Monday, 7 March 2016

Archivist as Interpreter

The National Archives' Archiving the Arts programme comes to an end this month but it leaves a legacy of events aimed at those working in and with arts archives.  Last Friday was the first of these events, Archivist as Interpreter, hosted at the British Library.

I attended along with my colleague, who is also responsible for curating the archive exhibitions that appear front of house at the NT.  The day wasn't as focused on exhibitions as I had expected but was a very rounded look at how we can make archives accessible to more people and to different people.

For the seminar sessions in the afternoon I split off to hear from Sarah Kogan, an artist who has worked with The National Archives, as well as from Vicky Igliowski, who works for TNA, specialising in diverse histories.  It was really useful for me to hear from both of these ladies as one could explain what attracted her to the collections and how she has used them while the other could speak on the institutional approach to artists using the collections.

A major theme of these presentations was that engagement with the archive increases their importance: it gives them contemporary meaning and historical value.  An artist can ensure that an archive is alive and relevant.  This is something that archivists strive for for their collections and I certainly hadn't fully considered how external people could help me to do this.

Artists can do this in a plethora of ways and specialise in various different forms of art.  Something that I have been giving a lot of thought to is how to get the NT collections involved in new work.  The NT Archive is an archive of performance and most of the presentations I have heard on 'performing the archive' have involved performance artists using historical archives to create a performance piece.  I have never heard of a project using a performance archive to create new performance.  I sense that this may be harder to achieve as performance artists strive to create something original and may not work willingly with archive materials from previous productions.

I am keen to explore this issue.  Perhaps the performance archive at the NT can be used to create different forms of art but it would be wonderful if the archive could fuel a piece of performance art that could be shared at the Studio or on one of the main stages - how much more relevant could the Archive get?!

Another idea is to use art as a means of interpretation within exhibitions.  A delegate in my seminar group mentioned that they frequently include artistic interpretations of archive materials in their exhibitions spaces and we could do this in two ways: one would be to welcome interpretations of archive materials and exhibit them in the Lyttelton Lounge; the other would be to invite artistic interpretations of exhibitions and include them in the space.  It would be quite a departure for us to work in this way but I would like to explore the potential for collaborative work such as this.  It would be a step outside my comfort zone to look at how a creative mind might interpret the NT collections, but, as Clore taught me, a step into the unknown may well be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Animating Black Archives...some lessons learnt

Today I attended the 11th Annual Huntley Archives Conference, Animating Black Archives: The Next Ten Years at the London Metropolitan Archives.  I went along as the National Theatre looks after the Black Plays Archive and it would be useful to know what is happening in other institutions dealing with black archives.

Although much of the day was taken up with the content of these archives and the research that can be done with it, there were some themes that emerged, which were really useful to consider as an archivist in general.  There were several definitions of archives bandied around, which were very interesting to consider as they are interpretations of archives that were created by non-archivists.  I can feel sometimes that archivists speak to each other in a bit of an echo chamber so it can be very refreshing to hear a variety of academics, historians and activists discussing archives and their importance.

So, what did 'archive' mean to them?  Archives can provide a counter-narrative to accepted norms, they can spur on activism and provide a form of resistance.  They urge us to share and, through that sharing, ensure that the history is handed down for generations to come and the archive services themselves are continuously funded and supported.

One audience member suggested that we treat archives more like libraries, as somewhere to bring your family and browse content.  I am all for this, there seems to be a strict line between archives and libraries, which is understandable in terms of cataloguing, content and storage but when it comes to access, we should make archive materials as open and welcoming as possible, as libraries strive to do.

It is all well and good to keep these histories alive but there are two issues that were flagged.  The first was that many libraries and local community centres are suffering cuts and facing closure so it is an active issue that these archives and facilities for discussion might be lost.  The second is that if the history will be kept alive for the next generations, we need to find ways in which to engage the younger generation by using digital content and social media.  This comes with issues of its own such as how you access digital content and how it is preserved, copyright and rights restrictions, where the data is stored and what the metadata is like.  Digital access, however, will allow deeper immersion in history and encourage people to engage more directly with archive material.

It is interesting to think about what this could mean for archivists.  My role is now considering how to get our archive content out there to people who cannot come to the research room in London and what that digital provision might encompass.  We are subject to vast copyright restrictions and hold so much content that it is very difficult to imagine what an online presence could look like.  Nathan Richards, Black Cultural Archives, talked about this and raised questions such as; how do heritage institutions stay relevant in the digital landscape?  And how do we embed archives in the physical environment to encourage engagement?  And he also suggested the importance of thinking about how we produce our history so that it will be accessible in years to come.  These issues are the same for all kinds of archives and it was useful to have some space to think about them with a different audience.

