Friday, 22 July 2016

The Value of Volunteers

The APAC Annual Symposium 2016 was held on 4th July at Bristol Old Vic.  We were very lucky to have the run of the theatre, which is currently undergoing renovations for its 250th anniversary.  The Old Vic is the oldest continuously running theatre in the UK and it was a fantastic experience to have a symposium based there.

We kicked off the day with a heritage tour of the building, which was led by a long-standing member of staff who knew every nook and cranny of the building.  It was fascinating to hear his passion for the theatre and how the Old Vic has become so ingrained in the community of Bristol.  They are currently working on an HLF funded refurbishment of their front of house spaces to make them more accessible, comfortable and to return visitors to the experience that their Georgian counterparts would have had.  To do this, the Old Vic is partnering with the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and the Bristol Records Office, both of which hold records on the theatre, and using volunteers extensively to piece together the heritage of the building.

Our tour guide, Andrew
This was an excellent backdrop for a day looking at the value of volunteers in the performing arts archive and museum world.  We had decided to run the day on the topic of volunteers because this is something that affects most of our members, whether they are volunteering themselves or managing a volunteer programme or considering how they could use volunteers to help with their work.  Many funding bodies now require a certain level of engagement with volunteers, for example, HLF is insisting that the Bristol Old Vic project attract a certain number of volunteers and that they come from a background of no or low engagement with heritage or theatre.  So it is a hot topic and one that can easily slip through the net of conferences or symposia.

A pretty nice place to have a symposium!
The first speaker, Eleanor Moore, was a great introduction to the topic as she works for the South West Museum Development and is focused on how to create sustainable volunteering programmes.  She could tell us straightaway where to go to find guidelines on best practice for volunteers and outlined really clearly what the benefits are for volunteers of different ages and how you can appeal to them when recruiting.  One particularly interesting point was that inter generational groups of volunteers work really well.  This is something that I have not tried and I would be really interested to experiment with.

Eleanor split volunteers broadly into three categories.  Those seeking:

  • Achievement - they will enjoy something project based with tangible outcomes
  • Affiliation - they will appreciate being part of your institution and team or community
  • Power - they will respond to being given responsibility

I found this really interesting to consider as I tend to fit the volunteer to the project rather than the other way round but it would be far more beneficial to consider the individual and what they would enjoy working on and respond well to.  Eleanor mentioned the necessity to set clear outcomes for volunteers, to make sure that they know what they are contributing and why and what they should expect to learn.  I usually try to do this but find that it can easily get lost in the day to day business.  I am intending to work with my new Archive Assistant, who will manage the volunteering programme, on this to ensure that our volunteers have a really valuable experience with us.  HLF has published some volunteering good practice, which can be found here.

There are conserved benches on either side of the top level in the theatre, which now
have no view of the stage but have been retained to show the audience what it
would have been like to come here in the 18th century
The rest of the symposium was spent hearing about various places' volunteering programmes, either in the planning, implementation or completion phases.  Some of the interesting points that came out were:

  • At Bristol Old Vic, all of the Front of House staff now have heritage training so that they can answer enquirers from the public.  This is a fantastic idea as they are on the front line and can't always refer people to the Archive!
  • Catherine White from City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds pointed out that as a volunteer manager, you are a facilitator, not there to boss them around.  We should be grateful for their time and dedication and work with them.
  • Inviting volunteers to all staff briefings or team meetings will let them feel included and part of something larger than their own project.  This is great for morale and for giving them an insight into the profession if they are considering taking up further training.
There was a lot more of note during the day but too much to write here.  I thoroughly enjoyed the symposium, espeically once I knew that it was going to go smoothly.  It is the first symposium that I have organised and it is always stressful when everything is on your shoulders.  The Old Vic and Theatre Collection teams were wonderful and made sure that the day went without hitch.  We are hoping to make a return visit in a few years to see the refurbishment complete!  In the meantime, I think that a lot of us will be returning to our collections and coming up with ideas on how to engage more volunteers in better and more fulfilling ways.  Now we know that there is a lot of documentation on best practice and a massive network of colleagues to call on, who are running amazing projects, there is nothing stopping us!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

M&S and ITV Archives - a jolly day out

A few weeks ago I organised a trip to Leeds for the Archive Trainees group and we visited the M&S company archive and ITV's archive. I took the opportunity to visit contacts at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Ballet too and it was a great day for seeing the attraction of the north and the collaborative nature of work outside of London.

