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

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