Thursday, 24 November 2016

Business Archives Council Annual Conference 2016

This week I attended my first ever Business Archives Council event, their annual confernece.  This one was focussed on branching out and diversifying the service of business archives.  I have been meaning to engage with this group for some time as I am keen to hear more about how archives outside of the performing arts sector capitalise on their holdings and their annual conference sounded like as good an excuse as any!

I could write out my summary of all the speakers but that would take a long time and I'd rather think about the take aways from the day that I found really valuable.

The conference was held at the HSBC building in
Canary Wharf, very different to a day at the office!
Firstly, it was really lovely being at an event where everyone was so passionate about the place they worked in.  All of the delegates I spoke to where enthusiastic about their business and were great representatives of their brands.  I felt like I was among likeminded people as I love what the National Theatre does and hope that I am a good advocate for them.

Jeff James giving the key note
For business archives, a big selling point is the importance of transparency.  Jeff James, Chief Executive and The Keeper of The National Archives spoke about the confidence inspired in people by the transparency of archives, which can be accessed forever but can also be used in new, creative and innovative ways.
The History Wall in HSBC foyer, built in 2002 by Thomas Heatherwick
I learned that some archives have a lot more money at their disposal than others!  HSBC's 150th anniversary project was exciting to hear about via Helen Swinnerton, Senior Archives Manager for Asia-Pacific, who was calling in form Hong Kong.  I was particularly interested in their immersive dining experience, designed to tell the story of the journey of the bank from its founding through to present day, to an audience of important people from London and Hong Kong.  They used interpretative dance and projection to tell this story through the performing arts.  I should always remember that archives are a means of telling stories, which is the mission statement of the National Theatre itself.

More of the wall
Academic partners and researchers can be interested in your archives even if you don't expect them to be.  Sophie Clapp, Archive Manager of Boots undertook a bit of an academic audit to see what research potential there was in their collections and it turned out that there was a lot.  So they have secured collaborative doctoral awards and are working well with a variety of universities in the East Midlands.
I liked the wall
My favourite presentation was given by a non archivist, Sam Roberts, Ghostsigns, who partnered with the History of Advertising Trust to crowd source photographs of ghost signs across the UK and Ireland.  What I loved about his presentation was the simplicity of his project, which was born out of his passion for the subject.  It shows how much documentation and attention to detail can be achieved when someone has that enthusiasm for a subject.

Apparently cleaning it is a nightmare
I was really struck by Jake Berger's BBC Reminiscence presentation about creating memory packs of generic events, to be used with dementia patients.  Jake gave us a demo of the website that they have been piloting and it was wonderful to see how an archive can be used to spark conversations and much needed personal contact with patients.  The BBC are striving to serve their whole audience, not just the mainstream, they are reaching out to those on the margins of society and it was a heartwarming project to learn about.  They are moving forward with the project, building in feedback from patients and carers to make it better and it is all on an open source platform so other countries can populate it with more culturally relevant material for them.

I have no more wall facts
A theme through many of the presentations was the amazing potential that modern technology holds to help us to open up our archive to a much wider audience in increasingly diverse ways.  I am always slightly apprehensive of new technology because my mind instantly jumps to 'how will we archive it?' but I need to be more experimental and open minded and who knows where it could lead!

I did find it interesting how many people didn't realise that performing arts institutions have business archives.  The focus of our archive is mostly on researchers and providing a good public service for them but we are also a business archive and so we have to sit in this middle ground between being solely for the purpose of serving the business and its employees and being  public service - which I suppose means that we are already diversifying our service and reaching a broader audience than some business archives are currently!

From the Archive to Google Tilt Brush

This week saw the 6th Jocelyn Herbert annual lecture held at the National Theatre.  The speaker this year was Rae Smith, the award winning designer of War Horse (2007) and (2015) to name but a few.

The lecture series is aimed at providing views on design from a variety of sources.  The lectures have been given by directors, writers and actors in the past and this was the turn of a designer to speak about the concept of drawing.

What was really lovely was that Rae had come to the Archive to view Jocelyn Herbert's sketchbooks and notebooks, which are contained within her collection in the NT Archive.  Rae was particularly interested in how Jocelyn used drawing to think.  Another artist this week has described to me how they use drawing as a means of thinking, which seems alien to me but it natural to some.  Jocelyn's notebooks are full of her life - they contain shopping lists, phone numbers, to do lists, drafts of letters and speeches, sketches from her everyday life such as a hospital waiting room or cafe on holiday as well as the sketches for the shows which she designed.  There is a great new video released from Tate Archive, featuring Rae Smith, talking about the value of sketchbooks.

