Monday, 21 September 2015

'One plus One Equals Three'

This evening I attended my first LSE public lecture, given by Dave Trott, author of Creative Mischief and Predatory Thinking with a career in advertising.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect of the lecture, entitled One plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking. 

It was more advertising related than I was hoping but also more applicable to my work than one would think from such a topic.  I would say that what I do in the Archive at the National Theatre is fairly removed from the Marketing department and yet many of the issues and much of the thinking behind advertising (a slightly different thing to marketing as Dave clarified) are similar to things that I need to consider in my current role or to projects that I have sight of.

Dave was very quick to state that creativity is declining due to us being bamboozled by complexity, technology and jargon.  He wants us to free our minds and get back to the task in hand, getting a message out there to our audience.  Creativity is not styling an existing thing to match your purpose but it is being unpredictable and creating something that no-one could have guessed - this is relevant to all jobs, not just advertising.  Creativity happens relatively little as people are becoming more and more submerged in digital and social media.  He drew an incredibly simple diagram demonstrating that TV, digital, social media and newspapers are all platforms for a message, the true media is the consumer.  The consumer has never changed and will never change so we need to understand how the brain works to ensure that people talk to one another and spread the word - that is the true definition of 'viral'.

There are times when the newest technology does bamboozle us and does temporarily cloud our judgement sometimes resulting in resources and material that is not practical or suited to the audience we are aiming at.  We create apps, virtual reality experiences and digital exhibitions in the hope that we will be seen to be keeping up with the Joneses but, really, we should be focusing on the most practical way of communicating with our audiences and persuading them to use our service - that may well be Twitter, or it might be a good old fashioned leaflet.

As I work with the various departments the Archive collaborates with, I notice a desire to be at the cutting edge of technology and make sure that we are leading the way for digital content and learning materials.  An admirable aim for a national institution.  We are currently working hard on our Lyttelton Lounge, providing physical and digital access to our Archive front of house at the theatre and this project has thrown up many considerations including interpretation, audience, interface and message.

One of Dave's diagrams particularly hit home for me:

                                                                                 creative ->
relevant                                            relevant                                   irrelevant
invisible                                            visible                                      visible
             <- account manager/client

This diagram shows how a brief to create something relevant and visible can get pulled in one direction by a creative person or graphic designer, while an account manager or client can pull it in another.  I found this particularly interesting since I have been involved in marketing for a couple of Archive projects and have witnessed the brief being pulled in both the right and left directions as the deadline loomed.  I need to try to keep the teams as close to the centre as I can to ensure that my project is visible and understood by our audiences.  That is a lot easier said than done but I can see how and why it can get pulled in other directions and I am hoping that this will help me in the long run.

I really enjoyed hearing about a different profession and seeing the plethora of links that there are between jobs out there and how cross-disciplinary an archive position can be.  There is so much to learn about other departments, colleagues, ways of thinking and learning and what drives people but I'm open to the challenge and hope that this can help me to advocate the Archive and push its reach further.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Royal Albert Hall Archives

I have just spent a very enjoyable afternoon at the Royal Albert Hall, being shown round by their two lovely archivists.  As a 'holding house', the Hall has slightly different archives to the National Theatre but there are more similarities than differences.  

We both use the CALM database as well as CALMView and it has been really helpful to compare experiences with the software and to see how they have re-branded the front end to make a user friendly and attractive interface.  They also have a some really great interactive features on their new website (like this and especially this), which I heartily encourage you to try out!

The Archive has recently been coming to the fore in Hall projects such as Learning events, merchandise and tours.  They have a specific tour focused on the secret history of the Hall, which has content drawn directly from the Archive.  There is great enthusiasm at the Hall to include the Archive in projects and this is a really healthy and encouraging sight.

A shot from the Hall the last time I visited

As an archive of a 'holding house' they do not hold material on the process of creating performances like we do.  They have the booking plans, programme, poster, photographs and then reports from the evening for front of house and on stage activities.  In this way they have the whole story of a performance, of which they obviously have many more than the NT (they have 14,000 programmes alone!).  A lot of the other work of the Hall, such as the set-up of shows, is done by external companies and so it not represented in the Archive, nor is it sought after so the focus is on programmes, press and reports from the production itself.

