Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Curating and Collecting Jocelyn Herbert

Tonight I attended the exhibition launch of the MA Curating and Collecting, UAL, 'Work from the Collections Number #3', which focused on Jocelyn Herbert's working relationship with Samuel Beckett.  The exhibition features material curated by each and every student on the course selected from the National Theatre's Jocelyn Herbert Archive.

The exhibition is at Wimbledon Space

The exhibition is a culmination of a term's work on the subject matter involving much original research by the students into the NT's Jocelyn Herbert Collection as well as into theatre design, Beckett and British theatre history in general.

Q&A session with Jenny West, David Gothard and Matthew McFrederick
Today's event opened with a Q&A session with three experts in Jocelyn Herbert and Samuel Beckett, chaired by one of the students on the course who had also acted as registrar and coordinated all of the archive loans (she must have had a very busy last month!).

Wimbledon Space

One of the things that I was really excited about seeing was how each of the students had used the archive material that they had found.  Coming from a vast variety of backgrounds and countries, each student approached the collection with different ideas and each has selected a different aspect of Jocelyn's work whether that be her drawings of trees, correspondence with politicians, her costume drawings or the spattering of her daily life that is portrayed throughout her work.  Some of the loans that were requested were so unusual that my team and I were at times baffled as to how the students could use them to meet the requirements of the course but it was fascinating this evening to see how and what they used to provide a commentary on Jocelyn's work with Beckett.

Costume drawings from Jocelyn Herbert's collection
The archive has also been very involved in offering mounting advice for many of the items, which are delicate and need to be carefully handled.  Where possible the students used facsimiles but there is a good number of originals throughout to offer authenticity.  The students also made excellent use of the digitised drawings, which they projected onto the wall so that the costumed figures were around life size.  This really brought the Collection to life and animated what could otherwise have been a dense pile of 2D sketches.

Another challenge was how to show a whole sketchbook in the exhibition.  One of the students filmed each page and the video is a very accessible alternative to displaying a sketchbook in what would have had to have been a static manner.

A sketchbook flicked through by page and page orientation changed when required
An extra bonus of this collection is that the students have produced 'The Work Book' to compliment their exhibition.  This work book contains essays on why the students have selected what they have along with images and catalogue references.  This will provide a valuable resource in coming years of the course to give an idea of how to approach what can be considered a large and potentially daunting archive collection.  It is also really useful for us as we are getting to know this collection and it will show the variety of ways in which this material can be accessed and interpreted for different audiences.  I am very grateful to the students and the course convenors for all of their hard work and I am very proud of this collaborative venture and look forward to continuing the relationship in the years to come.


The exhibition runs from the 25th March to the 10th April 2015 at Wimbledon Space and is open from 10am to 5pm each day.  The Jocelyn Herbert Collection is housed at the National Theatre Archive and the catalogue is online here http://catalogue.nationaltheatre.org.uk/CalmView/.  

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Archiving the Arts and me

On Tuesday of this week I attended the Archives and Society seminar dedicated to Archiving the Arts, a National Archives initiative to raise awareness of arts archives and encourage networking and knowledge sharing in the sector.  I had been asked to present on my own collections and discuss how the National Theatre values its Archive and what we are doing to promote its use.

I was presenting alongside representatives from the National Archives as well as the National Gallery and Rambert so I was in very good company!  There was an excellent turnout for a very small room at the Institute for Historical Research and it is the first time I have been at an archive event where people had to sit on the floor for want of space!

Senate House

To be perfectly honest, I have not been involved in the Archiving the Arts initiative so I was as interested as the next person to find out what TNA have discovered from their year focusing on arts archives and where the project will go next.  I think that the focus has been more on developing archives for those who have perhaps not realised the value of their collections or have needed support and advice in drawing the collections into a recognisable archive or gaining buy-in from senior management.  The National Theatre has had an archive since the early 1990s and it is well established, as is Rambert’s, which was founded in the 1980s.  We were, rather dauntingly, being held up as success stories.

IHR, apologies for not have any more interesting photos
I found it really interesting to listen to the ladies from TNA, Fleur, Louise and Kate, who all spoke on the importance of archiving the arts and really valuing our collections.  Arts archives are the cornerstone of our cultural history and provide researchers with a new way to view the creative process.  Arts archives are also perfect places for further creativity and, through research, creativity and exhibiting we can breathe new life into these archives and prove that they are not static: we can bring them to life and explore them afresh.  Sometimes I can get too bogged down in the nitty gritty of running an archive to consider the wider picture of what it is that we are preserving for future generations and why so this was a refreshing opportunity to take a step back.

An unrelated Gormley statue at the Wellcome,
excellent Forensics exhibition!

