Two weeks ago I was part of an initiative to invite a small group of arts professionals to The National Archives for a pilot Archives for Artists showcase. This came out of our national Archiving the Arts campaign, and the aim was to start conversations: to ask what artists need from us, what they would find useful and how can we make archives as accessible as possible to arts professionals.
As it’s currently Creative Industry Week, what better week to share our recent experience in trying to open up our archives to the creative sector?
We are currently trying to engage with new audiences and also find new ways for people who don’t use archives to be inspired by some of the incredible things we hold.
We want to use creative processes to open up, reinterpret and re-present the records we hold. The possibilities are endless, from using creative outputs to make our onsite space more engaging, to using arts workshops to open up our collections. As you can probably imagine there is a lot of potential!
One of the questions we opened the event with was: ‘Why are archives so brilliant?’ We are obviously very biased here but even after two years working here I am continually amazed by some of the records that we hold. Unlike a library, which generally holds printed materials, the documents on our shelves tend to be unique, one-off records. As a government archive we don’t just hold records of well known people, there are constantly stories to be found about unexpected or ‘ordinary’ people otherwise written out of the historical memory.
The things which we have ended up preserving are not necessarily what people wanted to be kept – one document included in the showcase ended with the words ‘Please be a dear boy and destroy this note’. 1 One of the artists who attended commented that if nothing else archives are full of stories. And with 11 million records we hold a lot of potential stories waiting for someone to discover them.
One part of the day which the artists enjoyed most was a tour of our building. Through the tour we were aiming to explore the physicality of the space and how useful or problematic that could be to an artist. It was interesting to hear that the restrictions and rules of archival practice were not necessarily considered limiting to an artists, but part of the magic and novelty of working with an archive.
We then gave the artists a chance to see and interact with a selection of original documents. We selected four types of records; maps, photographs, the Board of Trade design registers and some of our police and criminal files. The reason we chose these types of record was because we really wanted to try to challenge perceptions about the types of document kept in a government archive. They ranged from the visually enticing to the kind of story which only emerges as you read through a group of documents. And there was certainly a lot of variety in the documents which we brought out.
One of the tables was full of the huge volumes which are the Board of Trade design registers. These massive books are packed full of original design samples which were added in as part of the copyright process. The volumes chosen included the most Harry Potter-esque volumes coming from the Victorian period, fabrics by members of the Bloomsbury set, including by Vanessa Bell – and also early Thunderbirds designs, which caused a lot of interest!
Other documents displayed revealed long-forgotten stories from criminal court files. One of my favourites documents a tale of illegitimacy and slander and includes a brick and several banners as evidence.
Alongside this we showcased some previous creative works that have been inspired by our records, particularly those which have come about from our work with community groups, including the involvement of artists of various disciplines in our Caribbean Through A Lens project. We also gave the artists the chance to see the winners of last year’s creative film project Files on Films and Dare to be free, a collective zine created in response to a workshop held for Women’s History Month.
The final section of the day was perhaps the one which proved to be the most useful to us. This was the feedback session where we discussed the day’s events with the artists and got their thoughts on their experience of coming into an archive. The discussion looked at the ways that we can help creative people to unlock some of the amazing potential held here. We discussed the ways of accessing the records and if the needs of artists are different to those of family historians and academic researchers. We also looked at what we can do to showcase creative responses and how we can try and support artists in more practical ways, including looking at how artists and archives can work together to unlock funding. These questions generated great discussions.
If the aim was to start conversations we managed it! But what we’re now looking to do is to expand this and to get more peoples voices involved. If you’ve got anything to add please do in the comments below. And, if you’re already working artistically with our records, we would love to know so please get in touch!
- 1. MEPO 3/758, The Caravan Club, 81, Endell St, W.C. 1: disorderly house, male prostitutes. ↩