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.

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