So, there was plenty food for thought and there was a really lovely quote used by the George Padmore Institute, spoken by John La Rose:

         Slow builders and consolidators, not flash and dash (John La Rose)

Words to work and live by.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

What does a theatre archivist do?

A couple of months ago I was approached by a member of the Broadcast and Digital team asking me to be interviewed for one of their Careers films.  I knew about these films as I had watched all of the ones available on the website in a bid to understand my colleagues better and to help my understanding of the material that comes my way in the Archive.

I was secretly hoping that the Archive would be respected enough at the NT for me to be asked to do one but I was, somewhat less secretly, absolutely petrified of being filmed.  (Those on the Clore course with me last month know only too well my opinions on being filmed...)

I was sent the questions in advance and prepared what I wanted to say to make sure that I got across the right message about the Archive and what I do within it.  2 minutes isn’t a long time to explain your career and what your service does as well as give people an idea of what archiving is and how widespread archives are!  I think I’ve succeeded and I’m happy I had the guts to do this for anyone out there who might be thinking about libraries or archives but aren’t sure how to get into it or what their day to day job might entail.

Take a look at the finished video here!

Having breathed a sigh of relief that that was over, I was asked to be interviewed by the University of Arts Communications team about the Jocelyn Herbert Collection we hold.  The interview will be used in various ways such as trailers for the Jocelyn Herbert Annual Lecture and for advertising the Collection and surrounding events.  I got just as nervous as the first time and had to ad lib a lot more, which was really tricky as I didn't want to get anything wrong.  I think it turned out ok and I just hope that I get more used to having to do this!

Monday, 9 November 2015

Clore Emerging Leaders - Top Picks

There are a few other things that I felt should be mentioned and they are punchy enough to warrant a list!  In no particular order:
  1. Always presume positive intent
  2. Have an exit strategy when you start a job - your organisation is not your parent, it is much healthier to know that you will leave and consider what you want to contribute in your time
  3. Spend more time listening to people with your ears, your eyes and your heart
  4. You can still feed entrepreneurial thinking into multi-disciplinary institutions
  5. Have a story to tell, this is your elevator pitch - know your values and your project
  6. Leadership is, among other things, creating a culture in which people and projects can grow and flourish
  7. Make friends with your chimp
  8. It's ok to be in stretch
  9. Leaders cannot choose their followers, followers choose their leader - be someone people want to follow
  10. Silence is to be cherished
Thank you to everyone

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Clore Emerging Leaders - Self-Awareness

Self-awareness was one of the buzz terms from the Clore week.  I thought that I was generally quite aware of myself - I don't invade people's personal space, I can generally tell if I've upset someone - but doing exercises to show how we make decisions and how we naturally act were very enlightening.

We were asked to consider what people in our institution, whom we have never met, thought of us.  This was really tricky.  I realised that I have no idea what sort of impression of me is out there nor do I necessarily want to find out!  I have previously considered my personal brand when I was doing my Masters and that's why I try to have the same photograph of myself on professional platforms and use the same name on Twitter and on my blog for consistency.  But I hadn't really considered how others perceive me at work.  It's probably a good thing that I am not too caught up in what others think of me but it would be useful to consider my reputation and which characteristics I have that come across predominantly.

Although I am now more aware of how I am perceived and how I may come across in meetings, I am not sure that I yet have the capacity to change it.  I feel like I have taken the first step, by acknowledging that I will be perceived in certain ways and I am trying not to be too hard on myself for not having the energy at the moment to change it.  I think I'd like to take a step back, consider how I come across and then rationally decide if and how I want to change it.  This will take some time and I suspect I'll need quite a thick skin for it.  One thing that has happened independently at work since Clore is that those undertaking archive work placements now fill in feedback forms about their time in the Archive and I did find myself embracing the opportunity to improve as a manager rather than feeling personally aggrieved by their comments.  A promising start!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Clore Emerging Leaders - Be Kind, Be Balanced and Be Alive

There were many recurring themes throughout the week, which related to how you approach your own well being.  It isn't very common in life, well in mine anyway, to be given a week to think about yourself and what you want to do.  As someone said over breakfast one day, 'This is such luxury' and I'm sure she was referring to more than the honey and lemon tea.  To be able to take some time out of the daily cycle of life to question what you are doing and how you would like to change it was a luxury and something I want to make sure I do justice to.