In her lecture, Rae used those everyday sketches to show how Jocelyn used nature to create designs on stage and how she processed reality to make it into a 2D sketch.  She then went on to show some of her own drawings and storyboards and explain how her drawings are used extensively in the rehearsal process alongside the work of the actors and creative team to give them a sense of what their work could look like and lead to.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the rehearsal room and sense what her creative process was like.

Rae then decided to show us where she thinks drawing is going in the future.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the audience was absolutely astonished.  I've never been in a crowd of people, including many students, who were so stunned.  Rae demonstrated the Google Tilt Brush, which allows you to draw in 3D.  Using a virtual reality headset and hand controllers, Rae took us into the world that she has created through hours of working with the software.  The sheer scale of the designs that you can create was amazing and it's so exciting that you can get inside your characters to see what they see on stage.  The potential of this software is difficult to get a grip on as it is so different to how we have been traditionally drawing for years.  It is also a very different skill to draw in 3D and you can see that Rae has dedicated a lot of time to explore the possibilities of the software.

It was a very exciting way to end a lecture that had beautifully shown how Jocelyn Herbert's archive can be used to study process, how Rae works now and where she thinks theatre design, and indeed drawing in general, might be headed in the future.  Now I'm off to ponder how I would archive that...

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Dancing Museums

Last week I went to a lunch time talk at the National Gallery about the conservation of a painting.  The talk was by the conservator and, while he jumped straight in without introduction to the painting or the painter and lost me a bit, it was an interesting talk about a painter I knew nothing about.

National Gallery

The really interesting bit, however, came next.  Dancing Museums are currently working at the National Gallery and a dancer, Carl Shumacher, walked into our space in the gallery and performed a piece of work in response to the talk on conservation.

When I was planning on going to this event, I had expected the dancer to respond to the painting but he actually responded to the concept of conservation.  He performed to a piece of music with spoken word over the top, which added some clues about what he was thinking.

Carl Schumacher of Dancing Museums

The piece responded to the concept of dancers' bodies degrading at a different rate to the paintings that surround them and who would conserve their bodies as the paintings were being conserved.  One line in the piece stated that Schumacher was validating the existence of the museum by dancing in it and we were validating the dance by watching him and he is validating us by the crumbling of his body.

Carl Schumacher of Dancing Museums

I can't tell you that I understood what was happening or that I would have been able to deduce all of that had there not been a mostly helpful narrative.  But does it matter if I didn't get it?  I found it really peaceful to watch him dance and use his whole body to express his feelings about conservation.  I don't think that it helped me understand the paintings but this event got me into the National Gallery voluntarily for the first time since I moved to London and that's worth something, isn't it?  On the way back to the office, I was talking to someone who knows a lot about contemporary dance and I asked her what I was meant to have understood from the dance.  After a long conversation, I realise that I am so used to thinking critically about theatre shows that I find it really difficult to watch something for the feeling it gives me.  Maybe I need to relax more when I'm watching something and listen more to myself than to what everyone else says about a performance.  I think that's quite a valuable lesson.

There is a really interesting area, where one art form meets another, that is worth keeping an eye out for.  At the NT we are curating exhibitions of archive content front of house in a theatre.  How does our current exhibition on adaptations affect your understanding or enjoyment of the adaptation The Red Barn, which is on in the Lyttelton at the moment?  What else could we be doing?  It would be great to be able to bring in a different audience to the theatre through our front of house activities as I was a newcomer to the National Gallery.  Secondly, if we could provide a different route into our content for those who might not want to engage with stories in theatre in a traditional way then we might be able to deepen people's understanding of a production and the meaning behind it.  I'm looking forward to thinking more about this and continuing to look out for cross-media events like the one at the National Gallery.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

APAC Study Day: In Good Company

APAC’s 2016 Study Day was held at The Lowry in Salford on the topic of working with partners. There were 18 attendees including 5 speakers, made up of members and non members.  Archives are increasingly working with partners, whether that is universities, funders such as HLF or art organisations, and this day was focussed on sharing learning around this topic and looking at some case studies in the sector.

