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'!

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!