Saturday, 3 November 2018

Working with UAL's BA Theatre Design

Yesterday was the finale of a two-week project with UAL's BA Theatre Design students. This is the third year we have run the project and it gets stronger and more powerful for the students each year. The premise is that a selection of materials from the Jocelyn Herbert design archive are presented to the students along with talks from around six experts in different aspects of the collection. We focused this year on the concept of 'staging the real' and what it means to represent reality on stage. In groups the students then select what materials to study in more depth and their brief is as broad as to 'respond.'

Increasingly over the years students have carried out practice-based research and this year was no different. The first group, who had studied Labors of Herakles, started with two members walking into the room dressed as builders and proceeded to lounge at the front of the room eating their sandwiches and drinking tea while the other group members presented. They had travelled around London dressed as builders to truly understand what it was like to be one of the characters in this play. They had then interviewed members of the public to catch their reactions and interroagte the reality of their portrayal.

Another group had researched Savages and were interested in what tribe they would identify themselves as in today's climate and how Jocelyn might represent those tribes nowadays. They each created artwork representing their tribe and their depth of engagement and honest portrayals of their private lives was striking.

In the debrief afterwards there were a few points that I thought it worth reflecting on. First was that they learned a lot about documentation of their own work. One of the aims of this project is to educate young designers about the value of documenting their work as they comb through Jocelyn's extensive collection from her whole career and this seems to have hit home.

A few of the groups discussed discovering things that they never expected when they started the project and their tutor picked up on this triggering of ideas during the research or design process. It will be useful for them to consider what ideas they will be triggering in an audience through their design and try actively to curate these ideas.

Around the concept of 'staging the real' we talked a lot about what is real and whether you can represent someone else's reality. The group working on tribes and tribe identity grappled with this the most and were really interested in this area particularly when you think about inclusive theatre and the need to represent everyone on stage, by definition not just yourself. How, then, can a designer best represent people? They found working with the archive a surprisingly useful way of exploring that question.

All of the groups felt that the archive research was an amazing opportunity that they had never realised before. They were all enthusiastic to engage with the NT Archive more and also other archives holding design content. They enjoyed using it to walk in Jocelyn's shoes and see where it might take them. In understanding her work and designs they got to know the person behind the design, which is something that rarely happens for a designer. One student said that it was like touching her heart with your hands. I suppose we can ask no more from students that an appreciation of her and her work, desire to work with archives again and to document their own work better. A success all round!

Sunday, 2 September 2018

ARA Conference 2018 - People Make Records

I have just attended my first ever ARA (Archives and Records Association UK and Ireland) conference. It was conveniently held in Glasgow and was on the topic of 'People Make Records.'

The breadth of content and the intensity of the conference were welcome surprises. The three keynotes (Prof. Gus John, Michelle Caswell and Martyn Sibley) were all excellent choices of speakers to cajole us out of our comfort zone and call us to action over inclusion in our sector spanning audience, material collected and workforce. This was a theme throughout the three days and discussions often came back to the need for representation of the population in our sector.

As a conference aimed at serving the whole archive, records management and conservation sectors, it was unsurprisingly broad but there were many useful insights into the sector and threads of ideas throughout the talks and I'll outline some of the most thought provoking ones for me here:

  • the need to be more inclusive in the sector workforce through diversifying entry routes and seriously questioning the requirement to hold a post-graduate qualification
  • we need to work on making job descriptions less prescriptive and more about skills and potential - The National Archives is going to work on a toolkit to help with this
  • we shouldn't think about audiences that are 'hard to reach' but that are 'easy to ignore'
  • we will always be biased in how we treat records - impartiality is impossible so we should do our best to document the partiality
  • photographers in digital formats are rather trigger happy resulting in 1,000s of images coming to the archive when historically only the selected physical prints would have done so - who makes this curatorial decision in digital?
  • if you are a white person looking after a collection relating to black people's history, admit and acknowledge this. Learn when to speak out and when to shut up and do the work to facilitate communities to make or access their archives
  • if archives are more responsive to audiences and more audience aware in their service then they will become indispensable
  • barriers to access are what make disabled people feel disabled - we should make the necessary and possible changes to make our services as accessible and inclusive as possible

There were a lot of hard-hitting talks and calls to action for the sector, which were helpful and food for thought. The difficult thing is to keep the momentum that we all felt and ensure that when we get back to work that we identify quick wins as well as plan for medium and long term changes that we can all make to improve inclusivity in our own service. Then there's the larger sector-side issues of workforce development, progression routes and sector visibility, which will take cross-sector collaboration led by ARA, The National Archives and the Institute for Conservation.