I was delighted to see that they have a Souvenir book of a fundraising event for the National Theatre back when it was a mere idea and supported by the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee.  This fundraising event welcomed in the great and the good of the 1910s all of whom were given Shakespearean characters to dress up as and the souvenir book is a beautiful collection of paintings, drawings and prints of the lords and ladies in their costumes.  There were also several heads of state present as it was held a few days before the Coronation.  Really quite something!

Shot of the acoustic mushrooms

I was struck by the sheer diversity of what happens at the Hall.  Currently the Proms are on, which are well known, but they also have a dining week where a false floor is erected and the Hall transforms into a giant dining room.  They have tennis tournaments, wrestling, circus acts and rock bands with many requirements not catered for when the building was built!  This Christmas they will be installing an ice rink to perform The Nutcracker on ice.  It is truly a fascinating building and the archivists are still coming across gems in their Archive.  They are working on cataloguing their material and digitising it so that more is accessible and I can only see this service going from strength to strength with its combination of historically fascinating subjects and institution-wide enthusiasm to engage with the material.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Performing the Archive, NUI Galway 2015

Performing the Archives conference has completely surpassed my expectations in terms of audience, disciplines, discussion and exhaustion.  As it was my first three-day conference, I wasn’t sure what to expect but it has been an inspirational few days with some of the most interesting and innovative archivists and researchers in the performing arts fields.

I’m not really sure how best to go about describing the conference but there were a few sessions that really stood out for me and some interesting questions that were raised.  I think it will be beneficial for me and for you if I talk about the main issues that were discussed round the dinner table, on the snatched coffee breaks and in the long meanderings back to the student village.

The concept of audience and spectator was raised quite a few times and I have recently become much more aware of audience through the interpretation work we have been doing on our exhibitions and so this really interested me.  It was raised in terms of documenting the experience of the spectator at a show.  Aside from press reviews, which are a particular kind of spectator feedback, how else do we record what people thought?  Spectators’ reactions are a specific kind of archive of a show and offer a different interpretation to any of the other materials collected around a production.

The act of recording this is pretty tricky.  One talk, by Lisa Peschel of the University of York concerning the ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ project, touched on this.  They will be interviewing audience members after the show and will be comparing their reactions with footage of them taken during the production.  This footage tracks their facial reactions and interprets this as emotions.  Peschel will then interview these audience members and show them the footage and ask why they had these emotional reactions.  I can’t quite see us doing that any time soon but it is interesting to know that such technology is out there and can be used in this way. 

NUI Galway's quad

Almost every speaker had a different definition of what an archive meant to them and (after putting aside defensive statements of my own) I realised that ‘archivist' and ‘archives’ will mean different things to different people and we need to find some common ground.  I’m not talking about people who don’t know what an archivist is, although there are plenty of them and I know I’m not the only one that gets annoyed with the lack of drop down menu options for archivists, librarian and information professionals as a whole, but these are people who frequently use archives and consult archivists.

The concept of managing researchers’ expectations came up a couple of times in the context of specific projects as well as in general.  There are the archivists, who guard the collections, make them accessible, preserve them and carry out a plethora of other services for archive materials on the one side and then researchers who use the collections for a variety of means on the other.  We need to find a way of bridging this gap, increasing awareness of what archives do and show that occasionally needing to restrict access is not meant to be obstructive.  Then there is work to be done to improve communication with researchers so that archivists know how they can help.

Near the harbour in the city centre

Several of the projects we heard about, which were creative projects born from the archive, showed how much access researchers can gain to collections but there was a feeling that this is not the case for all researchers.  So how does a researcher get that exclusive access, a researcher asked me over lunch, and why do some get preferential treatment?  I and some other archive colleagues could only answer that it must be a result of building a rapport and trust with that archivist.  This is not how it should be, we should be offering equal access to all but how can we feasibly do that when we are curating exhibitions, cataloguing, accessioning, running outreach programmes and digitisation projects?  The divide between archive service professionals and researchers needs to narrow but the feasibility of this is still in question.

