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:

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!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

New Management Skills

As a relatively new manager, I qualify to take part in the National's new management skills training programme.  The scheme is focused on providing new managers with coaching training as well as opportunities to gain insight into how some of the NT's managers manage their teams.  Last week we were lucky enough to get an hour of the Head of Commercial Operations' time and I wanted to set out some of the interesting points he raised here.

He had been asked to discuss leading a team as well as some specifics concerning running effective team meetings with agendas.  It was good to find out early on that he is the head of a department with 450 staff members - a tad larger than my team of 4.

Obligatory totally unrelated photos

Here are some of my favourite points, which I think I'll be carrying over to my own management:

Shared values

  • Identify shared values, sourced from the NT's mission statements, which, for Commercial Operations, will be people and money.
  • These shared values then form the basis of appraisals where each member of staff identify how they contribute to the shared values of the departments.  On the flip-side, the appraisal will also look at a person's personal objectives within their role.
  • These shared values are set out in all job descriptions.
  • Care is taken to maintain a path from the NT mission statements right down to the personal objectives so that staff feel part of the whole NT.

  • Encourage your staff to carry out peer reviews.  Let each identify the 5 things that they want people to think about them and then send these out using the likes of Survey Monkey to all those with whom they work often and want to help.  These are then graded anonymously and usually come back with better feedback than the staff expect.
  • Individuals can be encouraged to take leadership and control of their own areas and they will, therefore, feel greater ownership.
  • It can be useful to have a facilitator in a meeting, who allows everyone to have their own say, summarises points made, maintain pace and link diverse comments etc.
  • Encourage mystery visits to other institutions and welcome feedback about what a mystery visitor may think of the NT if they were to visit.  This way, everyone can self-evaluate and consider what would be best to improve the work of the department.
I found this a really useful opportunity to pick a far more experienced person's brains about how to deal with the challenges I face.  What surprised me was that there wasn't much that changed across departments - even though Commercial Operations is massive and got a very different mandate to the Archive, the skills and techniques are the same.  I am looking forward to putting some of the above into practice as my team grows.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Don't Risk It!

Last week saw the launch of the ARA's new campaign, Don't Risk It!  Know Your Records.  I went to the launch campaign to see what it was all about and how it might help us at the National, where we are taking a good look at our records management strategy.

The campaign has been designed by the ARA Section for Records Management and Information Governance, who are the professionals who work with records management on a daily basis and are perfectly poised to advise the rest of the ARA on best practice.  The launch event was really an introduction to the aims and toolkit as well as some case studies.

Importantly, the key messages are simple:

1. There are significant benefits and economies for organisations which manage their records and information well.
2. Organisations with poor (or no) record keeping systems are risking a great deal - legally and reputationally.
3.  Professionals records managers are highly skilled, organisational problem-solvers.  Modern, successful organisations need their skills.

A presentation from a records manager of the Bank of England showed the way records management can work in a very stream-lined manner.  But, the National Theatre is nothing like the BofE and it is tricky to pick and choose what will suit my institution.  Having had a look at the toolkit, there are activities and advice for all shapes and sizes of institutions and it has been kept deliberately broad.  I am hoping that there will be some information there to help and opportunities to network with those in similar positions.

One of the overarching themes of the day was that of communication.  I have long said that what we need at the NT is a good working relationship between the Archive and each and every department in order to build trust and understanding in what we do.  Only then will we be able to set up a working records management strategy and ensure that we receive what we need to.  This is just one of the three skills outlined as necessary in a records manager: technical and legal skills are also required.

I am working on writing our records management strategy at the moment and am looking forward to putting it into action in the next few months.  It will not be as complicated as it could be, we do not currently come under FOI and we do not have the compliance restrictions on us that banks and financial institutions do but we have to work with the cultural archive material as well as the records required for records management.  We will need to wait and see how my plans work when put into action!

Monday, 14 July 2014

A trip to to the North

Last week APAC had its first event since I became secretary and we headed up to Leeds.  Here we visited two very beautiful and very different theatres: City Varieties Music Hall and The Grand Theatre and Opera House.  

City Varieties Music Hall
The former, the scene for ‘The Good Old Days’ through the 1950s to 1980s, has recently reopened after a huge HLF funded refurbishment.  Painstaking effort has been put into recreating the theatre as it would have been in the early 1900s with wooden velvet-covered seats, gas lamps now powered by electricity and a painted ceiling.  One of the most interesting additions has been the soundscape, which the Learning department has designed to recreate the atmosphere back in the days when thousands of people piled into this small theatre after a day in the mines.  It really does give a different perspective to the silence of theatre that we are so used to nowadays.  Apparently school groups are particularly appreciative as it transforms the static theatre into the hive of activity it used to be.  

