When art and archives collide

On 12 April The National Archives opened its first contemporary art exhibition – hosted in the reading rooms – ‘Changing the Landscape’.

Image of exhibition catalogue and interpretation guide, Changing the Landscape

Exhibition catalogue and interpretation guide, Changing the Landscape

The process of engaging with an artist has been an incredibly inspiring experience, having an artists’ narrative running alongside our records, together with their own personal archives, has enriched our already powerful collection.

The first time I met British artist Sarah Kogan, neither of us would have any idea where the meeting would lead. Sarah had found her way into the archives on her research journey; tracing the experience of her great uncle, Barney Griew (in the process meeting records expects who were able to direct her research). In the reading rooms, Principal Military Specialist William Spencer directed Sarah to war diaries, trench maps and eventually to the original National Archives document to be included in the exhibition – the Gommecourt panorama. This extraordinary panoramic photograph was taken on the day in May 1916 when Barney arrived in the Somme (WO 316/38). Five days before this photograph was taken he had written to his brother Isaac from Henu, 9 km from the Front; ‘Personally, I am looking forward to going up, as I am fed up with knocking about…’

By 1 July Barney was missing in action, having died in the first day of the battle. In the exhibition, the panorama sits alongside Sarah’s own intricate pencil-drawn versions – she was able to work from the original during her time at The National Archives. The beautiful synergy between arts and archives it seems, is that potentially all you need is a pencil…

Because of Sarah’s central use of archives in her work, she also had contact with our archive sector-facing ‘Archiving the Arts’ programme. We invited Sarah in to speak as part of an arts inspiration day to students about the experience of an artist using archives – both personal and public. It was during these early moments of meeting that we discussed the possibility of displaying Sarah’s exhibition ‘Changing the Landscape’ on site, during the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

Together we scoped the potential exhibition spaces, noting with excitement the relevance of hosting the exhibition in an area in which First World War research was undertaken on a daily basis. This is an exciting new use of space for us, engaging visitors in both archives and the artistic response.

Image of three people installing display cases for Changing the Landscape

Installing display cases for Changing the Landscape


Image of six staff members installing the Gommecourt Panorama, Changing the Landscape

ARK staff installing the Gommecourt Panorama, Changing the Landscape

Following many months of planning and a rigorous three-day install, to launch the exhibition we held a private view for invited audiences on a warm April evening. With 100 people in attendance the event effectively demonstrated new and innovative uses of space in the First Floor Reading room and balcony.

Whilst we had several of our loyal stakeholders in attendance, the event was a great insight into the London art scene: graphic designers, photographers and artists from East and North of the city travelled to Kew to see Sarah’s work in the setting for which it had so long been intended. As the reading rooms were opened, cascades of guests descended on the exhibition, peering around the boxes in swarms and taking care to labour over all the treasures within. T

he emotion of five years of work was clear to hear in Sarah’s opening speech – not least because of the very personal tribute to her great uncle who she had uncovered so much about.

Image of people at the Changing the Landscape private view

Changing the Landscape private view, 13 April 2016

Image of five people looking into the display cases

Changing the Landscape private view, 13 April 2016

Changing the Landscape private view, 13 April 2016

Changing the Landscape private view, 13 April 2016

The opening week saw a further flurry of engaging education sessions and community group visits hosted on site, with many first time visitors to The National Archives in attendance remarking on the moving content of the exhibition. The reviews of the show so far have truly set a benchmark for future collaborative exhibitions and all at The National Archives are excited to expand further into this territory in the future.

Read more about the exhibition, on display in the first floor reading rooms until 17 September 2016.

‘Changing the Landscape’ is complemented by two further related events:

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