Saturday, 7 April 2018

What is scenography anyway?

Yesterday I attended my first TaPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association) event: the Scenography Working Group's interim event at the V&A. This was focusing on scenography in exhibition and the museum.

As someone very new to the term scenography, I had asked for advice from a colleague beforehand. I understand it to be a broader definition of theatre design encompassing performance design, architecture and theatrical environments. I was in good company, though, as several conversations throughout the day returned to the difficulty in defining scenography and  the problems that this causes in the UK and internationally, where the definition differs widely.

A beautifully sunny day viewed from the Sackler building
Leaving that to the side as we came to no conclusion, I found the day very interesting with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds very different to my own. How to exhibit scenography was discussed but there was more of a focus on how scenography is used in exhibition design. The importance of visitors to a museum being activated spectators, on a journey through the exhibition was discussed with a fascinating paper from Meg Cunningham, a PhD student studying theme parks and how whole worlds can be built through schenography. We also looked at the integral nature of viscerally experiencing what is in an exhibition to truly understand it and empathise with the subject matter, as Kathy Sandys presented on with her York bunkers project and Matt Edwards with his work on museums commemorating the Holocaust.

There was overwhelming agreement that exhibitions and theatre are coming closer together particularly with the current enthusiasm for immersive theatre experiences where the audience are free to roam around as they are free to do in an exhibition. Museums are increasingly curating exhibitions to immerse the visitors more and more in the content. There was a key note from the curator and designer of the recent V&A Opera: Power, Passion and Politics exhibition. The two designers from Curious Space, are theatre designers and used a theatre creative team to help them create the exhibition.

While we don't have the freedom, scale and budget of a lot of the exhibitions discussed, the NT can still take away some really useful thoughts on engaging the audience, using materials to inspire the design and exposing the process of theatre production.

Eleanor Margolies, one of the current Jocelyn Herbert post-doctoral research fellows with us (blog about her work), and I presented on the NT Archive, Jocelyn Herbert's collection and how you manage materials that were created in the process of a production that was never realised. It was a great opportunity to be able to share the work of the Archive with the audience of academics, scneographers and curators. It is really important to me to speak to this mixed audience about the importance of collaboration between academics, practitioners and archivists to ensure that we are documenting as much as we can of theatre process to secure material for future research.

This was a really useful and interesting forum and I look forward to engaging more with the TaPRA network.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Embracing the Unknown

This week I have been lucky enough to attend two events outside of my usual subject area. The first was the Theatre and Performance Design Pedagogy conference curated by UAL. I attended the first day at the Barbican and, while the subject matter was a little dense for me at times, I learned a lot about the future of theatre design teaching for students or, rather, the unidentified future.

Several of the speakers touched on the uncertainty of direction in theatre design, particularly in the digital world with the likes of iPhones, Google Tilt Brush and virtual reality. The keynote speaker, Prof. Rolf Hughes of Newcastle University, posed the question: how do we prepare our students for futures we currently lack the imagination to foresee? While I am sure this has always been an issue for teachers, the transformation of culture and technology has made this a lot harder in recent years.

I attended the session on Digital Design with three speakers from across Europe. The debate around virtual reality that ensued was of particular interest to me. We have an Immersive Storytelling Studio at the NT, dedicated to examining how new technologies can affect how we tell stories. So when Peter Missotten from the Faculty of Arts, Maastricht claimed that VR will be dead in 2 years I was pretty surprised. Joris Weijdom of University of the Arts Utrecht picked up the gauntlet and advocated for the importance of 'mixed reality' - mapping real life to a virtual reality experience eg. experiencing a virtual reality experience but touching and engaging with real life objects mapped to the visuals in the headset. I am sure there is a much better way of expressing this than I have just done but it made complete sense to marry the real and virtual environments to maximise the creative experience.

Sometimes I can feel like we get carried away with new technology and chase projects that may not necessarily provide us with the best experiences. This quote was flashed up at one point and it really resonated with me at the end of the day:

'We are stuck with technology when what we really want is stuff that works.' (Douglas Adams)

The conference left me with more questions than it answered but there was the age old thread of the need for collaboration between sectors for example directors, designers and actors and with academics and archivists. It seems that every conference I go to ends with this suggestion!