This evening really made me question the role of the Archive in the many National Theatre projects that have happened over my time here and are in the pipeline.  We are very fortunate that the National views its Archive as a living thing, and not as the end of the line or a production.  We help to paint the picture of a show from the very start of its existence right through to the end.  It is one of my aims in my still relatively new role to ensure that we plug any gaps we have in the documentation of creative practice to ensure that it is preserved.  This ties in with the current aim of the National, which is to open up the whole process of theatre, with its beginnings being laid bare to the public on the Sherling High-Level walkway to seeing a production on stage to being able to delve into the Archive front of house in the new Lyttelton Lounge, which will open in a matter of weeks. 

So, we are fortunate that the NT Archive is so well used but that is just testament to the amazing material that is held in it and the many, many directors, actors and creatives who have made history on our stages.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Presenting and Performance

I have had an eventful couple of days traveling what feels like the length and breadth of the country to meet archivists!  In fact I have just been to Birmingham and Canterbury but, two days on the trot, it certainly feels like further.

Yesterday I attended and was lucky enough to present at the APAC annual symposium focused on performance collections and their users located at the Muirhead Tower at the University of Birmingham.
Muirhead Tower


There were several presentations throughout the day along with a performance from a group of MA students studying Shakespeare and Creativity, which really hit it home to the whole group that our collections are for inspiration as well as historical research.  The Bristol Theatre Collections again proved that they are leaping and bounding ahead in inter-disciplinary projects, which now span creative technologies and an interactive exhibition case.  They really are doing great work, which, as Jo Ellsworth admitted, challenges the archivists and staff to think outside the box and, indeed, outside of their profession and comfort zone to come up with new ways of engaging with their collections.  This is very admirable and something that we could all be doing with embracing if we want to see our material reaching further afield.

The NT Archive is currently working with students on the MA Curating and Collecting at the University of the Arts London, to create an exhibition piece each (there are around 25 students) on Jocelyn Herbert's working relationship with Samuel Beckett.  These students are approaching the material from a curatorial background, not a theatre or design one so it is really brilliant to hear the questions they are raising and the comments they are making on this relatively new addition to the NT external collections.  It is certainly challenging the archive staff and I can't wait to see their installed exhibitions in Wimbledon Space at the end of March.

A beautiful sunset on the train home made up for a very early start!

I and Myfanwy, presented on the NT's Learning and Archive activities, many of which are HLF funded and coming to fruition this year.  We focused on the Archive Teacher Placements.  This is an HLF funded project, which invited teachers, primary and secondary, English and Drama, into the archive to see what we have and come up with new ways of engaging with it for the benefit of students.  We have had 9 such placements so far and they have worked on subjects as far reaching as the history and architecture of the NT building to children's adaptations to Greek Drama.  As long as they created something vaguely heritage related they could work to quite a broad remit.  They have created resources for their own classrooms as well as for wider dissemination via the NT website and have contributed to Archive Learning Days in the newly opened Clore Learning Centre.  It was great to hear from Myfanwy yesterday as this gave a school perspective on archives which can easily become the domain of university education or higher.

The whole day was a great opportunity to get to know others in APAC as well as those who had attended as users of archives.  This sort of event is quite rare and it was invaluable in considering how we can open up our collections further and, almost more importantly, who else is doing it and from whom I can gain advice!
Canterbury Cathedral with a strategically placed motorbike
Today, I have been on a jolly to Canterbury Cathedral with the ARA South East Region to present at their training day for lone archivists.  I was asked to talk about the NT's records management schedule and how this fits in with my day-to-day archive work and projects.  The answer, of course, is that it doesn't but that we have to make it so!  The other few speakers were talking about other aspects of lone working such as internal advocacy at Transport for London Corporate Archives and the new WWI website at Winchester College.  Both of which were really interesting to listen to and I hope that I contributed to the day as much as they did.

Probably the most beautiful room in which I will ever give a presentation!
I think that, sometimes, it is just good to hear that there are others in the same position as you.  It was a lovely group and everyone was really keen to discuss their work and problems they might be facing.  I have felt over the last few days that my networking skills are getting better and I am glad because it is always a dread of mine!  No-one teaches you networking skills and they are so crucial, especially in this profession, which can be rather lonesome at times.  After a busy few days I am spending the weekend in Canterbury to see the sights and take more pictures like the one below!

Canterbury Cathedral cloisters

Monday, 9 February 2015

Copyright conference and beginning the long road to registration

I am currently working on getting to grips with the copyright issues in the NT Archive and how these are affecting the usage of our materials.  I'm working with several departments to clarify existing information and considering in which directions we could go in the future depending on what sort of licensing model we wish to have.

As part of this, I attended a copyright conference in Edinburgh, 'Copyright and Cultural Heritage 2.0: Protecting creators, sharing content' sponsored by Shepherd and Wedderburn and run by The Scotsman.


