Monday, 7 March 2016

Archivist as Interpreter

The National Archives' Archiving the Arts programme comes to an end this month but it leaves a legacy of events aimed at those working in and with arts archives.  Last Friday was the first of these events, Archivist as Interpreter, hosted at the British Library.

I attended along with my colleague, who is also responsible for curating the archive exhibitions that appear front of house at the NT.  The day wasn't as focused on exhibitions as I had expected but was a very rounded look at how we can make archives accessible to more people and to different people.

For the seminar sessions in the afternoon I split off to hear from Sarah Kogan, an artist who has worked with The National Archives, as well as from Vicky Igliowski, who works for TNA, specialising in diverse histories.  It was really useful for me to hear from both of these ladies as one could explain what attracted her to the collections and how she has used them while the other could speak on the institutional approach to artists using the collections.

A major theme of these presentations was that engagement with the archive increases their importance: it gives them contemporary meaning and historical value.  An artist can ensure that an archive is alive and relevant.  This is something that archivists strive for for their collections and I certainly hadn't fully considered how external people could help me to do this.

Artists can do this in a plethora of ways and specialise in various different forms of art.  Something that I have been giving a lot of thought to is how to get the NT collections involved in new work.  The NT Archive is an archive of performance and most of the presentations I have heard on 'performing the archive' have involved performance artists using historical archives to create a performance piece.  I have never heard of a project using a performance archive to create new performance.  I sense that this may be harder to achieve as performance artists strive to create something original and may not work willingly with archive materials from previous productions.

I am keen to explore this issue.  Perhaps the performance archive at the NT can be used to create different forms of art but it would be wonderful if the archive could fuel a piece of performance art that could be shared at the Studio or on one of the main stages - how much more relevant could the Archive get?!

Another idea is to use art as a means of interpretation within exhibitions.  A delegate in my seminar group mentioned that they frequently include artistic interpretations of archive materials in their exhibitions spaces and we could do this in two ways: one would be to welcome interpretations of archive materials and exhibit them in the Lyttelton Lounge; the other would be to invite artistic interpretations of exhibitions and include them in the space.  It would be quite a departure for us to work in this way but I would like to explore the potential for collaborative work such as this.  It would be a step outside my comfort zone to look at how a creative mind might interpret the NT collections, but, as Clore taught me, a step into the unknown may well be a step in the right direction.