Flat Time House in Peckham

The next event I attended was about the Southwark Educational Research Project (SERP), which is being reactivated by Peckham Platform. Based in the Flat Time House, the former house of the artists who started the SERP project, the event was a chance to hear from the artists Barbara Steveni and Barby Asante, curator and academic Ben Cranfield and the two archivists working on Barbara's archive, Victoria Lane and Judy Vaknin. It was fascinating to hear about SERP, which ran 1989-1995, and about the introduction of the national curriculum, spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher.

An area I knew nothing of, it was great to hear about how the SERP archive is being used by Barby to encourage students to question their education and curriculum, pushing their horizons and creating an education 'in the round'. This holistic approach was the aim of SERP and speaks directly to the current debates around STEM and STEAM education. It will be interesting to see if any of the outputs of this project will or can inform the government's current thinking around the arts in education.

Flyer for all of the activity around the SERP archive in the next month
A few of the other gobbets of information that will be making me think over the next few days are:
  • most artists do not create work with their archives in mind. Some do and this is self-conscious archiving, an interesting concept in itself
  • the current problematic embrace of the archive as capital, which is driven by funding bodies. If organisations are wanting to grab their archives, who are they doing it for and why and what will the legacy of that be?
  • to go and have a look for the Felicity Allan article 'Situating Gallery Education' at Tate
  • it is difficult to organise an archive of things that were never meant to be archived....rings a bell with performing arts archives!
This was a really interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon and opened my eyes to the amount of work that is going on out there in archives and communities, which we can so readily tap into and learn from. I hope this project goes from strength to strength and I look forward to seeing their Tate Exchange event on the 17th-22nd April.

The events this week have helped me to get some perspective on my work and put performing arts archiving in context. There is still so much to learn and people and projects to learn from that I feel quite invigorated and empowered this Saturday evening!

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Role of Digital Reproduction in Cultural Heritage

On 8th December, the ReACH (Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage) declaration was launched at the V&A. On the following day I attended a morning conference on the practical applications of digital reproductions in heritage preservation, part of the Culture in Crisis series at the V&A. Before this I hadn't heard about ReACH but many of the contributors were part of the team working on this project.

ReACH is a response to Henry Cole's 1867 declaration 'Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of all Museums of all Countries' to mark its 150th anniversary. Cole had great foresight when he called for sharing of copies between organisations and this was a theme at the conference. We heard that museums need to move from being a treasury to a platform for ideas and have to be more open to the idea of sharing. A museum should be an agora of knowledge. Stefan Simon from the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage spoke about the need to view collections as cultural heritage and not as culture property: cultural heritage is made by people, through people and for people.

The talks throughout the morning really focussed on how people can use digital reproductions and what value they have in their own right. Historic Environment Scotland shared their innovative digital technology used to educate school children about life on the Antonine Wall and to repatriate a copy of a Roman sandstone tablet to where it was uncovered in Bo'ness. People were very much the focus of these digital reproductions and they have a value of their own to these communities.

Director of Digital Technology at Thomas's School in Clapham, Faye Ellis, spoke to us about her work in using digital technology in the classroom such as Google Tilt Brush, virtual reality headsets and 3D modelling and printing. We were blown away by the amount of technology available to these children and how well the staff are integrating technology into their syllabus. They face some issues with the accuracy of 3D models of museum artifacts as they are not necessarily created by an official source. These models can also be very expensive to download and there was a call to museums to provide historically accurate models for children to experiment with. This is a private school with hefty fees and there is still a very long way to go to get technology into the classrooms of all children regardless of their background. Better links are required between musuems and heritage organisations and teachers on their training courses to ensure that this sort of learning becomes more mainstream.

The final speaker was a co-founder of the recently launched Smartify app, Anna Lowe, which looks like it could make trips to museums a very different experience indeed. This free app lets you snap a piece of art and instantly find out its story. The team have partnered with 35 leading museums all round the world to launch with an impressive bank of data. Anna commented that more than ever, technology is changing our grasp and interpretation of reality and we need to adapt to this. Currently the art works will be accompanied by the museum text that you would read on the wall label but there is appetite to include alternative interpretations with particular slants eg. feminist or for children. They really want to move people away from using their phones merely to take selfies in the gallery and towards using them as devices for engagement.