The Lowry, Salford

Helen Roberts, Manager of the National Resource Centre for Dance at the University of Surrey began the day with a presentation on her experience of partnership working, which spans 20 years.  Over that time she has worked with a variety of funders and partners from arts organisations and individuals to Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and alumni funders.  Her advice was that you need to have a good reason to partner, whether that is to reach a new audience, innovate or to support you in delivering a new kind of project.  The importance of working with the right people and sharing a vision is integral to a successful partnership and Roberts advised that you create this relationship through extended planning and discussions before embarking on a project.  Each partner also needs to understand the aims and objectives of the others to ensure that the project will deliver what it set out to.  An interesting point that is frequently overlooked, is that project work tends to be on top of the work that you are already carrying out and so it is integral that project aims are realistic and deliverable.  It is all too easy to get carried away with fantastic ideas and creative plans.

Roberts had some practical advice for the group such as making sure that you have sight of the full budget so that you know where money is being allocated and to make sure that you can spot any shortfalls or misallocation of funds.  Another point was the importance of drawing up a partnership agreement or memorandum of understanding, which you can fall back on if something goes wrong.  It is also important to have a project manager, who has an eye on everything that is happening and can follow up on issues.

Some key take aways from this presentation were the importance of trust and respect for each other’s skills and competencies, shared values, communication between partners, agility and responsiveness, cost and time management and agreed marketing messages.  There are pitfalls to partnerships such as lack of flexibility, failure to deliver on commitments, poor management, bad communication and not working together.  If you manage to deliver a successful partnership project then you will open the way to further collaborations, working on new opportunities, increased profile, new audiences and the development of new skills and knowledge in your team.

Arike Oke, Rambert, introducing the day

I presented next Erin Lee with Eleanor Margolies, Jocelyn Herbert post doctoral research fellow.  Our presentation focused on the National Theatre’s partnership with University of the Arts London, which has developed as a result of the Jocelyn Herbert Archive being deposited at the NT Archive in 2014.  The NT has worked with UAL on the MA Curating and Collections course, which runs for a term and results in the students curating individual exhibitions at the Cook House in Chelsea.  Another course that the NT works with is the BA Theatre Design at Chelsea.  This is a two week module where the students have to respond to work in Jocelyn Herbert’s Archive and the outcomes of this module have been very varied and surprisingly morally, ethically and politically motivated.  The final relationship discussed was that of the Jocelyn Herbert post doctoral research fellowship, which began this academic year.  I gave an overview of the logistics behind setting this fellowship up and Eleanor expanded on her plans for the fellowship over the next two years.  Although this partnership is going well and will continue, there was a focus on the importance of collaboration, communication an d respect for each partner’s work and capacity.

After lunch we were given a tour of Perpetual Movement by the Gallery Coordinator at The Lowry.  This exhibition has been installed as part of Rambert’s 90th anniversary celebrations and brings together artist commissions and archive content.  The artist commissions were responding to Marie Rambert’s call for ‘perpetual movement’, which is referenced in her autobiography, notes from which are on display in the exhibition.  Each of the artists is interested in the concept of documentation and this ties with Mark Baldwin, Artistic Director of Rambert’s writing on dance being embodied in him physically and mentally.

Looking round the Michaela Zimmer room in the exhibition

The afternoon talks were led by Dr Helen Brooks, University of Kent. Brooks discussed her partnership with Theatre Royal Brighton around the staging of lost First World War plays and offered a brilliantly honest account of how partners plan a project and what obstacles might get in the way.  Picking on several of the things that Roberts had mentioned in the morning, Brooks discussed the important of being realistic with project plans and having the right people involved in the decision making.  Brooks and the Theatre Royal Brighton have now adapted their project to something more manageable and deliverable and it was the creative thinking of those involved that ensured that this collaboration was not lost.  An important learning point for Brooks was that collaboration can sometimes lead to people playing uncomfortable roles, which can cause stress or a breakdown in communication.  She would strongly advise face to face communication where possible and appreciate what people are comfortable doing.

Goshka Macuga room in exhibition

From one WWI partnership to another.  Kate Valentine, Director at DigitalDrama, discussed their Resurrecting theShakespeare Hut project in partnership with London School of Hygiene andTropical Medicine, HLF and the academic Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson.  Valentine told us about the installation of the Shakespeare Hut replica lounge in the LSHTM building, which is now on display at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.  The project had several outcomes including a centenary day re-enactment performance and an oral history project.  Valentine outlined the benefits of the partnership project from her perspective and these included the strength added to the application due to varied ideas and experience of partners involved, higher profile of the project, wider reach of professional networks, shared responsibility of success and reaching new audiences.  She advised that roles should be clear from the beginning particularly for the project manager and to play on the strengths of others and learn from them.  Her top tip was to think big and then rein it in to a realistic project.  A small project and group of people can be efficient but big projects are influential, both are worthwhile considering.