This conference was also where I was presented with the ARA Excellence Award for Record Keeper of the Year 2018. It was wonderful to receive my trophy in my hometown at the gala dinner, which concluded with a ceilidh. I am very grateful to those who nominated me and then voted for me to win. I am humbled and determined to keep up my work in the arts archive sector as well as working on improving routes into the profession.

P.S. To add to the excitement of the conference, I tweeted the most liked tweet of the three days, demonstrating that archivists' love of cake stretches to biscuits!

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Breaking with Tradition - APAC Symposium 2018

I'm sitting at home in Scotland enjoying a weekend away from London and having a break after a very hectic week. We had our annual APAC symposium this week in Manchester at the beautiful John Rylands Library. I had been told that it was a stunning building but I was still blown away by its design and was vert grateful for the building tour that we had included in the day!

This symposium was focused on breaking with tradition: non traditional collections and non traditional ways of approaching collections. It could be argued that any performing arts collection is non traditional due to the ephemerality of the art form so we thought that this would make a good topic for a symposium. We had quite a range of speakers including archivists, librarians and academics covering outreach projects, workshop projects and how to set up a theatre archive.

There will be a report posted on the APAC website shortly summing up the day so I don't want to do the same here. I'll outline some of my biggest takeaways from the day, which will be giving me food for thought in the weeks to come.

We heard from University of Leeds Special Collections about their work on the Red Ladder Theatre Company collection. They have received funding from the university for an academic to work on the collection looking at this radical theatre company's work in education. The outputs for the project changed constantly due to the very live nature of working with a theatre company and it was reassuring to hear that the funder was supportive of this shifts. One point the archivist and academic made was the importance of not being hamstrung by history. When working with a theatre company it is important to embrace the 'now' and what the archive can help them to achieve in the future. This chimed with my experience of working in a live theatre!

Oral histories were mentioned several times throughout the day and are something that we also work on at the NT. These are an excellent way to capture information that might otherwise not exist in a non traditional performance archive. This only works when the people you want interview are still alive so definitely isn't a cure-all.

We talked about the difficulties of imposing archival traditions onto such non traditional collections. The team from Leeds discussed how original order is not helpful to them or to researchers of the collection. They are going to experiment with how they can play with the online interface to allow researchers a more logical and intuitive road in to the collection. I also considered the challenges of traditions in my talk about a current project I am involved in around the documentation of the creative process. In conversations with designers I have discovered that keeping a consistent record across productions is anathema to them so we are faced with difficulties in mapping archival theory to a fluid creative process. (More on this project as it progresses over the next year).

Another area we touched on was the idea of elevating the value of materials by acquiring and cataloguing them. We assign value and importance through the very process of archiving them. I touched on this in my talk too when discussing a model which has been conserved by the MA Conservation students at UAL. The box containing the model is huge and more care has been given to this model in comparison to the others, which we hold. In future, if someone isn't aware of the MA Conservation's involvement, this model will appear to have a status above that of the other models. We need to be aware of the bias we can impose on collections and ensure that our descriptions and catalogue records reflect as accurate a picture as possible.

It was a very enjoyable day and a successful day for APAC. It is always so encouraging to bring together those in the same sector to discuss challenges and opportunities and get to meet very like-minded individuals. We're now going to get cracking on organising the Autumn study day in Ireland!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

SIBMAS Conference : Being Successful Together

This past week I have been at the SIBMAS conference in Paris. This was my first such conference and I was pretty nervous about going and not just because I was presenting on the first day.

Since 1954, SIBMAS has been the international network of cultural heritage in the performing arts. Spread across 35 countries around the world, they gather individuals and institutions documenting circus, dance, film, opera, theatre and puppetry.

Their conferences take place biannually and this one was attended by 110 delegates from a wide variety of countries including China, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, USA, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, Poland and Sweden. The NT is an institutional member and this was the first SIBMAS conference at which I have presented on behalf of the NT.

Conference schedule

This conference in Paris was themed around working together and the many collaborative projects that allow performing arts collections to be more accessible, comprehensive and better preserved.The conference was split into sessions, which covered the user as actor, mediational practices, digital content, exhibitions, costume preservation and internal institutional collaboration. 

