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.

South Bank

Panorama of South Bank (1948-1952), watercolour by J L Harvey, catalogue reference: WORK 25/64/B1/SB-Gen/25

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.


  1. Melinda Haunton says:

    Interesting thoughts, Emma. It’s definitely important for The National Archives to work jointly across the cultural sector, with partnership such a key driver and as you rightly say so many archive services operating in a cultural context and with cultural impact. Our work on Archiving the Arts (http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/archiving-the-arts-why-and-how/) is of course really inspired by the positive response from the cultural sector to the opportunity that interacting with their own heritage can offer.

    With that in mind, it’s probably also worth me linking here to The National Archives’ formal agreements with Arts Council England on how that relationship works in the post-MLA world (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/working-in-partnership.htm), and the further information about ‘on the ground’ partnership development that we also have on the website (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/publicly-funded-archives.htm).

  2. Emma Jay says:

    Hi Melinda, thank you for your comments and the links. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Archiving the Arts project develops.

  3. Jamie Andrews (British Library) says:

    Hi Emma, thanks for another great blog. As you say, artists are often just as blown away and inspired by their own contacts with archives- Ian Rickson brought Kristin Scott Thomas + the cast of Old Times in to the BL just before Xmas to look at Pinter’s own manuscripts as part of their preparation for next month’s West End revival of the play, and they seemed to find it inspiring- http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/inspiredby/2012/12/west-end-stars-consult-the-harold-pinter-archive.html.

    Also, just to say our Leverhulme artist in residence, Chris Green, is bringing back his show The Singing Hypnotist, on 25 Jan- a show Chris researched in 2012 in our archival collections relating to hypno-tism/therapy. See http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event140098.html

  4. Emma Jay says:

    Thanks Jamie for these great examples. I’m also reminded of your edition of John Osborne’s The Devil Behind Him – a play that was rediscovered at the British Library over 50 years after being written.

  5. Ivan Cutting says:

    Our theatre company, Eastern Angles, is currently working in partnership with the Peterborough Archives as part of our HLF funded Forty Years On project, which sees the cataloguing of 200 boxes of records of the Peterborough Development Corporation (1968-1988) by a volunteer army , an oral history project with those who moved to the town during that period, and then 2 new theatre pieces, first up a musical documentary this spring, Parkway Dreams, about the development of Peterborough as a new town, and then next spring, a new community play involving up to a 100 community performers.
    See http://www.easternangles.co.uk for more information.
    Indeed archives and culture should be hand in glove.

  6. Emma Jay says:

    Thank you Ivan – this looks like a great project.

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