From Tyne to Tweed: bridging the gap between archives and audiences

U-Boat 110, Tyne & Wear Archives, 1918

U-Boat 110, Tyne & Wear Archives, 1918

In my role as a National Archives Skills for the Future trainee, I have been based in both Tyne & Wear Archives and Northumberland Archives.  The goal of my year as a trainee has been to open up archives and engage new audiences in my home region of the North East. My traineeship has focused on digitisation and online engagement.

My background has provided a different perspective to both archives. I am a recent graduate in digital creative practice, specialising in photography. My work during my degree consisted of intense research into historical photography and practices, and because of this I have approached our collections with a mind to the wider value of archives both to the community, and also as a creative resource.

A further aspect to my position here, and one I personally value, is that of creative reuse. It is well-known that through using both creative digital mediums and skills, access to archives can be drastically improved and a greater engagement with the public can be achieved. I have primarily been working on potential contemporary and digital projects for the First World War centenary, experimenting with new and alternative ways to express and communicate the many stories of the First World War that we hold in our stores to the public. To achieve this we are creating various digital resources and projects using our records.

My roots in the Great War

During my research I was reminded of a deeply moving experience I had in 2005. As a 15 year old with a flair for military history, a school trip to the battlefields of Belgium to retrace the steps of my great, great grandfather was overwhelming.

Pulling up to Tyne Cot memorial I remember the silence on the school coach, the sharp realization we all had as we were met with an endless sea of white stone stretching further than the eye could see. The wash of white graves, a scratch on the death toll was enough to stun us all. For the first time all those numbers and facts from the classroom were put in to a frightening and blunt perspective.

We were allowed to visit a private collector and view his extensive collection of glass lantern slides. This was when the meaning of war shifted into sharp focus for me. I had an utterly immersive experience viewing the slides. Without a doubt my passions for photography and history were born from these brutal images. It has therefore been apt to begin my career in heritage at such an essential time with regards to the First World War centenary. I have explored how I can simulate for our audiences this horrific but illuminating experience, and I was drawn to working with a war diary.

A Portrait of Captain Carr, Northumberland Archives NRO 1783

A Portrait of Captain Carr, Northumberland Archives NRO 1783

‘This war is purely and simply scientific murder, and makes you abhor the very word war.’ Captain Carr, 1915

One of my projects is the war diary of Captain John Evelyn Carr. This is an extensive, dramatic and personal account of the First World War. It follows the journey of John Evelyn Carr of Scremerston, a mining and agricultural village near Berwick-upon-Tweed on the English Scottish borders. The extensive war diary is made of four volumes dating from 1914-1919. It documents Carr’s journey from the trenches as a humble Private of the First Battalion London Scottish, to a respected Captain of the Eleventh Battalion Sherwood Foresters, serving from as far as the Italian front.

The four volumes consist of a powerful written account accompanied by an array of visual content. This ranges from personal photographs taken by Carr himself, to postcards and souvenirs of towns and villages he passed through. Many of these were from German prisoners and raided trenches. There are also countless personal letters, memorial and greetings cards, official documents and excerpts from trench magazines.

A selection of the visual content will be made available on our new Museums & Archives Northumberland Flickr stream. To accompany this, I have also been producing an audio piece using the transcribed diary, in collaboration with local composer Benjamin Ellis and performers in the region. The aim of transforming the war diary into an audio account and collaborating with local artists has been to bring to life the journey of Captain Carr. In turn this will improve access to the otherwise inaccessible and fragile diary, and the immersive and sensory use of audio will also provide better engagement to all levels of users.

I have also had the pleasure to work with an array of different artists and practitioners at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums alongside core staff. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums is an organisation bursting with exciting and exceptional work from all departments. During this time I have assisted in developing ideas around the digital creative reuse of our collections. It has been a fantastic opportunity to ensure this kind of work is possible and the quality and potential in our content is realised.

Historical photography online

Within both organisations I have spent a huge amount of my time identifying strong visual collections. This has been a fantastic opportunity for me to identify and digitise high quality content to be placed on each archive’s Flickr stream and for other forms of online engagement. Images have ranged from family picnics under a gibbet to the eerie remains of a German U-Boat (the first picture in this post). We have seen an amazing rise in audience numbers based on the range and quality of content made available. You can see these images on both Northumberland Archives’ and Tyne and Wear Archives’ Flickr streams.

My year as a trainee has been a vital one for my own personal and professional development. It has allowed me to establish my skills and strengths in my own work. However, one of the most satisfying elements has been to have the opportunity to work in such passionate and progressive heritage organisations in the North East and to contribute to their powerful and innovative services and collections.

2 comments

  1. Robert Forsythe says:

    Great to see this blog Emily.

  2. James Shewan says:

    A fascinating account of your work. Thank you for your skill and enthusiasm in opening up these archives to us.

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