My paper was on the necessity for collaboration and communication between practitioners, archivists and academics. It is only through engaging with all three areas that we can start to have a useful dialogue about preserving performing arts heritage and start to unlock the huge potential for future research. Several people were interested to hear more about my thinking around an embedded archivist and some suggested colleagues and projects that I could connect with, which I will be following up on.
My presentation

A few interesting themes came through as the conference progressed. Several speakers touched on the importance of documenting the audience and their reactions to theatre. This included an academic from Germany, who is setting up a research project around this concept using depictions of the audience in artworks as a starting point as well as a media historian from the Netherlands who focuses on the changing pattern of audience engagement. Several archivists also mentioned the difficulty in documenting this part of the theatrical experience and the important information that it could hold if we could capture it.

Salle Labrouste reading room at National Library of France

Many collaborative projects mentioned, including the NT’s, involved embedded academics. I outlined some of the benefits that have come from the Jocelyn Herbert Post-Doctoral Research Fellowships in the course of my presentation. The closest parallel to my paper was the archivist at the University of Edinburgh working on a Wellcome funded project to catalogue, conserve and selectively digitise collections relating to Scottish Gymnastics, Dunfermline College of Physical Education and Margaret Morris’s personal archive. This sounds fascinating and she echoed my notes of the day before on the usefulness of embedded academics, who can contribute to cataloguing metadata, identify gaps in collections as well as where real value lies. 

Another topic widely mentioned was the difficulty of working collaboratively when there is a variety of cataloguing softwares and standards in use across different countries and even sectors. A representative from the V&A’s Theatre and Performance collection spoke with a member of their Collections Management team about the necessity to implement museums standards and procedures for their decamp from Blythe House to their new facilities in Stratford, announced by the Mayor of London last week. The sheer number of databases that they are dealing with is making the process trickier than anticipated. 

Several other collaborative projects such as the Wellcome funded project in Edinburgh is running into issues due to differing cataloguing softwares. These issues were further highlighted by the media historian mentioned above, who is working on collating all of the performance databases in existence across the world. He showed a list all of the databases he has identified so far, which encouragingly included the NT Archive and Black Plays Archive, and encouraged all theatre archives to try to work collaboratively so that these databases could exist alongside others and not in siloes. The potential research areas and questions that could be considered if we worked collaboratively on this are extensive. 

Conference venue - National Library of France

There were two visits scheduled in to the four days: a visit to the Comédie-Française and to the Centre Nationale du Costume de Scène. 

The former provided an introduction to the performing arts collections held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in its Richelieu site. Their newly refurbished performing arts rotunda houses the permanent exhibition, which is open to the public with a modern research room and renovated old library. We then moved on to visit the theatre of the Comédie-Française, one of several national theatres in France. We toured their green room and stunning auditorium, one of three theatre spaces they have. They perform a different show each night with a troupe of 60 actors each performing in over 900 plays each year and over 3,000 plays in the repertoire. The figures are staggering. 

We then visited their library, currently not housed in ideal conditions but there are plans to move to the outskirts of Paris with new theatre spaces and unite the library collections with those of the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe and Conservatoire de Paris creating the Cité du Théâtre to open in 2022. It will be interesting to see how plans for this develop over the next few years. 

Front of House at Comédie-Française

We spent day four in Moulins at the Centre National du Costume de Scène (CNCS), which holds over 10,000 costumes from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Comédie-Française and Opéra nationale de Paris. This converted barracks also has a purpose-built store and there is a staff of over thirty curating two major exhibitions per year. The centre is planning on refurbishing another building in the complex to store scenographic and set materials with a focus on the process of making them. There will be exhibition and workshop spaces as well as a theatre space where sets can be demonstrated to the public. It is predicted to be open in 2020 and will be a major step forward in preserving the history of scenography in the country. 

Costumes work at the Winter Olympics ceremony in 1992
After tours of the facilities and visits to the Rudolf Nureyev and Fairy Tales exhibitions, we had a roundtable discussion about how to start taking costume photographs. Three organisations of very different size, budget and purpose presented on how they had photographed costume and included some useful dos and don’ts for those embarking on this. 

Fairy Tales exhibition

This conference was an excellent opportunity for me to further my professional skills by presenting to an international audience of colleagues as well as grow my network of like-minded individuals working in similar institutions around the world. Little things like understanding how to use the headphones for simultaneous translation will mean that I am that bit more confident at conferences in future. I was also live tweeting for the first time, which was quite a challenge and has resulted in me taking very different sorts of notes as I tweeted a lot of the note-worthy content instead of writing it down. My written notes are more to do lists and things I need to remember to look up when I get back to work. I was tweeting as part of the bursary I receives from SIBMAS and APAC to attend the conferene so I should say a huge thank you to them!