All of these speakers served to demonstrate how useful digital reproductions can be well beyond the access and preservation mantra that we all know. It will be interesting to see the knock on effects of this declaration and how these take hold in museums and heritage organisations across the world. I for one will be staying tuned to their website and hoping for more events in future.

In an unrelated note, I got an early Christmas present when my Accreditation plaque arrived this morning!

Saturday, 25 November 2017

NT Archive awarded Accredited status

It was announced this week that the National Theatre Archive has been awarded Accredited status by The National Archives. This is something that I have been working towards for three and a half years and I cannot tell you how excited and relieved I am that we have passed!

Accreditation is the national standard for archives and recognises good practice in terms of governance of the service, collections management and providing access to stakeholders. It also recognises stability in forward planning and budgeting to ensure the long term preservation of assets.

The standard has been a really useful tool for improving documentation of workflows and processes in the Archive and for writing policies and strategy plans. I have enjoyed getting the house in order and am relieved that knowledge of the collections and our processes are no longer tied up in certain staff members' heads.

The NT is really excited to be the 100th service to be accredited and the first archive in a theatre to be recognised with the award. The process has raised the profile of the Archive within the organisation (we even got a press release and dedicated tweets from each of our archive team members!). I am hoping to use our new status to continue to advocate internally and externally for the wonderful collections and service that we provide.

Before I embark on a new big piece of work on digital preservation I am going to take a moment to appreciate how far we have come and celebrate our achievement!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Business Archives Council Conference

Yesterday was the annual Business Archives Council conference, held at the Harper Collins offices in the News Building. The location was fabulous, with stunning views of London on three sides of the conference venue - it definitely felt like I was more in the corporate world than usual!

I usually really enjoy business archives events as they are a chance to get out of the theatre bubble and network with people working in other businesses. Archivists who represent businesses are typically very enthusiastic about their jobs and passionate about their brand and a joy to speak to!

View from the conference venue over the whole of London

There were many types of business archives represented from the Wellcome to GSK to John Lewis and many themes cropped up throughout the day. I have a few takeaways to consider and thought I'd list them out here with some context:

- the presentation from the Wellcome touched on using techniques and vocabulary form other sectors to help with their library transformation. They are considering what the minimum viable product is for archival description - what needs to be included to meet researchers' expectations? This is an unusual way to look at the issue but one that would ensure satisfaction for the researcher while allowing for accurate resource allocation to the project

- the Wellcome are now collecting in a format agnostic way - makes a lot of sense and I feel like this needs to become more common - we need to be breaking down the distinction between paper and digital while appraising 

- the Wellcome staff also touched on a topic close to my heart - the routes into the profession. They are beginning to mix their teams far more with librarians, archivists and documentation officers all working alongside. They encouraged us to focus on people's backgrounds and experience rather than their qualification in order to match the breadth of skills required to be an archivist these days

- Elizabeth Lomas of UCL talked about the need to weigh up the benefits of digital assets with duplication and sharing and the negatives such as hacking and corruption. Will there ever be an original record in the digital world?

- Mary Rutherford from GSK talked about how materials have gone from paper to digital, personal to impersonal, informal to controlled and from bulky paper to big data. What are the knock on effects for appraising digital assets? Her colleague, Chris Campbell went further, posing the question - do we keep everything or nothing?

- I was particularly interested in the presentations on the collaborative projects between universities and business archives. A project between University of Liverpool and Barclays Group has embedded a PhD student in the corporate archive to understand the structure and constraints on archive services. For the university this sort of research grows archival science as a research discipline, promotes knowledge transfer and extends links with the professional community. For Barclays, they have an extra staff member, can evidence commitment to local community and are identified as a site of professional excellence

- Margaret Proctor, speaking on the above project, outlined the positives as aligning with strategic objectives of both partners, creating practical outputs and building on and developing already existing relationships. The negatives can be the interdisciplinary nature of the research with changing aims and research team assumptions and also the difficulty of recruiting suitable candidates

- Judy Faraday from John Lewis spoke passionately about the role of the business archivists in serving the truth as well as ensuring that there is no repetitional damage to the organisation. She encouraged us to know what is on the business agendas and find out how we can serve that purpose. This can make the archive more sustainable as the business value of the archive is evidenced

There was certainly a lot of food for thought and I will be considering our digital assets in a slightly different light. I am also interested in pursuing the idea of collaborative academic work with the business archive rather than necessarily with the cultural archive. It is always useful to step outside of the theatre archive sphere and meet others in the wider sector to get informed and inspired.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

DocPerform2 Conference

DocPerform is a research project based at City, University of London, focussed on the concept of documenting performance in all its guises. The audience was very mixed and quite different to the theatre archive audience I am used to - there were more academics, students and practitioners than I was expecting, which provided rich networking and discussion opportunities.

