How the National Museum is capturing ‘instant history’ of abortion referendum

Museum curators increasingly trying ‘rapid response collecting’ to obtain items used in major events just after they happen

The day after Ireland's recent abortion referendum, Brenda Malone woke up early, walked to her car and took a stepladder and some wire cutters out of the trunk. Then she started climbing up lampposts and cutting down any campaign posters she could find. The first one had a picture of a fetus on it, with the words "Don't repeal me."

Malone may have looked like an activist claiming mementos of the referendum or a protester making a final act of defiance after Ireland's vote to rescind the Constitution's ban on abortion. But Malone had different reasons: she is a curator at the National Museum of Ireland who is working to preserve the posters.

Since that day, Malone has put out a call for flags, banners and signs used in the campaign – she received her first item last week, and is in discussions for about 25 more. She also successfully asked for airline boarding passes from women who flew back to Ireland for the vote.

She asked friends via Facebook, too, but advised them not to climb any lampposts.


Other Irish museums have made similar requests. The National Gallery said on Twitter it was interested in collecting "anything with artistic intent and merit" tied to the referendum. Dublin City Council Library tweeted that it was looking for "ephemera".

Those calls are just the latest examples of "rapid response collecting," a practice that is increasingly being adopted by museums in Europe and America.

“Very early on in the campaign I realised we needed to collect these banners,” Malone said in a telephone interview. “They spoke so strongly – they’re so creative and witty,” she said, adding that a personal favourite read: “Get your rosaries off my ovaries.”

Rapid-response collecting was pioneered by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. In 2014, it opened a gallery dedicated to objects acquired after they stirred public debate or looked likely to have historical impact. The museum says it hopes they provoke discussion about how objects are changing the way we live.


Current exhibits include a burkini, the swimwear used by some Muslim women, which some in Europe have tried to ban; a campaign leaflet used in Britain's referendum on whether to leave the European Union; and a 3D-printed gun, acquired after these weapons stirred a panic in Britain in 2013.

Corinna Gardner, a senior curator at the museum, said she received regular requests from other museums to borrow such items. She also said that other institutions had asked her for advice about how to develop their own rapid-response programs.

Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, the deputy director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, said in a telephone interview that she was "intrigued by the rapid-response approach of the V&A." She said that her museum had followed suit and had begun acquiring objects that had figured prominently in current affairs.

In April, Meijer-van Mensch said she had tried to obtain the trophy for album of the year that was given to two rappers at Germany’s Echo Music Awards. The accolade prompted an outcry because some of the musicians’ lyrics were said to be anti-Semitic. But Meijer-van Mensch said efforts to get hold of the trophy had been in vain.

Just days after the furore over the German music awards, two men wearing Jewish skullcaps, or kipas, were attacked in an affluent neighbourhood of Berlin by a man wielding a belt. One of the men, who is from Israel but is not Jewish, said he had worn the skullcap to prove to a friend that he could wear one in Berlin without being harassed.

The incident kicked off a debate about the extent of anti-Semitism in Germany, culminating in a demonstration in Berlin by kipa-wearing protesters. "I was intrigued by the enormous aftermath of this," Meijer-van Mensch said. "I thought I needed to go to this with a photographer, and I needed to collect objects." She clambered up walls at the protest to obtain posters, and afterward tracked down one of the men who was attacked to get his kipa for the museum. "It was actually quite fun – guerrilla collecting in a way. It's very different to normal," she said.

The kipa and other objects went on display in the Jewish Museum on May 31ST.


Meijer-van Mensch said she wanted the display to be the first in a series that brought topical objects quickly to the museum. But she said she wanted to collect works beyond those related to controversies about anti-Semitism. For example, she said, she is considering documenting a gay Jewish wedding.

Meijer-van Mensch said she realised that many of the objects collected in rapid-response programs were associated with left-wing causes and could therefore open museums to accusations of political bias. But she said that a museum was “never a neutral, objective space.” If institutions supported the causes of particular activists, they should at least be transparent about it, she said.

Malone of the National Museum of Ireland said that she had gone on marches calling for a change in the country’s abortion laws for years, but that her views were irrelevant to her work. “The museum is nonpolitical, and my job is to research this moment in history, not how I feel about it,” she said.

No anti-abortion campaigners had yet sent the museum a banner, she said. (She had to climb up lampposts herself to secure those.)

Malone said she did not know when the referendum banners she was collecting would go on display. More space in the museum and more varied examples were needed before that could happen, she said.

Nonetheless, she said she was planning soon to make a 200-mile round trip to Roscommon. She plans to pick up a sign, "Roscommon Farmers 4 Yes", that supported the repeal of the abortion ban. The region voted No in the same-sexmarriage referendum in 2015. Malone said the banner seemed to show how quickly social attitudes in Ireland were changing.

“I think rapid-response collecting is one of the most exciting things a curator can do,” Malone said. “It’s current, and you get to go out there into the community, and there is a real opportunity for Irish people to say, ‘This is what we want remembered.’

“I think it is really what makes a national museum relevant to today.”–New York Times Service