We then moved over to the Grand Theatre, which has also been undergoing a refurbishment with original tiles uncovered throughout the theatre.  This is a far more ‘grand’ affair and, what struck me in particular, was how much more space there was in both of the theatres compared to the West End theatres I am used to in London.  There you can get quite severe vertigo if you are in the cheap seats at the top.  Here, however, the rake of seating is far more smooth and there is impressive leg room as the taller among us noted!

Grand Theatre
The highlight of the day was really meeting the volunteers, who have been assisting the Learning team with the Archive for the past 3 years.  The volunteers were recruited through the West Yorkshire Archive Service.  A few of the volunteers spoke about their projects and why they are so enjoying the experience.  They exchange skills and learn new ones while working on a subject that they are all passionate about, whether they are theatre goers or practitioners.  A particularly interesting point was that they are able to work on the collections to much greater detail than a paid member of staff would be able to do.  This really struck me as we are all pressed for time and have limited resources in terms of staff and yet here are volunteers relishing the opportunity really to blitz collections to item level.  Meeting this hardy group of volunteers showed the benefits of having long-term volunteers, who come in for a short period of time per week.  At the NT, we run short full-time volunteer opportunities for those wishing to undertake the MA in Archives.  I think we should really consider how we could benefit a slow and steady approach alongside this.  

Something else that was interesting was that the archive came under the Learning department's jurisdiction, as it does at the NT.  In Leeds, however, the Learning department were presented with a disordered archive which had not been catalogued or used at all and it fell to the Learning staff to make the most of it.  This is a different perspective to the NT where the Archive was not always part of Learning but has sat in the Directors' office and under the General Manager before finally coming to rest in its current home.  In Leeds, they are using the archive for all kinds of outreach activities and this is the focus of their approach to the cataloguing.  It is really helpful to see which departments other archives are linked to and see what sort of relationships we can forge at the NT.  I'd like our work to more linked to the Learning syllabus and, as there is enthusiasm on both sides, hopefully we'll get this happening soon!

I also went to the Coronation Street set in Manchester!
In other news:

I have made the step up to Archivist of the NT and am getting to grips with a permanent position and the thrill of being able to plan further ahead then a few months!

I have been seeing so much theatre that I shock myself.  Surprisingly, I am not getting saturated with it but I am actually getting better at being in the audience.  When I moved to London, going to the theatre was quite difficult for me, I found it hard to concentrate for that long a period without doing other things.  Now, I am finding it easier to switch off and appreciate what I am seeing for what it is.  I have had a run of pretty good shows and I am beginning to sprinkle my usual NT serving with some West End shows and fringe theatre to get quite a cross section of London’s offering.  I’m basically still in awe of anyone who can remember a whole script and deliver it in front of an audience!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The minefield that is copyright

On Thursday I took a trip down memory lane and went to Cambridge for an ARA training day in copyright.  My knowledge in copyright is probably better than the layman but certainly not of the level of a head of an archive department so I was looking forward to some clarification.

I visited St John's just after the storm

The infamous Tim Padfield took the morning training and he certainly is a font of knowledge all things rights related.  If only I could put him in my pocket and produce him at meetings with the digital and broadcast departments!  I'll definitely be buying his book though.  The copyright amendments coming into place on 1st June 2014 will make quite a difference to what we do at the NT and I'm glad I've had some guidance on them.

I'm in Fife and spent yesterday on the beautiful Isle of May
I've got quite a to do list as a result of the day ranging from checking over what is written in every contract we write to new copyright declaration forms; one for NT copyright materials and one for third party copyright materials.  Having discussed the topic with some friends in the film industry last night, I am set in my opinion that this is an absolute minefield but it is my job to understand the issues raised in my own collection and to flag those concerns to those wishing to use the collection.  I think I have some work to do to convey how serious copyright infringement could be for the NT.  One speaker yesterday described the copyright infringement case that he has experienced as an archivist for a local authority and it is not a situation in which I ever wish to be!

A razorbill up close and personal with no zoom
Churchill College was hosting us and gave us an impromptu tour of their reading room and strong rooms.  It was all very interesting, especially the glow in the dark labels they use for their important shelves for the benefit of the fire brigade in disaster recovery (all the more important following the tragic events at the Glasgow School of Art this weekend).  We also got to see Margaret Thatcher's handbag in a purpose-built archival storage and display box with drawer for handbag contents.  She used Estee Lauder.  Churchill allow digital photography in they reading room as do many of the other record offices represented yesterday and I am keen to follow up on this.  Although I obviously see the benefits, I am loathed to allow fans to photograph every piece of paper in the prompt script and costume bible of 'Frankenstein' (2011) that might have been touched by Benedict Cumberbatch.

My furry friend 
All in all, I now have my work cut out to get up to speed and make sure that the service we are providing is as copyright secure as it can feasibly be - a worthy cause I think!

Other news

I have now tried Birthday Cake M&Ms courtesy of Erin...interesting to say the least.