Thursday, 30 July 2015

Royal Albert Hall Archives

I have just spent a very enjoyable afternoon at the Royal Albert Hall, being shown round by their two lovely archivists.  As a 'holding house', the Hall has slightly different archives to the National Theatre but there are more similarities than differences.  

We both use the CALM database as well as CALMView and it has been really helpful to compare experiences with the software and to see how they have re-branded the front end to make a user friendly and attractive interface.  They also have a some really great interactive features on their new website (like this and especially this), which I heartily encourage you to try out!

The Archive has recently been coming to the fore in Hall projects such as Learning events, merchandise and tours.  They have a specific tour focused on the secret history of the Hall, which has content drawn directly from the Archive.  There is great enthusiasm at the Hall to include the Archive in projects and this is a really healthy and encouraging sight.

A shot from the Hall the last time I visited

As an archive of a 'holding house' they do not hold material on the process of creating performances like we do.  They have the booking plans, programme, poster, photographs and then reports from the evening for front of house and on stage activities.  In this way they have the whole story of a performance, of which they obviously have many more than the NT (they have 14,000 programmes alone!).  A lot of the other work of the Hall, such as the set-up of shows, is done by external companies and so it not represented in the Archive, nor is it sought after so the focus is on programmes, press and reports from the production itself.

I was delighted to see that they have a Souvenir book of a fundraising event for the National Theatre back when it was a mere idea and supported by the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee.  This fundraising event welcomed in the great and the good of the 1910s all of whom were given Shakespearean characters to dress up as and the souvenir book is a beautiful collection of paintings, drawings and prints of the lords and ladies in their costumes.  There were also several heads of state present as it was held a few days before the Coronation.  Really quite something!

Shot of the acoustic mushrooms

I was struck by the sheer diversity of what happens at the Hall.  Currently the Proms are on, which are well known, but they also have a dining week where a false floor is erected and the Hall transforms into a giant dining room.  They have tennis tournaments, wrestling, circus acts and rock bands with many requirements not catered for when the building was built!  This Christmas they will be installing an ice rink to perform The Nutcracker on ice.  It is truly a fascinating building and the archivists are still coming across gems in their Archive.  They are working on cataloguing their material and digitising it so that more is accessible and I can only see this service going from strength to strength with its combination of historically fascinating subjects and institution-wide enthusiasm to engage with the material.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Performing the Archive, NUI Galway 2015

Performing the Archives conference has completely surpassed my expectations in terms of audience, disciplines, discussion and exhaustion.  As it was my first three-day conference, I wasn’t sure what to expect but it has been an inspirational few days with some of the most interesting and innovative archivists and researchers in the performing arts fields.

I’m not really sure how best to go about describing the conference but there were a few sessions that really stood out for me and some interesting questions that were raised.  I think it will be beneficial for me and for you if I talk about the main issues that were discussed round the dinner table, on the snatched coffee breaks and in the long meanderings back to the student village.

The concept of audience and spectator was raised quite a few times and I have recently become much more aware of audience through the interpretation work we have been doing on our exhibitions and so this really interested me.  It was raised in terms of documenting the experience of the spectator at a show.  Aside from press reviews, which are a particular kind of spectator feedback, how else do we record what people thought?  Spectators’ reactions are a specific kind of archive of a show and offer a different interpretation to any of the other materials collected around a production.

The act of recording this is pretty tricky.  One talk, by Lisa Peschel of the University of York concerning the ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ project, touched on this.  They will be interviewing audience members after the show and will be comparing their reactions with footage of them taken during the production.  This footage tracks their facial reactions and interprets this as emotions.  Peschel will then interview these audience members and show them the footage and ask why they had these emotional reactions.  I can’t quite see us doing that any time soon but it is interesting to know that such technology is out there and can be used in this way. 

NUI Galway's quad

Almost every speaker had a different definition of what an archive meant to them and (after putting aside defensive statements of my own) I realised that ‘archivist' and ‘archives’ will mean different things to different people and we need to find some common ground.  I’m not talking about people who don’t know what an archivist is, although there are plenty of them and I know I’m not the only one that gets annoyed with the lack of drop down menu options for archivists, librarian and information professionals as a whole, but these are people who frequently use archives and consult archivists.