This event had speakers from a surprising range of backgrounds including writers, politicians, archivists and lawyers.  This is the first copyright conference I have attended outside of the usual 'archive' events.  It was particularly helpful to hear from those in different professions, especially the lawyers, and to see how wide-reaching this issue is.

It was reassuring to hear that others also worry about how we can ensure fairness in getting as many people to access our materials while respecting the copyright holders and maintaining their income so that they can continue to create.

One important point was that it is integral to educate the users of digitised material.  If you offer any digitised material online then every image should be accompanied by a copyright line about how it can be used legally and what users should do to pursue other lines of use.  It would be wonderful if we could get to the stage at the NT where images all had individual copyright statements to guide staff about their use.

A key element to this conference was respect for collections and creators and a wish to collaborate to allow collections to be positively exploited for the greater good of all concerned.

The conference was in a cold but beautiful Edinburgh
In other news, I have enrolled in the ARA registration scheme.  I have written up one credit thus far and I was surprised at how hard it was to 'reflect'.  I have never been very good at reflecting, from school onwards.  I think the difficulty is separating out what I do for work and what I do for my own development.  The registration scheme is based on personal development and so there is a tricky slant to the write-ups.  The vast majority of training I attend etc. is geared towards projects I am undertaking but there are obviously personal development points in these.  I have started on my second credit and have several to write up from previous projects but will soon get into unchartered territory and that is where it will get exciting!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Stand-up and Jukeboxes

A few weeks ago I went to a 'Museums Showoff' not having much of an idea what it would be about. It was, in face, a cross between stand-up, a museum conference and a TeachMeet.  It was held in a pub basement with a projection screen crudely taped to the wall and was more like a comedy night than anything too work serious.  What it did do, though, was provide a relaxed atmosphere in which people could show their wares, explain new projects, or indeed just what they do in the case of the Art Fund, express frustration about Museum qualifications and introduce the audience to new and wonderful technology.  It was all in all pretty good fun and takes place every two weeks.


Yesterday I attended the APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) Christmas meeting at Battersea Arts Centre.  I have been to BAC previously for shows and was astounded by its very unusual architecture as a theatre.  I have also met their archive team as they are similarly working through an HLF grant and shared experiences can be very useful for learning from!  They also share the architects of their refurbishment with the NT, Haworth Tompkins!

Slightly different architecture to the NT!
One of the most interesting parts of the visit was finding out about the archive's various projects.  The archive is broken into two halves, one is the history of the Battersea Town Hall (the building) and the other is the Battersea Arts Centre from c.1980.  The physical archive actually sits with Wandsworth Heritage Centre down the road but BAC have digitised much of their content, which sits on their beautiful new website.

The Grand Hall, looking slightly different to
when I visited for the Savoy Ball

Great focus has been put on performance from the archive and the new creations that can be made using existing material.  This is something that Bristol Theatre Collections are strong on and I would like to do more of this work with the NT.  I suppose we have started with the creation of the NT50 posters, which were reactions to the 50 year history of the NT and were influenced by the archive but there is so much more we could so to engage new work.  We are excellently places in the NT Studio for this sort of work and already support artistic workshops but I'd like this to become a more of a feature of what we do at some point.

A fabulous project in the 'Waiting Room' in BAC, where the archive is showcased, is the theatre jukebox.  This facilitates story telling and was designed by a theatre company.


Each card contains an RFID strip, which can be sensed by the flat bed and triggers an audio to play through the headphones.  Each card plays a clip that is a few minutes long and allows the visitor to curate their own experience.  This 'Waiting Room' is normally visited by people just before a show and so short snappy experiences are ideal.  We are facing a similar issue of short bursts of attention with a new space that we are designing on the main site, which experiences a large volume of people just before a show and during an interval.  Physical material displayed in this area must catch attention and relay enough information that the audience can understand the message and want to come back later without confusing or bombarding them.  BAC have tackled this really well with the jukebox facility.

I only have a few days left at work before Christmas and I am looking forward to a trip home and some rest, it has been a big year at work!  I hope to have confirmation of my enrolment to the ARA Registration scheme in the New Year and will be posting on my progress.

An lovely little pub in Shoreditch



Thursday, 13 November 2014

How do we Digitise?

Today was the second instalment of The National Archive's digitisation workshop, which focused on the 'How' as opposed to the 'Why'.  This is obviously a massive topic and TNA chose not to focus on file formats and other such technical information, which could form a whole study day in itself but rather on the strategy and planning required around licensing and joining with commercial partners and the advantages and pitfalls of such paths of digitisation.
The National Archive swans
It is encouraging to find out that TNA are also grappling with cloud storage, in-house vs. commercial digitisation and other such issues, which are flummoxing many others in the profession.  The roles of archivists are expanding out of collection management into marketing, IT, outreach etc. and we need to move with the times.  Not only are researchers now expecting material to be digitised and searchable but archivists are now expected to be masters of many arts and, indeed, sciences.