Aletia Badenhorst from Leeds Beckett University put it perfectly when she commented that:

Archives exist for two reasons: to document and to inspire.
Archivists are most concerned with the former and practitioners with the latter.

The British Library added another facet by commenting that creatives can make something new from archive, which researchers cannot, fitting in with something else that Badenhorst discussed.  She believes that the best way to keep an archive alive is to create new work inspired by it, not just a restaging.  This means that the archive is kept relevant and her statement that ‘Archives are boxes full of ideas’ was a really simple but dramatic way of showing the power of the material that we hold.  It is through this creativity that we can lift the archives out of the research room and put them in the public realm, as Kate Wheeler of The National Archive, put it.

Galway's cathedral

Paula McFetridge of Kabosh Productions, hit the nail on the head when she said that museums and archives hold objects but it is creatives who can give these objects a voice and bring them to life for a new audience.  I know well that archives exist to make material accessible and that if we don’t make it accessible, there isn’t much point in us keeping it.  But McFetridge’s comment takes this a step further and calls us to make our material the inspiration for new work, which will speak to new audiences and encourage engagement and appreciation of the subject matter.  I found this really interesting and I hope that we can use the National Theatre’s archive to inspire future generations of theatre makers.

For now, I am satisfactorily inspired and exhausted, next is to try to take these discussions and transform them into action…I have a funny feeling that this is just the beginning.  Thanks to all who worked to make 'Performing the Archive' conference such a wonderful experience!

A house in Galway city centre

Monday, 13 July 2015

Spirit of Place

Last week I attended a workshop on Spirit of Place for the Southbank Centre.  I attended as a representative from a neighbouring national performing arts institution alongside members of their staff and I wanted to note down some points that I found particularly interesting from the day.  I won't go into details on the workshop as it is a work in progress by the Southbank Centre but the principles of Spirit of Place were really interesting.

The National Trust uses Spirit of Place as a means to identify what is unique, distinctive and cherished about a site.  All of the National Trust sites are to write one in the next year as this will form the basis of strategies and projects.  If the Spirit of Place is set then all work that comes from that will be consistent and fit with the brand and thinking of that site.

Queen Elizabeth Hall 
It was really tough coming up with what was unique about the non-Royal Festival Hall section of the Southbank Centre.  Everyone knows that their site is unique and distinctive but actually putting your finger on the specific qualities that make them this way is pretty hard but we came up with a fair number of qualities from architecture to exhibits.

The Spirit of Place can then be used in decision making, held up as the standard to which everything must conform and it means that everyone is signed up to the same objective.  It isn't always something that you create but the Spirit of Place can be influenced by outside factors, those things that make you unique.  It can then be used to spark oral history projects or inspire artists to create new work.

A view of the NT I have never seen before
I began thinking about how useful it would be to have a Spirit of Place document for the NT.  It is something that is very helpful to have in place before a funding bid is made to ensure that all projects are coming from the same direction and appealing to the correct audiences.  A Spirit of Place statement would really help with the interpretation strategy for exhibitions, for example, and help inform the selection of exhibition topics going forward.  It sounds like a good multi-purpose statement and is a great way to get everyone thinking in a similar way about your institution.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

A Trip to the London Library

Today, reminiscent of my Cambridge trainee librarian days, I went on a trip to visit the London Library.  I have always wanted to visit and was intrigued about how large the building is, who uses it, how many books there are etc.  Amanda, Head of Member Services very kindly took our team round and answered all of my questions.

Entrance in Saint James' Sqaure

A blurry shot but you get the picture!
There over 1 million books in over 50 languages with an annual accrual of about 8,000 books with nothing going out of circulation.  Around 97% of the books are available to browse on open stacks and, my, aren't their stacks impressive!  To aid the circulation of air the floor is made up of very holy steel and there are rooms upon rooms of books to discover.  There are now several buildings housing the Library that sprawls back from St James' Square to meet Duke Street.

