The Protest Lab wants your objects – how to manage an experimental loan agreement

Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest is an exhibition that aims to highlight the relevance of the Peterloo Massacre (1819) to current campaigns for democracy. The People’s History Museum (PHM) is asking members of the public to bring in their own objects to be put on open display alongside original Peterloo artefacts. Sam Jenkins, Collections Officer, told the audience how PHM approached loans management in such an experimental exhibition format.

In recent years, the model for co-curation has been applied by museums working with different communities. By pulling out recent stories of protest PHM is encouraging its audience to consider what everyday acts of protest they engage with. Objects from a march, like placards or badges, will be shown alongside objects like disposable coffee cups or a lipstick. Drop-in days have been organised from March – September 2019 where individuals can bring in their items of protest and discuss their story with a member of staff. This cultural exchange of insight and expertise between museum staff and members of the public contributes to the sector’s move towards better representation of previously unheard narratives.

However, the challenge faced by PHM was how to manage all of these personal items moving in and out of their care. As Lyn Stevens Tweeted during the event, complex situations call for simple loan agreements!

One form was drafted to capture all of the information PHM needed about the object, including a signature agreeing to the clauses listed in the image above. Individuals confirm that they are the legal owner and that they are lending their object at their own risk – a smart decision made by PHM as the items are on open display. Object descriptions and their connected stories of protest are also captured on this loan agreement. Whilst people love the idea of writing the label for their object they aren’t necessarily prepared to write it at the time of depositing the item which can cause a delay in proceedings. To make the loans process clearer, handling tables were introduced at the drop off-events to provide a platform for discussion between potential lenders and PHM staff.

An exciting element of this project is that the exhibition will grow and change as new objects come in throughout the year. PHM will be able to engage with stories of protest that are happening now as, in theory; individuals bring in an object connected to a march that happened last week! The collection is a showcase of democracy so it reflects a variety of stories but it also highlights some gaps. Whilst the collection is largely left-leaning this project has found that the people it is trying to engage with most are probably out protesting when the drop-off days are scheduled. Social media is used to encourage people to bring in their items of protest and as many groups organise protests on spaces like Twitter, this feels like an appropriate platform to advertise PHM’s experimental project.

The Protest Lab project is in the same vein of a paper from earlier in the day entitled ‘But what if we tried?’ at Touchstones, Rochdale Art Gallery. Projects like these are exactly what the sector needs to further encourage a wider range of institutions to be brave enough to take on challenging subjects. PHM provides opportunities for people to be inspired by ‘ideas worth fighting for’ and I think most would agree that broader community engagement and representation in collections is an idea worth fighting for.
Written by Louise Hanwright, Project Reveal Loans Officer, National Trust Scotland