Be Kind

A really important take away from the course for me was the notion of being kind to yourself.  We can all too often forget that we are putting ourselves through a lot of hard work, commuting and stress every day and that we are achieving, we just need to cut ourselves some slack.  It was liberating hearing our facilitators telling us to be kind to ourselves and others.

Be Balanced

This fitted in well with the idea of creating balance in your life, between work and home, between characters in groups at work, between pushing yourself and realising how much you have already achieved.  We worked through positive feedback we had received prior to the course and realised that there is a lot of value in appreciating your strengths as well as your weaknesses and looking at your performance as a blend of the two.  Life can seem like a balancing act most of the time but this week has let me see that I can identify that balance, work out how to change it and even use it to my advantage.

Be Alive

I agree that it is important to realise that we cannot control everything, which can be hard for someone as ordered and logical as me.  Gaylene Gould, a writer, presenter, coach and Clore fellow advised us to be resilient, responsive, adaptive and opportunistic.  To take those opportunities with both hands and make things happen.

Gaylene opened her talk with a quote, which resonated with the group long after she had finished:

'Don't ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that.  Because what the world needs is people that have come alive.'
Harold Thurman Whitman

For the people in the room, this really hit home and made us question what we are doing and why we are doing it.  Gaylene explained that trying to achieve what makes you feel alive can be an iterative process, it will ultimately lead you to a position where you can fulfil your ambitions and live out your values.  For me, as with many questions and comments throughout the week, I understood the importance of it but couldn't speak to it straightaway.  My job does make me feel alive but I have yet to pinpoint why and which of my values it meets (a theme that you'll notice in these posts).

Stay balanced

To be kind, balanced and alive may seem like three simple points but I really needed reminded of them and I'm probably not the only one.  Putting them into practice may be a different matter but I am already making sure that I am kind to myself and those I touch.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Clore Emerging Leaders - The Starting Blocks

I reckon the best way to start this cluster of posts would be with the start of the course, my expectations and subsequent relief at being in a room with like-minded people.

I really didn't know what to expect from the Clore experience.  I was thinking of it as being a bit like being part of Santander's '1-2-3 World' only without the customer service issues and misplaced suspicion of my desire for contactless payment.  The 'Clore world' is something I knew a bit about as I have come across a couple of Clore fellows in my work and a colleague had just taken part in the Short Course.  I now know that there is a network of over 1,500 Clore alumni in the arts, which is a pretty nifty network!

All the advice I was given was to prepare for a great week and to expect to cry.  Both of those happened and, in retrospect, I think it was a good idea to go in to it without many expectations or preparations.

On the first day, our wonderful facilitators, Amanda and Fearghus, got us all to write down our hopes for the course and our fears on post-it notes and add them to flip-charts.  The result is below:

You'll note that there are far fewer fears (on the left) than hopes.  We were all really excited to be there and very hopeful for what the week might bring.  We had some time to read all of the post-its and people spent a lot longer reading the fears than the hopes - were we satisfying ourselves that we were 'normal'?  At the end of the week we looked at these again and, while some of our fears had come true, they weren't that bad and all of our hopes had come true, with more besides.

What this exercise showed us was that we were all in the same boat and, although we all came from very different backgrounds, locations, jobs and sectors, we were fundamentally very similar.  The next exercise showed this again.  We were asked to do some connections speed dating where we had a minute to find out what we had in common with each person.  This resulted in this map:

There was more but it was giant.  This very simple exercise showed that we are all linked in some way and more and more connections became clear during the week.  Two of the participants had been in my building in the last month - it really is a very small world and that is a valuable thing to remember when you feel alone or at sea with your career.

A really important point on the first day was learning about 'stretch.'  We were told that we should try to be in 'stretch' during the week and that if we slid into 'panic' it was ok but try not to conduct the whole week from your 'comfort zone'.  I was foolishly concerned that I would be in my 'comfort zone' most of the time and would struggle to push myself into 'stretch' - how wrong could I be?!  I can happily say that I was in 'stretch' most of the time with only one slip into 'panic'.  'Stretch' is a good place to be and where I suspect my problem solving and creativity comes to the fore.  A huge positive of the week for me was the openness with which people embraced stretch and alerting others to the fact.  If we declared that we were in stretch then we could support each other and recognise that what we were doing might be ok for you but was really pushing someone else to deal with an uncomfortable experience.  This is something I wish we were all a bit more open about at work.

The lessons and exercises on the first day really started the week off on a very open footing and demonstrated to us that there are like-minded people out there, you just have to be open enough to communicate with them.