It was interesting to hear how the Library deals with incoming books and plans ahead for subject areas that they think will be popular in academic research.  The Library has its own classification scheme, which makes browsing very serendipitous with butterflies being shelved next to camels and houses next to human sacrifice.  Apparently members often come away with a whole load of books that they never expected to.  Occasionally they will need to create new classifications for modern subjects but they are slow and careful about this to ensure that no unnecessary disruption is caused to the shelving of the books.

They are planning another phase of their refurbishment, carried out by Haworth Tompkins, who are incidentally the NT architects for NT Future.  I could definitely see touches of HT throughout the London Library with their respect for original features and the need for light and functionality.  The Library has won RIBA National and London Region awards and Amanda was very proud that the building is being appreciated as an entity on its own.  The light well reading room in particular was a stunning space - I just wish I had had such a space when I was revising!

Some beautifully bound volumes of The Times

The most interesting space for me was...the toilets.  The Library, during its refurbishment, wished to bring in an artist to create a new work related to the Library, as many cultural institutions are wont to do.  Martin Creed took up the job and designed the toilets.  Each toilet has different fixtures and fittings eg. sink, toilet roll holder, taps etc. and the floors are mosaics of marble.  The colours in the marble are inspired by the different coloured book bindings and the layout reflects the serendipitous nature of browsing the shelves.

Lovely toilets
Finally, Amanda showed us their online catalogue, Catalyst, which allows you to search for a book and then view what is next to it on the shelf.  This is something that I remember discussing when I was on my traineeship and then on my Masters and it was great to see it in practice.  Members can browse these shelves from home and decide quickly and easily what it is they want to see as well as what else might be of interest without having to come to the Library.  They can then order the books to be ready on their arrival or, I discovered, be posted to them if they live more than 20 miles from London.  What a great service and a huge thanks to Amanda for taking us round and showing us snippets of the National Theatre in the Library.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Museums and Heritage Show Part 2

It's the end of day two at the Museums and Heritage Show and I have to say that I have come out feeling quite reassured that the NT is considering everything it should be!

The first talk of the day was a Q&A session on tech for newbies.  A rather broad topic, which quickly focused on Twitter and Instagram.  There was nothing particularly new to learn here but it was nice to know that I am doing it right.  At the NT the social media is the remit of a member of the Marketing team so I don't feel like I need to know for my working life but I do use it professionally and am always careful of that distinction.  What was interesting though was the level of engagement that you need to have in order to get the most out of it - it is a social platform and so you need to be sociable.  If you schedule tweets then who is there to manage replies and engage in that socialising with users?

There was a sector update on HLF, which was jolly interesting as someone from an institution currently coming to the end of an HLF grant and as someone who was not involved in the application process.  The Head of the Museums, Libraries and Archives department took away some of the fear that has been instilled in me about grant applications.

Another interesting programme animal

The talk from Historic Royal Palaces' Digital Producer was really refreshing.  I was expecting him to champion all kinds of fancy and expensive technology but it was quite to the contrary.  Very sensibly he spoke about identifying your audience and matching your technology to your content and audience.  Most of the HRP visitors are against having screens in their visit as they visit palaces to take a trip back in time and suspend their contemporary baggage.  Another really fascinating point was that you should consider who your competition is on the platform in question eg. if you create a game for your museum, you will be in competition for downloads from the likes of Angry Birds - can you really compete?  He asked, have you ever seen someone playing on a museum app on their commute?  Nope, so perhaps you should focus your efforts elsewhere.  Another great takeaway point was that you should be giving your visitors the best museum experience they have ever had, not the worst iPad one they have ever had.  Very valid point and refreshing to see someone in his position being honest about where digital does and does not work.

I was genuinely flummoxed by cyclists' parking decisions...