One of the most interesting parts of today was the trip to the conservation lab and digitisation suite at TNA.  There is a dedicated team of paper conservators who work on all material before it is digitised, either in-house or for commercial purposes, to ensure that text can be as legible as possible and the material is stable.  Material is then sent to the internal digitisation suite or the area set aside for external commercial companies to come in and scan on site.  If only we all had these facilities!!

Nearest tube station...with a very shiny sign
There was much discussion around commercial partnerships and the questions you must ask yourselves and your institution before embarking on such a relationship.  It has been really helpful to have a think about issues that need to be ironed out before you sign a contract and also to know that TNA are there for dispensing advice if you feel alone!  Many archives do not have the luxury of a legal department as we do and so having the back-up of TNA is invaluable.

A lot of time was spent discussing cloud storage, which is something that the NT is currently taking a look at.  I am now more knowledgeable about general and specialist cloud storage suppliers and the merits and downfalls of each.  As a result, I'll be more capable of having an informed discussion with IT when the time comes to consider where all of our data is stored and backed up.

A worrying amount of time was spent explaining that
data is not stored in actual clouds...
The Head of Digitisation Services for TNA helpfully pointed out to those struggling with the concept of cloud storage that all we are doing is outsourcing storage to a data centre.  It needn't be a big scary unknown quantity, we're just asking someone else to store our data and we need to put certain rules and guidelines in place to ensure its safe keeping.  If you want to take a look at the TNA's guidance on cloud storage and digital preservation, click here.

We covered far too much to include here but TNA have said that they would like to make these digitisation workshops a regular thing and I would encourage anyone undertaking digitisation projects or thinking about planning one or applying for funding to tag along.  They are great networking opportunities too and it is always encouraging to realise that you are not missing out on a cover-all solution - we are all grappling with the same issues and, in a spirit of communication and good will, we will get there!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Why Digitise?

Last week I and a colleague attended the first of a two day event on digitisation at The National Archives.  Last week, we focused on the ‘Why?’ of digitisation, which, as can be imagined, looked at income generation, audience participation and commercialisation.  This is a very pertinent question for the National Theatre as we embark on our Lyttelton Lounge, main site access to the archive via a digital interface, and come to the end of a major project to digitise all technical, rehearsal and production photographs from our founding in 1963 to present day.

As I am relatively new to my post, I was not present when the Lyttelton Lounge or the digitisation project were planned and so it was interesting to hear from TNA and the collection managers present what sorts of concerns they took into consideration when planning which collections to digitise, where to apply for funding and how to disseminate their new found assets.


The National Archives

An interesting point was made about the danger of falling into the trap of planning your digital projects based on the successes of your physical material projects.  Existing business models may well not work on digital projects, which can have very different audiences to material in the reading room.  We need to embrace digital as an entity in itself and not be scared of our new assets but capitalise on them.

Our workshop discussion helpfully focused on people and to what extent you need to know who your primary audience is before you start your planning.  This is now a main focus of the Lyttelton Lounge discussions, two months short of its opening, and it is integral to know who you are catering for when you plan digital projects or collections, in our case, and the interface for your content.  I suppose the level of required knowledge of audience depends, to an extent, on whether you are curating your digital content or throwing it all out there on a website such as Flickr or some digital asset management system front end for researchers to engage with as they wish.  


Tablets and phones by tribehut, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  tribehut 


As we are curating collections, I think it is more prudent that we aim at those audiences that we thing will be engaging with a 'digital lounge'.  The issue with a theatre that is open all day to anyone who wants a warm seat and free wifi is that the audience is incredibly wide and their interests are nigh on impossible to measure, even with our audience experience team.  Hence, we are planning on trying out several different user experiences in the first year or so and see how they are received.

TNA presented several research papers on the use of the internet and the work done by archives, namely local authorities, to have a discernible web presence.  The ‘Top 6’ website tips are to have:

  • a web presence
  • a searchable online catalogue
  • a means by which to see/buy digitised images
  • news or a blog
  • social media presence
  • links to resources of interest to researchers

Thankfully, the NT’s archive website ticks or almost ticks all of the boxes that it can.  We have centralised NT Facebook and Twitter accounts and there is also a blog, which the archive will be contributing to as of the next few months.  

The National Theatre Archive website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover-more/archive

I am looking forward to this week's workshop when we discuss the ‘How?’ along with commercial licensing and, hopefully, some chat on the dreaded copyright!