The lovely Leeds train station

At the M&S Archive, a group of around 20 trainees were given an introduction to the company archive and a fantastic insight into how a business archive works alongside a permanent exhibition space and being open to researchers.  They have a partnership with the University of Leeds, on whose campus they are based, which allows them to facilitate research and student research, which sounded like a really productive and healthy relationship.

A lovely board in the exhibition inviting public responses to M&S

One idea that I really loved was that there are archive ambassadors throughout M&S, who advocate for good record keeping in all areas of the company.  This is so useful when the archive team is obviously relatively small compared to the whole of M&S and not located in the head office.  The Archive also runs really interesting programmes working with dementia patients where they use their archive of clothes and related items to spark memories from their past and they also work with schools using virtual classrooms and on-site visits.

A beautiful collage of store fronts displayed alphabetically
by town, shown in the exhibition area

It was really helpful to hear why they archive what they do and what areas of their collection they are missing items, especially in men's clothing.  I was fascinated by all of the technological records that they hold as M&S has been heavily involved in innovation in food and clothing technology.  I would never have thought of this and was thrilled to hear that this is available to research.

We paid a visit to Dusty Bin, oh and ITV
The trip to the ITV Archive was very interesting as the Archive has come into existence as a result of rights management requirements.  This is a different approach to many archives and the group was blown away by the complexity of the rights management situation and how integral it was that this information was looked after.  The tour of the stores was fantastic, there are so many tapes and formats of film!

Just a shot of some reels...
The stores had unfortunately been affected by the Boxing Day flooding in Leeds and they were in the process of fitting an early flood detection unit and new flooring.  It was interesting to hear about a disaster recovery process and get a handle on just how long this sort of process takes.  It was surprising to hear that there is less focus on heritage at ITV than on rights management to make content available.  They are not open to the public for research and so this visit was really useful for showing the trainees how different every archive can be.

I suppose that the best thing about the trip to Leeds was the very fact that these sorts of trips are possible.  I organise around 4 to 6 events for the Archive Trainees group a year, we are an informal group focused on providing visits, talks and networking opportunities for those thinking about joining the archive profession.  We visit many archives and many of the course directors come in to speak with the trainees and volunteers to give them a better sense of how to get into this profession.  Our next trip will be to the Parliamentary Archives in August and, as the group organiser, I am in the lucky position of being able to tag along.  We really are very lucky to be working in a sector where people are so willing to open up their archives to help educate others and welcome like-minded individuals in to discuss the challenges and opportunities our work throws up.

Friday, 17 June 2016

'Reading the Digital Theatre Archive'

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a symposium held by Central Scool of Speech and Drama focusing on the Abbey Theatre's digitisation project led by NUI Galway.  Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, gave the lecture Reading the Digital Theatre Archive: New Approaches to the Abbey Theatre 1904-2014 and took us through what has been digitised and what research can now be done using these collections.  It has taken three years to get to the completion of the digitisation and only now are the team beginning to look at research possibilities, and there are many.

While I was attending the NUI Galway conference Performing the Archive around this time last year I heard the Archivist and her team at the Abbey speak about the archive-side of the project so it was particularly interesting to hear an academic's view on how the collections can now be used.  The Abbey Theatre digital archive is available for use at NUI Galway's John Hardiman Library and the university have just announced a second large digitisation project with the Gate Theatre in Dublin.  This is really putting NUI Galway on the map for Irish theatre academia.

NUI Galway campus

The data that can be extrapolated from these collections is far-reaching but Patrick focused in on gender studies to show how looking at the history of an institution can help inform the present and future.  The Abbey is currently marking the anniversary of the Easter Rising with a project called Waking the Nation, which has had backlash from the public concerning the gender imbalance in programming, sparking the Waking the Feminists movement.  Patrick used this as a springboard from where he jumped into his data sets to look at the engagement that the Abbey has had historically with female writers, authors and actors.  It made for a fascinating hour of graphs, tables and comparisons.