I also went to talks on entrepreneurship in independent museums as well as how to 'do' retail, which were not terribly on topic for the National but interestingly talked about the same ideas that have been recurring over the two days:

  • know your aims and objectives
  • identify your audience
  • identify your learning objectives
  • use tools that suit the above

I am glad to say that the NT has these bases covered and the past six months of working on a couple of exhibitions, a new physical exhibition space and digital exhibition platform have taught us their importance.  You could say that I've had a baptism of fire into the world of exhibitions but I am encouraged and enthused that I, together with our Learning, Digital, Marketing and Commercial departments, am on track and thinking through the same issues, challenges and solutions as the rest of the heritage professions!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Museums and Heritage Show Part 1

It is the end of day one of the Museums and Heritage Show and I am exhausted.  There is a jam packed schedule of talks and stalls to keep you stimulated all day long.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to reflect on some of the talks that I attended and flesh out some of the ideas that started to formulate as I sat predominantly on the floor of the lecture theatres.  I should preface this by saying that the National Theatre has just opened its first dedicated archive exhibition space front of house, the Lyttelton Lounge, and I have unexpectedly found myself deep in exhibition territory.

The first talk was on the choice between high tech and low tech exhibitions.  Although this was the topic of the talk, the focus was really on your interpretation of the subject area and how that should lead you to the decision of whether you need a high or low tech solution for your exhibition.  It hadn't occurred to me that I am an interpreter in that I help people to appreciate and explore theatre history - there is an Association of Heritage Interpretation, which I am sorry to say I hadn't heard of before.  A couple of the trustees were speaking and it was very interesting to hear the work they are doing to advocate interpretation as a profession in and of itself.  They are encouraging everyone to think about their exhibitions so that they are thematic (rather than fact based), organised (so that they are easy to follow for people who will be in 'leisure-mode'), relevant (personal and meaningful) and enjoyable.  Having just worked on two exhibitions, one purely digital and one both physical and digital, it is very helpful now to reflect on some of the questions that we should perhaps have asked ourselves before the whole process started.

One of the adorable programme animals

The second talk was on transforming thresholds.  I wasn't entirely sure what this meant before the talk but any ideas about how to improve visitor experience in terms of space and signage are always welcome.  The main thrust was that AHRC funded research has been carried out to look at how thresholds are used in museums and in what ways they can be made more effective.  In order to carry out this research, the team looked to three sectors, which are more used to considering threshold use: retail; gaming; and performance.

In retail there is a lot of focus on the threshold of a shop and trying to engage users from their first entry through the doors.  Gaming also considers thresholds in terms of the start of a game and how users can be educated in the rules, goals and size of the game.  The one that really stood out to me was the use of performance in the research.

Directors and actors need to consider the theatre space and where and when a performance is deemed to have started.  The research team decided to use 'invisible' performance, which is where a performance or rehearsals take place in public without those around being aware.  This took the form of actors embedding themselves in a threshold space and asking for information, going up stairs, reading signage and engaging with the space as a visitor is expected to do.  The research team had studied visitor flow prior to the 'performance' and visitors tended to get their heads down and walk through the space completely ignorant of the signage and features.  Once the visitors were mixed with actors they were far more likely to engage with material.  This suggests that people feel the need to be given permission, in a sense, to stop and engage.  I have spotted this in our Lyttelton Lounge where, if one person stops to read text, more people will be likely to.  This is particularly true of AV material or listening posts.  The next step is figuring out how to take this forward.  We are already considering how else we can advertise the digital aspect of our Lounge so that people are encouraged to hire an iPad or use their own device and perhaps the sense of permission and encouragement needs to be integrated into those plans.

The third talk I want to mention was on designing successful temporary exhibitions on a tight budget.  The budget of the exhibition being presented was actually fairly large in my opinion but the points were very valuable all the same!  I was pleasantly surprised to hear that we have approached the Lyttelton Lounge with many of the ideas expressed in this talk.  We have used large graphics to engage visitors instantly and in a cost effective way.  We have also made sure that the capital expenditure on shelving has resulted in a reusable and adaptable solution.  There was a big focus again on identifying the audiences and desired outcomes of an exhibition and this was repeated in several of the talks I attended, whether they be geared towards interpretation strategies, marketing or visitor engagement.

All in all, it was a very interesting day and I am looking forward to tomorrow, which promises to be more techy, starting with a feature on 'Tech for newbies'!