I presented a paper on the work of the NT Archive, the challenges we face with future technologies, gaps in the collections and how we are collaborating with colleagues in New Work to ensure that the Archive is as involved in theatre-making as we can be. My own research focuses on the documentation of performance: what, how and why. This was an excellent forum in which to air my initial thoughts from my research and they were very well received. A lot of what we are working on at the NT touched on the main themes of the conference, which were to look at documentation of new technologies and of intangible things like emotions and relationships.

One of the phrases that recurred throughout the two days was 'embedded archivist', which is the idea of having an archivist or documentation enthusiast in the rehearsal room. They would encourage the documentation of that production. This is easier than it sounds and we had a discussion around the real and/or perceived limiting factors of documentation on the creative process. There is the constant issue of deciding what should be documented without affecting the creative process itself. And would an embedded archivist be a better fit than a practitioner who knows the value of documentation? Should we not be focussing our time and effort into improving the relationship between archivists, academics and practitioners in order to ensure the safeguarding of performing arts materials for the future?

Several questions kept coming up throughout the conference and are really useful for considering as an archivist:
  • what are we documenting?
  • who are we documenting it for?
  • from whose perspective are we documenting?
Sometimes we can get too caught up in capturing what we have always captured that we forget the importance of knowing who it is for and how it will be used in the future.

The second day of the conference was more focussed on where documentation is going in the future. We heard a lot about filming of performances and it became clear that we need to become more digitally literate in terms of digital content. This is particularly important as we become swamped with data - there is no longer the issue of not having enough content left over form a production but of too much. The necessity will be around curation of content rather than just collecting it.

The conference definitely threw up some thought-provoking questions and I could see a promising start to collaborative thinking across the sectors. On the way home that night I saw the below mosaic...I definitely love what I do, particularly when I can see the enthusiasm and dedication of those in my sector and beyond to document the performing arts.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Creative Role of Research

I attended the launch of the Creative Role of Research yesterday at King's College London. This report has been written using case studies on the impact of research beyond academia that were provided by universities in REF2014. The aim was to understand the relationship between all fields of research and their impact within the creative and cultural sector.

I have previously attended a workshop at KCL on how to improve research undertaken by academics in partnership with cultural organisations and we are actively looking into the idea of research at the NT and what that could look like for us. So I was very interested in attending the launch of this report as the starting point for discussions into how to make the relationships between academics and cultural organisations more fruitful for both parties.

The morning launch comprised of talks about how the report was compiled, how the narrative case studies were interrogated for data and what the findings can tell us. It is now widely accepted that academic research is useful beyond the production of knowledge and a few main headlines came out for me:

1. the impact case studies mostly involved relationships with the public. Public engagement is a major new area for universities so cultural organisations and universities are now all on the same page
2. research in all academic disciplines led to outputs in the creative and cultural sector
3. cultural partners tended to come from London and national or international organisations - there was a lack of regional partnerships

A panel discussion provided an opportunity to hear from academics and cultural organisations, including Complicite, about how embedded research can benefit both sides as well as provide challenges.

There was a conversation around the very idea of 'impact' and trying to measure it, which is something that any organisation with Arts Council funding will appreciate. As people in the arts should we not be trying to create a new language in which to evaluate our work rather than relying on science to do it for us? One audience member asked if we are devaluing the arts further by deferring to science for evaluation. A more positive way to think about this was proposed, which is to turn the negativity of being reticent or defensive about funding cuts in the arts and academia into a positive and create a new language around cultural collaboration, leadership in the arts and how we can evidence this.

It was obvious that this report will raise more questions than it answers and so there is a lot of work now to be done to analyse the findings and consider where the work with cultrual partners can go form here. I am really looking forward to reading the report, which can be downloaded here and seeing what I can learn from it for my work.