In sum, it was so inspiring and encouraging to spend time with people from all around the world working in the same area as me, facing the same challenges and getting as excited about new opportunities.

Fairy Tales exhibition

Saturday, 7 April 2018

What is scenography anyway?

Yesterday I attended my first TaPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association) event: the Scenography Working Group's interim event at the V&A. This was focusing on scenography in exhibition and the museum.

As someone very new to the term scenography, I had asked for advice from a colleague beforehand. I understand it to be a broader definition of theatre design encompassing performance design, architecture and theatrical environments. I was in good company, though, as several conversations throughout the day returned to the difficulty in defining scenography and  the problems that this causes in the UK and internationally, where the definition differs widely.

A beautifully sunny day viewed from the Sackler building
Leaving that to the side as we came to no conclusion, I found the day very interesting with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds very different to my own. How to exhibit scenography was discussed but there was more of a focus on how scenography is used in exhibition design. The importance of visitors to a museum being activated spectators, on a journey through the exhibition was discussed with a fascinating paper from Meg Cunningham, a PhD student studying theme parks and how whole worlds can be built through schenography. We also looked at the integral nature of viscerally experiencing what is in an exhibition to truly understand it and empathise with the subject matter, as Kathy Sandys presented on with her York bunkers project and Matt Edwards with his work on museums commemorating the Holocaust.

There was overwhelming agreement that exhibitions and theatre are coming closer together particularly with the current enthusiasm for immersive theatre experiences where the audience are free to roam around as they are free to do in an exhibition. Museums are increasingly curating exhibitions to immerse the visitors more and more in the content. There was a key note from the curator and designer of the recent V&A Opera: Power, Passion and Politics exhibition. The two designers from Curious Space, are theatre designers and used a theatre creative team to help them create the exhibition.

While we don't have the freedom, scale and budget of a lot of the exhibitions discussed, the NT can still take away some really useful thoughts on engaging the audience, using materials to inspire the design and exposing the process of theatre production.

Eleanor Margolies, one of the current Jocelyn Herbert post-doctoral research fellows with us (blog about her work), and I presented on the NT Archive, Jocelyn Herbert's collection and how you manage materials that were created in the process of a production that was never realised. It was a great opportunity to be able to share the work of the Archive with the audience of academics, scneographers and curators. It is really important to me to speak to this mixed audience about the importance of collaboration between academics, practitioners and archivists to ensure that we are documenting as much as we can of theatre process to secure material for future research.

This was a really useful and interesting forum and I look forward to engaging more with the TaPRA network.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Embracing the Unknown

This week I have been lucky enough to attend two events outside of my usual subject area. The first was the Theatre and Performance Design Pedagogy conference curated by UAL. I attended the first day at the Barbican and, while the subject matter was a little dense for me at times, I learned a lot about the future of theatre design teaching for students or, rather, the unidentified future.

Several of the speakers touched on the uncertainty of direction in theatre design, particularly in the digital world with the likes of iPhones, Google Tilt Brush and virtual reality. The keynote speaker, Prof. Rolf Hughes of Newcastle University, posed the question: how do we prepare our students for futures we currently lack the imagination to foresee? While I am sure this has always been an issue for teachers, the transformation of culture and technology has made this a lot harder in recent years.

I attended the session on Digital Design with three speakers from across Europe. The debate around virtual reality that ensued was of particular interest to me. We have an Immersive Storytelling Studio at the NT, dedicated to examining how new technologies can affect how we tell stories. So when Peter Missotten from the Faculty of Arts, Maastricht claimed that VR will be dead in 2 years I was pretty surprised. Joris Weijdom of University of the Arts Utrecht picked up the gauntlet and advocated for the importance of 'mixed reality' - mapping real life to a virtual reality experience eg. experiencing a virtual reality experience but touching and engaging with real life objects mapped to the visuals in the headset. I am sure there is a much better way of expressing this than I have just done but it made complete sense to marry the real and virtual environments to maximise the creative experience.

Sometimes I can feel like we get carried away with new technology and chase projects that may not necessarily provide us with the best experiences. This quote was flashed up at one point and it really resonated with me at the end of the day:

'We are stuck with technology when what we really want is stuff that works.' (Douglas Adams)

The conference left me with more questions than it answered but there was the age old thread of the need for collaboration between sectors for example directors, designers and actors and with academics and archivists. It seems that every conference I go to ends with this suggestion!