Costume from the Rambert Archive for L'Apres midi d'un faune

The last presentation of the day was from Simon Sladen, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the V&A.  Sladen talked us through the partnerships forged between the V&A and various schools, theatres and arts organisations, 18 in total, as part of the HLF Peter Brook Collection outreach activities.  This was the largest outreach project ever attempted by the V&A and, as an added challenge, none of the original project team were still in post as the project rolled out. The V&A hired a full-time project coordinator but Sladen noted that, if they were to run this sort of project again, they would build in more staff provision.  The main aim of the project was to develop links between cultural providers, improve relations with creatives in the performing arts sector, to increase awareness of Peter Brook among young people and ensure that his work is kept alive.  Sladen had some interesting reflections from his involvement in the project which included the importance of managing expectations, control, succession and legacy planning.  He also mentioned that having a dialogue with HLF is key and it was heartening to hear that he had found that teachers and practitioners love archives. 

There were many key themes that ran through the day, which I summaries here:
  • Needing to have the right people in your partnership.  Partnerships are nothing without the people
  • Communication, particularly at the planning stage, is key to progress
  • Knowing and acknowledging everyone’s aims and outcomes
  • Respecting and trusting others in the partnership

Everyone attending the Study Day had partnered to some extent or were considering doing so and the honesty of the speakers and those in the audience was a great way to have frank and insightful conversations about how to set up a successful partnership.  As was pointed out on several occasions, APAC itself is a fantastic way to network and meet potential partners and a huge thank you to APAC for facilitating this day!

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The National Theatre: A Place for Plays

Last week the National Theatre building celebrated its 40th birthday,  The Queen opened the NT on the 25th October 1976 and attended a performance of Goldoni's Il Campiello in the Olivier while Stoppard's Jumpers performed in the Lyttelton Theatre.

On Sunday the Association of British Theatre Technicians held a symposium in the Olivier to celebrate the NT as being a Place for Plays.  The focus of the day was looking at the theatre technology and design in the 1970s, appreciating how innovative it was then and looking ahead to what innovations in theatre design and technology we might see in the next 40 years.

The Archive was present with a handling session for delegates to get close up to archive content from the 1970s and also to help us to identify some items in the Archive which are a mystery to us!  Never have I experienced such a gathering of expertise on the history, structure, building and design of the NT and this was a great opportunity to harness their knowledge.

I managed to attend most of the sessions throughout the day (as well as see a demo of our famous drum revolve!).  There was a lot discussed and lots of people on each panel but a few highlights for me were:

  • the integral relationship between those versed in technical theatre and the creatives who will use the space.  Sometimes this relationship either doesn't exist or is troublesome but I learned that a good working relationship, mutual respect and willingness to collaborate are key to creating new, innovative, functioning theatres 
  • many of the processes in backstage operations have become automated over the past 40 years, which struck me as progressive, but it was interesting to hear the downsides of this and how it has removed flexibility from the workflows.  Many people expressed a desire to go back a few steps so that the operator still had control of the system and could adapt and flex with the performance on stage
  • virtual reality is edging into the theatre space and I have always been confused about what its place will be.  Rufus Norris, Artistic Director of the NT, has been quoted as saying that the NT doesn't know where VR is going but we are experimenting with it to see what it can offer our audiences.  Importantly, VR is another form of story telling and story telling is what theatre is all about so it will be interesting to see what comes out of our Immersive Story Telling Studio
  • many of the conversations touched on the important relationship between the actor and the audience - this relationship is the most important one in a finished theatre design and the perfect balance is what theatre designers and consultants are constantly striving for
  • Director Lyndsey Turner brought our attention to the physical space, reminding us that theatre doesn't have to have a building.  She focussed a lot on the foyer spaces, which are almost entirely closed off to the ticket-buying few in the West End, but are a large part of the work of subsidised theatre sector. She asked if there has ever been an exhibition in a foyer that was worth coming to see for its own sake.  I wish that our Archive exhibitions fell into this category but will they ever when they are based round the repertory?

There was much food for thought and also many tidbits of information about the NT design process and maintenance of the drum, which filled in lots of gaps in my knowledge of the NT and are probably not for repeating!  I have come away with a much better understanding of the collaboration required in theatre design and the incredible, innovative work that was done at the NT in the 1970s and continues to be done to this day.