What have archives to do with culture?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot since starting the Clore Fellowship Programme. Out of 29 fellows I’m the only one from an archive. Being quite literally the only archivist in the room has made me reflect not just on my own role, but also on how archives fit into the cultural sector.
I wasn’t accustomed to seeing myself as part of the cultural sector before the fellowship began. My day job rarely takes me out of the office, and when it does I don’t venture beyond familiar territory: my last (hugely enjoyable) work trip was to London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). What’s more, working at The National Archives means that I’m a civil servant within the official archive of the UK central government, and until recently this governmental context loomed larger in my mind than potential areas of collaboration with galleries, theatres or dance companies.
Prompted by the fellowship, I spent a day in our Archives Sector Development department a few weeks ago to find out more about what they do. I’m getting the impression that other archives are more likely than The National Archives to exist in partnership with different kinds of cultural organisations.
Take LMA, which holds the collections of Keats House in Hampstead. Keats House exhibits highlights from the collections, holds a festival every year and has a poet in residence, John Hegley. Many archives are using partnerships to strengthen their links with local communities: Archives+ is a project in Manchester which will result in a refurbished library and exhibition space, with new opportunities for learning and volunteering.
Of course I’m biased, but I believe that archives have a huge amount to offer the cultural sector – I’d even argue that you can’t have culture without archives. Cultural organisations are opening up their archives in a number of ways. For instance, Rambert Dance Company is relocating its archive to the South Bank in London, and has invited young documentary-makers to make films.
I’m coming across more and more examples of archives inspiring creative practice and performance. A new play, Epstein, which premiered at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre (appropriately enough) in November, is based on archived Liverpool Echo news reports from the 1960s. And if you want proof that archives are moving into a closer relationship with the creative arts and the leisure industry, consider the V&A’s upcoming David Bowie exhibition, which consists of objects selected from the ‘David Bowie Archive’.
It’s in the online environment that archives really come into their own. Museums, libraries and art galleries are creating a virtual visitor experience by archiving their collections, both on their own websites and on sites like Google Books. Indeed, many cultural archives exist only on the web – there are no physical spaces where you can find the same collections arranged in the same ways.
Websites are helping to redefine culture, and bringing together things that used to be separate. This includes providing opportunities for users to work with institutions to create digital content: for instance, the National Archives and Records Administration in the USA has launched a Citizen Archivist Dashboard. There are lots more examples on the Digital Transformations website.
Archives, data and metadata are fundamental to Arts Council England’s creative media policy, which aims ‘to create a digital public space by which publically funded art and culture works are digitised, catalogued and archived, enabling them to be linked, found and enjoyed.’ The term ‘enjoyment’ isn’t traditionally associated with archives, but websites like Historypin, Your Paintings and The Space are injecting an element of playfulness into the archival experience and breaking down the old distinctions between research and leisure, history and storytelling, institutions and audiences.
This isn’t to deny that there is still some distance to travel between archives and the rest of the cultural sector. When the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council closed last year, leadership of the archives sector was transferred to The National Archives, while Arts Council England took over responsibility for museums and libraries. We report to the Ministry of Justice – which seems odd, but makes more sense if you realise that the Master of the Rolls was originally responsible for the rolls (records) of the Court of Chancery – while the Arts Council reports to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It seems to me that we’ll need to ensure we bridge that gap. In light of recent and projected funding cuts, it must be more important than ever for the different parts of the cultural sector to work together and articulate why we matter.
As for me, I must admit that I was a little worried at the start of the fellowship about whether I’d fit in. I suspect this anxiety was shared by others in the group, because we come from such a wide range of specialist fields. Of course the differences between us are healthy – no-one is claiming that ‘the cultural sector’ is a monolith, and the presence of the international fellows will prevent us from making UK-centred assumptions about what culture means.
Nonetheless, I’m discovering how much we have in common. It’s been brilliant to work across disciplinary boundaries by sharing ideas and learning about issues that affect us all: our most recent set of workshops covered fundraising, governance and organisational change. I’ve been able to put some of my colleagues in touch with some of the fellows, or with their colleagues, to discuss best practice or work on projects that are of mutual interest.
I’m hoping that both during and after the fellowship I will deepen my understanding of the bigger picture and get involved in projects and partnerships that go beyond archives. I have a lot to learn, and I’m beginning to realise that I have a lot to give.