Saturday, 17 November 2012

Archivists: you are not toxic!

It takes guts to present on communication and charisma but Marie Owens, ARA Head of Public Affairs did just that and it was jolly interesting. The basics of communication are pretty basic: think through what your message is; appeal to people's interests; don't sound boring; be clear etc.etc. Moira raised some interesting points, such as that the Queen is one of the best communicators around (how good is her public persona?!) and yet she never actually speaks in public other than to say 'Hello...that's did you do that...' Communication is a lot more than words, it also depends on the message, the audience and the atmosphere.

When it comes to communication and advertising, the audience will be selfish and want to know what they can get for themselves.  (Harsh, but true).  Marie also commented that we should assume low levels of knowledge when advertising or communicating information about archives.  I always forget that not everyone has used or knows what an archive is (to be discussed below).

The Essentials of good communication:
  • thought through (and preferably written down)
  • clear call to action
  • consistency in brand (not as in logos but consistency through the ranks of the institution)

The Desirables of good communication:
  • more than one medium of communication
  • memorable words or pictures
  • charismatic communicators
  • receptive audience
  • favourable news day

Is advocacy different?

The term 'advocacy' is bandied about fairly freely nowadays but I never really questioned what it meant.  From advocare, to call,  it really sits on top of communication.  Once you have set up the channels of communication you can work on advocacy.  It is a programme of work based on great communication that will, ultimately, change people's minds.

Communicative heads at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery

Why don't archivists communicate well?

A wise member of the audience asked why archivists are not good at communication.  Archivists used to be collection-centered and, as John Chambers, Chief Exec of ARA, says, 'loving a bit of vellum'.  Librarians and curators are more front of house and more visible to the public with the result that their jobs, or at least their services, are slightly better understood than archivists'.  I did disagree with the comment that libraries are all about 'stamp, stamp, shush, shush' but I do get the point that, in general, people are more familiar with libraries.  Many folk don't even know what an archive is never mind why it should be funded and what it could do for them.  Archivists are not politicians or bankers, we have done nothing to make people dislike us; we are not, as Marie put it, toxic.  It is not that we are unpopular, it is just that people don't understand what we do.  I do see how people's eyes light up when I explain what the NT Archive does or when I tell friends what programmes or digitisation projects I can get involved in so it really is just a matter of converting.  People care so deeply about the culture, heritage and history of our country and we can provide them with the means to safeguard it.

Something that I had never considered:

Archivists demonstrate their use and pursuit of the truth through events in the news such as the recent Hillsbrough Disaster revelations and the Jimmy Savile enquiry.  If our funding gets cut much more, we won't be able to bring the truth to the surface - we need to capitalise on these opportunities to tell people about the skills of our sector and to campaign for continued transparency of record keeping.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hollywood Costume Extravaganza

As part of the SIBMAS conference we were given a talk by the curator, Keith Lodwick, and complimentary tickets to the Hollywood Costume Exhibition.  Now, I have a limited knowledge of museums and what goes into exhibitions so found his introduction very enlightening - everything was on loan from other institutions and the V&A was facilitating the bringing together of costumes and props, which normally languish in private collections all around the world.  Real focus was put on the costume designers themselves and what role they have in the film industry.  As a poster presentation at the conference showed,* costume designers can often be lost in the process and not receive the attention or recognition they deserve.

The exhibition was, I have to say, amazing.  You really get a feel for the theatrical, from the welcoming big screen trailer to the captions on clip boards, backlit lettering and music.  There were costumes everywhere and it was hard to control my greedy gaze.  Particular highlights for me were, predictably, Indiana Jones’ costume with accompanying Spielberg drawing of what he wanted Indie to look like (it smacked of Woody from Toy Story) and the plinth of royalty including Judi Dench’s Queen Elizabeth costume from Shakespeare in Love.

One thing that struck me was something that Keith had discussed: the desire to put the actors back into the costumes.  This is obviously very difficult to do but screens bearing videos of the stars’ faces were hovered above the costumes or images of them in the costume provided behind to give a theatrical feeling.  As Keith said, the costumes are often less exciting when taken out of context and put in a museum.  Excerpts from the script, images and props, and interviews from stars and designers, however, have brought the costumes to life.

Bond's tux was a highlight

The only part of the exhibition that seemed a tad out of place was the last room, Act 3, in which various ‘characters’ are engaging with each other.  Here the ladies are mostly taking part in a cocktail evening while the men are fighting.  So, William Wallace is fighting Jack Sparrow and Don Juan while Leo from the Matrix is attacking Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill, Bond is backing up Hans Solo and John McClane is having fisticuffs with Rocky.  This is all very amusing and I had never considered this use of characters - I wonder if anyone is distressed by the unreality of these scenes, when such efforts have been made to make the costumes as close to the original as possible.

* Nancy Friedland, Columbia University presenting on ‘Patterning costume research design’.