The concept of managing researchers’ expectations came up a couple of times in the context of specific projects as well as in general.  There are the archivists, who guard the collections, make them accessible, preserve them and carry out a plethora of other services for archive materials on the one side and then researchers who use the collections for a variety of means on the other.  We need to find a way of bridging this gap, increasing awareness of what archives do and show that occasionally needing to restrict access is not meant to be obstructive.  Then there is work to be done to improve communication with researchers so that archivists know how they can help.

Near the harbour in the city centre

Several of the projects we heard about, which were creative projects born from the archive, showed how much access researchers can gain to collections but there was a feeling that this is not the case for all researchers.  So how does a researcher get that exclusive access, a researcher asked me over lunch, and why do some get preferential treatment?  I and some other archive colleagues could only answer that it must be a result of building a rapport and trust with that archivist.  This is not how it should be, we should be offering equal access to all but how can we feasibly do that when we are curating exhibitions, cataloguing, accessioning, running outreach programmes and digitisation projects?  The divide between archive service professionals and researchers needs to narrow but the feasibility of this is still in question.

Aletia Badenhorst from Leeds Beckett University put it perfectly when she commented that:

Archives exist for two reasons: to document and to inspire.
Archivists are most concerned with the former and practitioners with the latter.

The British Library added another facet by commenting that creatives can make something new from archive, which researchers cannot, fitting in with something else that Badenhorst discussed.  She believes that the best way to keep an archive alive is to create new work inspired by it, not just a restaging.  This means that the archive is kept relevant and her statement that ‘Archives are boxes full of ideas’ was a really simple but dramatic way of showing the power of the material that we hold.  It is through this creativity that we can lift the archives out of the research room and put them in the public realm, as Kate Wheeler of The National Archive, put it.

Galway's cathedral

Paula McFetridge of Kabosh Productions, hit the nail on the head when she said that museums and archives hold objects but it is creatives who can give these objects a voice and bring them to life for a new audience.  I know well that archives exist to make material accessible and that if we don’t make it accessible, there isn’t much point in us keeping it.  But McFetridge’s comment takes this a step further and calls us to make our material the inspiration for new work, which will speak to new audiences and encourage engagement and appreciation of the subject matter.  I found this really interesting and I hope that we can use the National Theatre’s archive to inspire future generations of theatre makers.

For now, I am satisfactorily inspired and exhausted, next is to try to take these discussions and transform them into action…I have a funny feeling that this is just the beginning.  Thanks to all who worked to make 'Performing the Archive' conference such a wonderful experience!

A house in Galway city centre

Monday, 13 July 2015

Spirit of Place

Last week I attended a workshop on Spirit of Place for the Southbank Centre.  I attended as a representative from a neighbouring national performing arts institution alongside members of their staff and I wanted to note down some points that I found particularly interesting from the day.  I won't go into details on the workshop as it is a work in progress by the Southbank Centre but the principles of Spirit of Place were really interesting.

The National Trust uses Spirit of Place as a means to identify what is unique, distinctive and cherished about a site.  All of the National Trust sites are to write one in the next year as this will form the basis of strategies and projects.  If the Spirit of Place is set then all work that comes from that will be consistent and fit with the brand and thinking of that site.

Queen Elizabeth Hall 
It was really tough coming up with what was unique about the non-Royal Festival Hall section of the Southbank Centre.  Everyone knows that their site is unique and distinctive but actually putting your finger on the specific qualities that make them this way is pretty hard but we came up with a fair number of qualities from architecture to exhibits.

The Spirit of Place can then be used in decision making, held up as the standard to which everything must conform and it means that everyone is signed up to the same objective.  It isn't always something that you create but the Spirit of Place can be influenced by outside factors, those things that make you unique.  It can then be used to spark oral history projects or inspire artists to create new work.

A view of the NT I have never seen before
I began thinking about how useful it would be to have a Spirit of Place document for the NT.  It is something that is very helpful to have in place before a funding bid is made to ensure that all projects are coming from the same direction and appealing to the correct audiences.  A Spirit of Place statement would really help with the interpretation strategy for exhibitions, for example, and help inform the selection of exhibition topics going forward.  It sounds like a good multi-purpose statement and is a great way to get everyone thinking in a similar way about your institution.