Archiving the arts – why and how?

Photograph of a theatrical mask on an archive box with the National Register of Archives web page behind

Archiving the arts

We’re embarking on an exciting new collection strategy this month, called Archiving the Arts. Our work on collection strategies generally is about identifying those areas of our society which need support to ensure that their archives survive and are accessible into the future. Those archives won’t usually come to The National Archives – very often they will be collected and held by a big range of archive services across the UK, keeping collections with relevant communities.

There can be many reasons why a collection strategy becomes essential – in the case of Archiving the Arts, it is a direct response to the needs of the arts community, who are increasingly interested in exploring a ‘second life’ for their archives and collections. They want to reuse and respond to evidence of their own artistic heritage. The arts is a complex area to archive, because arts organisations’ and artists’ heritage is more than their documents and records: to capture the essence of an art form for posterity, a variety of audio and visual media are often needed, and objects can be a crucial part of the heritage too. Though many arts archives already exist and can be very rich and exciting in content, there is a real danger that other aspects of the arts will not be accessible in the future.

This is a great opportunity for The National Archives and Arts Council England to bring their varied sector expertise to work together on a project of great importance to both organisations. The first stage is just getting underway: a survey of current practice among funders, collecting archives and arts practitioners. It aims to gather the views and capacity of those involved or potentially involved in archiving the arts. Survey reponses will help us to plan at both a strategic and a practical level, from influencing future infrastructure to what training workshops might be most productive to help us archive the arts.

My colleague Fleur Soper is leading on this initiative, and is currently running a survey aiming to  capture as many perspectives as possible. She would love to hear from you if you represent a strategic or funding body, an archive-collecting institution or are yourself an arts practitioner. The more we learn, the better the outcomes for the arts and for archives.

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