Debating Extreme Collecting

Graeme Were, University College London
From Robert Opie’s Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising who spoke at the workshop
In December 2007 and January this year, the British Museum hosted two workshops dedicated to exploring ‘extreme collecting’. Extreme collecting looked at those class of objects that could be considered ‘difficult’, those that resist being collected for these reasons. This may be due to their materiality (e.g. food stuffs), or size, and also those objects posing legal or ethical challenges. What emerged from the first two debates was that within museums, there is perceived to be a crisis in collecting, suggested by recent reports published by the Museums Association, Art Fund and the DCMS.
Some recurring questions emerging over the two workshops highlight the complexities of this debate. These are:
• Is safe collecting of use to museums? Safe collecting reinforces the status quo and leads to more of the same.
• Today’s junk could be the collections of the future. But how do we manage this in an era where data collection around an object matters more than the object itself?
• Widespread public participation in collecting has led to the uncovering of a great amount of information about Britain that otherwise would be lost. Does this force museums to collect in different ways and if so, what kind of ethical and legal issues does this raise?
• In what ways do new technologies such as the internet, EBay and digital images challenge conventional collecting practice? How do such collecting activities reconfigure curatorial authority, knowledge and control, as well as destabilize regimes of value attached to objects? How are museums engaging with these technologies and what are the legal and ethical issues at stake?
These debates will be developed further in two more sessions, on the 28th February and 31st March at the British Museum where we will focus on ‘size, scale and the ephemeral’ and ‘collecting and source communities’ respectively.
If any readers out there have written on extreme collecting, then we are currently soliciting papers for a publication later in the year. Please visit for more information and submission guidelines.