similarly, it would be useful if museums reflected on how their institutional and professional profile impacts, and is impacted upon by, collecting COVID-19.

Collaborative and grassroots collecting

Early on in the process of collecting and documenting Manchester’s spontaneous memorial, we set up an International Network of cultural and other organisations dealing with similar material. The Network has enabled sharing experiences and discussing conceptual, practical and ethical challenges in archiving spontaneous memorials, including: the preparedness of city and cultural authorities to respond to the speed, timeframe and public expectations of these memorials; issues of public participation and co-production; the expansion of the spontaneous memorialisation on digital and social media; how archiving decisions affect the construction and evolution of the memory of the relevant events; and the use of the resulted archive in the context of health and wellbeing of people affected psychologically and/or physically by the events.

Because of the different timeframes of the terrorist attacks or natural/other disasters in the different cities, we weren’t able to consider collaborative collecting. However, in the case of COVID-19, there is a strong argument of communities and organisations teaming up, sharing resources and helping each other. Via the Contemporary Collecting jiscmail, museum and archive professionals have been sharing experiences and learning from each other, which seems to have been very beneficial. But, my argument here goes further: events and experiences such as that of COVID-19 can also be opportunities for doing things differently: challenging the, often unhelpful, institutional boundaries; and attempting joint, collaborative collecting/documentation initiatives. I understand the self-preservation need of falling back on institutional collecting policies, especially in times of crisis, financial difficulties and staff shortages. But those challenges also ought to function as a serious prompt to bring about change and do things differently: for example, shouldn’t larger organisations with more capacity and resources be reaching out to smaller ones? Shouldn’t we be challenging the whole premise of “collecting”, and who is involved, why, how and for whom? Shouldn’t the scope, aims and content of collecting be driven by local communities, be responsive to people’s needs, and be a driver for social justice? Recently, Dr Safina Islam and Maya Sharma at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre and I have been discussing this and we’d like to explore such questions further.

Vicarious and secondary trauma

In a paper titled “Psychological Impact of Spontaneous Memorials: A Narrative Review” colleagues from the Manchester Resilience Hub and I have considered the professional challenges of working with a collection that relates to a traumatic event. There is a significant psychological impact on museum professionals and archivists who work with memorial material following a major incident. Indeed, working with spontaneous memorial material over a sustained period without preparation for its emotional burden has been compared to a soldier going to war with no training (Maynor, 2016). This is even more so, when the museum professionals and archivists are themselves part of the affected local community. Therefore, the risk of vicarious and secondary trauma must not be underestimated and psychological support needs to be in place for practitioners, volunteers and members of the public involved in museum projects.

Following the Manchester Arena attack, members of the archiving team met with clinical staff at the Manchester Resilience Hub, who offered us guidance and support on how to process our emotions and look after our well-being during the archiving process. The meetings allowed team members to share and process our feelings, which normalised our responses to the material. This support also allowed the team to better understand the psychological state, emotional needs, and expectations of the bereaved families that visited the archive. Furthermore, it helped Jenny Marsden, the MTA project coordinator and digital archivist, design and put in action a very thoughtful support structure for volunteers that have been cataloguing MTA material.

In the case of COVID-19, cultural organisations embarking on collecting and archiving projects would need to consider how they provide psychological support to their staff and volunteers. Making it optional; offering training on ethical collecting and how to look after themselves; having a pool of people to rely upon so that people can take breaks from this kind of work; normalising emotional reactions; and having de-brief sessions are among the measures organisations should consider. On a related note, Jenny Marsden is currently finalising a short guide on how to provide emotional support to volunteers working with archives/collections related to traumatic events, which we will share as soon as it is ready.

Documentation of decisions and actions

If you can, please document your decisions and actions; for two main reasons:

First: I said earlier that museum professionals can and should trust their instinct in cases like this; but it’s fair to say that they should also be open, transparent and critically self-reflective. Trust your instinct, but interrogate it too. Documenting the process of decision-making can provide a methodology for this self-reflection. Using again an example from spontaneous memorials: Following the clearance of the spontaneous memorials from St Ann’s Square, Manchester Art Gallery was faced with a number of questions about what and how to collect. This was uncharted waters for the Gallery. Acknowledging that and the need to be transparent and learn from this process, Amanda Wallace agreed to document creatively the evolving thinking, interactions with different stakeholders and decision-making, as well as the impact of those decisions on institutional life, policy and practice. This included participant observation, qualitative interviews, auto-ethnography and documentary photography and filmmaking.

We have been documenting the development of the MTA for over 3 years now and this has offered both the Gallery and others an in-depth understanding of how the Archive has impacted on the Gallery’s policy and practice and vice versa. Museums’ reactions to COVID-19 and the lockdown will probably have a wide and long-lasting impact on their perception (by self and others), priorities, structures and practices. So, documenting your decision-making should help with the process of self-reflection and future planning.

Second: Documenting the process of documenting/archiving/collecting COVID-19 can itself be a creative process that can help with understanding different facets of what one is documenting and its significance. For example: we filmed a few members of the Women’s Institute (WI), who stepped forward to wash and dry the 2,000 soft toys that were left in the spontaneous memorials in Manchester; which were then sent to charities to be passed on to children in the UK and abroad. This was part of the project to document the aftermath of the spontaneous memorials.

But while filming the cleaning and talking about the soft toys (see example film above) it became clear that for many of the WI members this was a way to channel their emotions and fulfil a need to contribute to the post-attack personal and social healing. The tactile act of washing and drying was both therapeutic and a memorial performance itself; and I don’t think we would have easily (or as quickly) identified that, if we hadn’t documented this process, especially through filmmaking. So, the documentation of your decision-making, internal exchanges and engagement with your stakeholders and publics can help identify different interpretations, meanings and stories.



Civil Society Futures. (2017). ‘Building a user-generated museum: a conversation with Alistair Hudson’, accessed 18 July 2020.

Collins, H., Allsopp K., Arvanitis, K., Chitsabesan, P., and French P. (2020). ‘Psychological impact of spontaneous memorials: A narrative review’, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, Online First Publication, March 19, 2020 (full paper).

Maynor, A. R. (2016). “Response to the unthinkable: Collecting and archiving condolence and temporary memorial materials following public tragedies”. In E. M. Decker & J. A. Townes (Eds.), Handbook of research on disaster management and contingency planning in modern libraries (pp. 582–624). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.



Dr Kostas Arvanitis is Senior Lecturer in Museology at the Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester. His work focuses on digital heritage, digital cultural engagement and archives of spontaneous memorials. @kostis43

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