Talking ‘Archiving the Arts’

I’m talking with my colleagues Fleur Soper and Kate Wheeler about Archiving the Arts, our strategic programme to engage with archives of the arts sector.  If you’re not familiar with the programme outline, we blogged about it in its very early days. Today’s blog is a chance to catch up with what Archiving the Arts has become now that it’s fully up and running.

A black and white photo of three clowns talking with a man in evening dress

Archiving the arts covers many forms of art and performance – including this picture of unidentified clowns discovered at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

How is Archiving the Arts going?

Fleur: Really well. It’s changing as the project develops. We started very much looking for where ‘the stuff’ is, but it’s become much more about finding where people are and helping them get to the next level, both in terms of caring for their archive material, and in terms of engaging with it.

Kate: Yes. People have got in touch because they need help – they know what they have is interesting, but they also know they need some support to care for it. Sometimes people are quite embarrassed to talk to us, or show us the current conditions: ‘It’s just a roomful of stuff!’ But that’s a situation where we really can support them. And if we don’t know what the issues are, it’s much harder to help.

Tell me about some of the challenges

Kate: Digital is interesting… We know it’s a big challenge to preserve digital records within many organisations. Though the recently recovered Andy Warhol digital art has shown what’s possible.

But another challenge is archiving performance and experience, as opposed to static art. A video of an installation might well not capture the full sensory experience. But if you can keep the records of how an installation was designed, commissioned, built and delivered, with comments from visitors as well, you can perhaps get closer to a sense of what that experience was like.

What has changed as the project developed?

Fleur: We’re focusing much more on workshops than we expected. They’ve been really valuable in helping people to understand that it’s all right not to be perfect! But also a great opportunity to bring together a mix of arts organisations of a ‘certain age’, so likely to have archive holdings, with archivists, arts practitioners and case studies showing what the potential of the records is.

Kate: It’s great to showcase the potential of archives as creative inspiration, because archives are so much more likely to be preserved when people are actively using them and valuing the unique sense of heritage they bring to an organisation. Archiving the Arts has to be about connecting arts practitioners with their archives, and not only about locating and preserving material.

Photo of a workshop with slide presentation, presenter and two attendees

At a recent workshop at the Library of Birmingham, delegates discuss “But is it a digital archive?” with presenter Marcus Belben

Is there anything that has been worrying about the project?

Kate: We’ve found that in a number of places there used to be professional care for the archives but in the current financial climate that hasn’t been possible to retain. So the archives are in good shape up to about 2008-09, but records are now not being collected and there’s much less access than there was. That’s a worry for the future.

Fleur: Also, on a preservation level, all kinds of individual cases that aren’t ideal. Like mice, or cockroaches, in the archives, or baking hot conditions so that fragile media like film are rapidly degrading. We can’t go in and fix everything, but we can suggest practical steps so that things do improve within their circumstances. Some places which aren’t in a position to care for their archives are happy to look for an alternative home where they can be secure and accessible, but for other arts organisations, the archive is bound up in their identity and they don’t see sending it elsewhere as an option. So you have to be pragmatic about what is possible in that context.

Could you give us some good examples of arts projects with archives, to give an idea of their potential?

[Both, couldn’t stop them talking at this point and I probably missed a few great examples in the blizzard that came at me!]

  • Chichester Festival Theatre’s Pass It On oral history project, alongside a major refurbishment
  • Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies textile art project Threads of Time
  • Peterborough Archives’  work with the Eastern Angles Theatre Company, to create new plays based on the Forty Years On project engaging with the Peterborough Development Corporation records.
  • Derbyshire Record Office’s Cataloguing Change collaboration with their users and an artist in residence to help redesign their public spaces, making them more exciting and friendlier!
  • Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives project Out of the Box, working with disabled artists and the disabled community to open up the archives to their creative inspiration

Fleur: It’s not necessarily about spending vast amounts of money – some of these projects have barely any budget. But it is about the impact of encounters between arts and archives. Bristol University Theatre Collection, who do great collaborative work themselves, told us that ‘to work with artists, you have to be able to change’, and these projects in their different ways can be transformative, for participants but also for archive services.

Archiving the Arts is a finite project. How can its work be sustained?

Kate: It’s about building those links between arts and archives, to ensure that their mutual value is recognised. Having a heritage changes an organisation and changes the way its audience feels about it. People find their points of connection going back in time as well as in the present.

Fleur: And also sowing the seeds for future partnerships: putting people in touch, giving them ideas of what they could do together. It might not happen this year or next, but it can become part of future planning. Plus, of course, The National Archives supports the wider archives sector as business as usual, so help and support will still be available. We’re looking at how our own experience of participating in Archiving the Arts can be transformative for The National Archives too.

If you would like to get involved in Archiving the Arts, as an arts practitioner or an organisation holding arts archives, please contact the team via or in the comments below.

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