Monday, 21 March 2016

Archivist as Interpreter

The other day I was lucky enough to attend The National Archives’ Archivist as Interpreter event at the British Library. The event was the culmination of the TNA’s Archiving the Arts initiative, which seeks to promote and support the capture, preservation and accessibility of records related to the arts. I was particularly interested in the events’ aim to ‘reconceptualise the idea of the archive to draw in new audiences and the leading innovative practices already taking place’. I really enjoy learning about ways in which people have made use of archive collections, particularly those which have attracted users who do fall outside the traditional demographic, and so was really excited to see what people had been up to and what had been learned. The day was crammed full of interesting talks and if I wrote at length on all of them this post would be very long! Instead I’ll offer a quick overview, with a focus on a couple of things I found especially interesting.

Entrance to the British Library

Jamie Andrews’ led the introduction, where we learned about the British Library’s ‘Vision for the Future’ in the lead up to their 50th anniversary in 2023 - this is supported by their Living Knowledge document. The keynote speaker was Paul Cornish of the Imperial War Museum. He talked about installing the museum’s new WWI exhibition, which sought to tell the story of the war using the voices of real witnesses, through archive documents. He expounded the idea of ‘contemporaneity’, allowing the records to speak for themselves and reveal how events unfolded. He suggested that it was important to avoid using the voice of the organisation which can sound authoritative and alienating, sometimes acting as a barrier between visitors and the items on display. After tea three speakers took part in a panel. Firstly, Victoria Northridge of the Black Cultural Archives. She talked about the range of outreach activities BCA engage in; encouraging people to use their space, taking their talks ‘on tour’ and making use of digital tools such as Google Cultural Institute to reach wider audiences. She was followed by Kevin Bolton of Manchester City Council, who shared his experience of cultural programming for Manchester Central Library and Archives+. This included the innovative and successful takeover week curated by the band Everything Everything entitled ‘Chaos to Order’ in 2014. He stressed the value of educating staff in new skills such as event management, while also explaining that engaging specialist professional support can be vital to such an events success. Finally Melissa Addey, writer in residence at the British Library’s Business and IP centre, took to the stage. She talked about encouraging businesses to explore their own stories, and that art as product should not be considered a contradiction. The panel discussion was varied, with some time spent considering whether there was crossover between audiences for 'traditional' and ‘non-traditional’ use of the archive, whether we could translate one audience into another, or indeed whether we should be trying to or not.

After lunch, still feeling giddy from all the morning’s information (and buying particularly beautiful pencils at the Alice in Wonderland pop-up shop), I went to my selected seminar. Choosing which of the four available was incredibly difficult as they all sounded really fascinating! I chose to hear Sarah Cole, a digital heritage consultant who runs TIME/IMAGE speak about how digital tools can help build audiences and inspire people who don't have a relationship with the source material. I have a real interest in this area, and enjoy exploring how people engage with archives in new ways as a result of new technologies. Sarah's experience with the British Council's film collection was a case study in how successful such a project can be, bringing what were in some cases completely unwatchable films into a digital format and providing access to them online, for free under a creative commons licence. Not only did the project gain a huge audience thanks to wide promotion in the media, but the films inspired the creation of new works. Her current project with the British Library, Poetic Places, is culminating in an app which will allow users to stumble across places represented in poetry and art through their smart phones using GPS. I found Sarah's talk valuable as it stressed the importance of considering why and for whom we are undertaking a project – if you're using a digital tool in your work are you doing so to build your audience, or to provide an existing audience with a learning resources or entertainment? A good reminder that although working with new tools is exciting you should always keep your goals in focus. It was also very lovely to see our own HullCraft project get a mention!

The final panel of the afternoon was based around interpretation of archives which feature challenging or problematic subject matter. The first speaker was Sarah Jaffray of the Wellcome Collection discussing their Sexology exhibition. She considered the potential of archives to legitimize through recording, and described the amazing results of the Neil Bartlett WOULD YOU MIND? project which took place during the exhibition. She was followed by Lisa Peschel, a co-investigator for Performing the Jewish Archive. She discussed the difficulties in bringing musicals written and performed by the Jewish community detained in Theresienstadt during Nazi occupation to a modern audience. She explored how humour in a performance written in very specific circumstances can be retained with careful re-writing, while successfully communicating the contemporary historical events which influenced the original work. The final speaker was Stefan Dicker of the Bishopsgate Institute. Stefan's talk was about the outreach work and collections held at Bishopsgate, some of which represent views and lifestyles which have at times been considered 'alternative'. This included the papers of the Mondcivitan Republic (previously unknown to me but now a mild obsession). Stefan spoke so compellingly, and with such enthusiasm for his work and the BI’s collections that it was impossible to leave without wanting explore their archives (which I have now done online – I certainly recommend taking a look at their website, if just for the Badger in Residence).  Stefan's message that only open minds can open minds, and archives only die if we let them seemed a really pertinent plea to those of us working in the sector to remember that if we want our collections to remain relevant we must be willing and able to find new ways of seeing, framing and presenting them. If we don't appreciate and exploit the vibrancy and life in our archives, how can we expect any one else to?

Bishopsgate Institute's 'Badger in Residence'

I think Val Johnson of The National Archives phrased a very succinct leaving message during the final wrap up – we need to let go of what we think archives should be and what archivists should be doing. There are many diverse pulls on our time in the workplace, especially as the sector continues to be faced with reduced funding. This can make it hard to look beyond our day to day tasks However, it's when we do this - when we think outside the box, take on new challenges with all the associated risks - that we find new successes and the collections we work with can benefit the widest audiences possible. With that in mind, I wonder how feasible it would be to arrange a performance-based multi-media interactive sensory installation in the History Centre Arcade…

Alex, ACPO Project Archivist

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