Flat Time House in Peckham

The next event I attended was about the Southwark Educational Research Project (SERP), which is being reactivated by Peckham Platform. Based in the Flat Time House, the former house of the artists who started the SERP project, the event was a chance to hear from the artists Barbara Steveni and Barby Asante, curator and academic Ben Cranfield and the two archivists working on Barbara's archive, Victoria Lane and Judy Vaknin. It was fascinating to hear about SERP, which ran 1989-1995, and about the introduction of the national curriculum, spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher.

An area I knew nothing of, it was great to hear about how the SERP archive is being used by Barby to encourage students to question their education and curriculum, pushing their horizons and creating an education 'in the round'. This holistic approach was the aim of SERP and speaks directly to the current debates around STEM and STEAM education. It will be interesting to see if any of the outputs of this project will or can inform the government's current thinking around the arts in education.

Flyer for all of the activity around the SERP archive in the next month
A few of the other gobbets of information that will be making me think over the next few days are:
  • most artists do not create work with their archives in mind. Some do and this is self-conscious archiving, an interesting concept in itself
  • the current problematic embrace of the archive as capital, which is driven by funding bodies. If organisations are wanting to grab their archives, who are they doing it for and why and what will the legacy of that be?
  • to go and have a look for the Felicity Allan article 'Situating Gallery Education' at Tate
  • it is difficult to organise an archive of things that were never meant to be archived....rings a bell with performing arts archives!
This was a really interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon and opened my eyes to the amount of work that is going on out there in archives and communities, which we can so readily tap into and learn from. I hope this project goes from strength to strength and I look forward to seeing their Tate Exchange event on the 17th-22nd April.

The events this week have helped me to get some perspective on my work and put performing arts archiving in context. There is still so much to learn and people and projects to learn from that I feel quite invigorated and empowered this Saturday evening!

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Role of Digital Reproduction in Cultural Heritage

On 8th December, the ReACH (Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage) declaration was launched at the V&A. On the following day I attended a morning conference on the practical applications of digital reproductions in heritage preservation, part of the Culture in Crisis series at the V&A. Before this I hadn't heard about ReACH but many of the contributors were part of the team working on this project.

ReACH is a response to Henry Cole's 1867 declaration 'Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of all Museums of all Countries' to mark its 150th anniversary. Cole had great foresight when he called for sharing of copies between organisations and this was a theme at the conference. We heard that museums need to move from being a treasury to a platform for ideas and have to be more open to the idea of sharing. A museum should be an agora of knowledge. Stefan Simon from the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage spoke about the need to view collections as cultural heritage and not as culture property: cultural heritage is made by people, through people and for people.

The talks throughout the morning really focussed on how people can use digital reproductions and what value they have in their own right. Historic Environment Scotland shared their innovative digital technology used to educate school children about life on the Antonine Wall and to repatriate a copy of a Roman sandstone tablet to where it was uncovered in Bo'ness. People were very much the focus of these digital reproductions and they have a value of their own to these communities.

Director of Digital Technology at Thomas's School in Clapham, Faye Ellis, spoke to us about her work in using digital technology in the classroom such as Google Tilt Brush, virtual reality headsets and 3D modelling and printing. We were blown away by the amount of technology available to these children and how well the staff are integrating technology into their syllabus. They face some issues with the accuracy of 3D models of museum artifacts as they are not necessarily created by an official source. These models can also be very expensive to download and there was a call to museums to provide historically accurate models for children to experiment with. This is a private school with hefty fees and there is still a very long way to go to get technology into the classrooms of all children regardless of their background. Better links are required between musuems and heritage organisations and teachers on their training courses to ensure that this sort of learning becomes more mainstream.

The final speaker was a co-founder of the recently launched Smartify app, Anna Lowe, which looks like it could make trips to museums a very different experience indeed. This free app lets you snap a piece of art and instantly find out its story. The team have partnered with 35 leading museums all round the world to launch with an impressive bank of data. Anna commented that more than ever, technology is changing our grasp and interpretation of reality and we need to adapt to this. Currently the art works will be accompanied by the museum text that you would read on the wall label but there is appetite to include alternative interpretations with particular slants eg. feminist or for children. They really want to move people away from using their phones merely to take selfies in the gallery and towards using them as devices for engagement.

All of these speakers served to demonstrate how useful digital reproductions can be well beyond the access and preservation mantra that we all know. It will be interesting to see the knock on effects of this declaration and how these take hold in museums and heritage organisations across the world. I for one will be staying tuned to their website and hoping for more events in future.

In an unrelated note, I got an early Christmas present when my Accreditation plaque arrived this morning!