I found one model of research around a production very interesting, I think sourced from Richard Knowles book Reading the Material Theatre (2004):


This model shows the context required when studying a production and this network is the sort of thing that I try to get across in Archive inductions, particularly with people who aren't used to using archives and are unaware of the relevance to studies.  Looking at part of a production such as the recording, is only a small part of a much larger picture surrounding the staging of the play.

I was particularly interested in what Patrick had to say about theatre archives being huge data sets showing how theatres have performed over long periods of time.  They can reflect their community and can use their status to perform within society and to make statements about their situation.  This is particularly pertinent for a national theatre, like the NT.  Our National Theatre is 53 years old and it is really interesting to look at what is in the Archive and what we are archiving now to see what story we are preserving and what other voices we should be capturing for those historians of the future.

One thought that I came away with was a bit of a 'keeping up with the Joneses' - an awareness that if research of this sort could be done with the Abbey's collection, which is termed the national theatre of Ireland, then I need to be ready for researchers expecting the same access to our National Theatre's collections.  While this information is in our collections, really how accessible is it to researchers and how do they know what sort of work they can conduct in the Archive?  It was really good food for thought as I plan and prioritise future projects for my team.


Thursday, 2 June 2016

Reflecting on Registration

I am in the middle of bringing all of my registration credits together and polishing them off with the aim of submitting my portfolio in October.  I have been working on my portfolio for a year and a half with work that stretches back to the start of 2013 when I became Archive Manager at the NT.

I thought that this would be a good time to reflect on the process of reflecting that is registration.  Firstly, I know that there is a new registration system being implemented already and I don't intend to write about what is wrong with the old one, I want to write about how I've found it going through the stages of the registration process.

There have been various stages to it and I'll list them out:

1. Finding a mentor
This was harder than I expected as I wanted to meet someone in my area, who had had experience of the sector I am in and who was willing to give up the time to read through my portfolio.  Thankfully I found Penny, who has been a brilliant sounding board for my credits and never shies away from telling me if what I've written isn't quite right.

2. Writing about yourself
I have really, really struggled to make my credits about me and not about my job or my institution. It is tough to write about why you undertook some training for professional development and not just say that work wanted you to go. It has been a learning curve to identify my personal motivation behind many of my credits and it has helped me to identify areas of my job that I prefer to others.



3. Identify learning outcomes
Sometimes it can be hard to appreciate what outcomes a project has had.  We don't often get the time in our professional lives to take a step back and really look at what went well and what didn't and what we have personally learned from it.  My outcomes have varied greatly from building my network of peers and clarity of vision for my career to appreciating the learning styles of my staff and being a better listener.

4. Balance your outcomes
As I near the end of writing my credits, I have now written up 13 credits and I require 12, I wanted to ensure that I had a balanced portfolio with a range of learning outcomes.  I didn't want too narrow a portfolio as that does not show breadth of learning but I also didn't want too broad a portfolio as then my credits may not interconnect or reference each other in a way that builds a stronger portfolio.  I think that I have quite a good spread and I'll use my outcomes plot to decide which credit to ditch.



5. Finding evidence
Today I have been spending a lot of time trawling through old email folders trying to locate pieces of evidence to support each credit.  I have managed to find 3 pieces of evidence for each credit, which should stand me in good stead but it has been really difficult to think of hard evidence of the work I do - I know I've achieved things but 'evidence' has to be one A4 page and that is sometimes hard to come by.  The guidance suggests that you include the agenda or delegate list from events or articles or speeches that you have written.  Emails showing discussions on topics relevant to the credit are also useful and I have included some blog posts and webpages.  I hope I am on the right track with this...

This post makes it look a bit like there are 5 easy steps to writing your portfolio but it is quite a time-consuming process.  I do feel like it has been a positive one though, which made me think about my progress far more in personal terms than institutional.  I now appreciate that my development is important not just to myself but to my work as well and I am keen to see what the ARA have up their sleeve for continuing professional development beyond registration.  I will be glad when I have completed registration so that I can move on to accreditation for my archive service, but I have enjoyed the challenge of reflecting intensely on my personal development however uncomfortable I have found it.

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!