Wednesday, 13 September 2017

APAC Study Day: Celebrating Anniversaries

APAC's annual study day focussed on celebrating anniversaries and was very aptly hosted by the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, which is currently celebrating 80 years since the founding of Colchester rep company and 45 years since the building of their theatre.

Jumbo the Colchester water tower

We began with a really useful talk from Anna Jarvis, First World War and Anniversaries Adviser for the Heritage Lottery Fund. Anniversaries provide a focus and a theme for fundraising and the fixed date can also lend some much needed urgency to projects. It can, however, also add unhelpful pressure to the delivery of the project. A theme from the day was the idea of an anniversary as a hook onto which you can hang many related projects. Funding may be forthcoming because you are celebrating an anniversary but you don't need to stop there with the activity, you can explore much further than a single point in time in order to engage the widest audience and make the most of your collections. HLF will rarely support one off projects but instead prefer longer term and wide engagement with audiences and the community.

Anna outlined some pointers for organisations applying to the HLF:

  • Be creative! APAC members are in an ideal position to capitalise on the creativity of their organisations to help interpret heritage through arts
  • Learn from each other. Lots of APAC members have had or are celebrating anniversaries of all shapes and sizes (and ages!) so make use of those experiences to improve your own funding ideas and funding applications
  • Work with colleagues in other departments to ensure that your project is embedded in the working of the organisation and that there is a lasting legacy
  • Activities need to be as inclusive as possible. You need to consider increasing the audience for your heritage but also broadening it

We were given a fabulous your backstage and saw the
preparations for the Christmas pantomime

Another thread throughout the day was the concept of using anniversaries as a point in time to consider how the past relates to the present and can inform our decisions in the future. Both Alan Jones of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Steve Mannix of the Mercury Theatre spoke about the need to respect the heritage of the organisation and appreciate the impact that it has had on people in the past. They both saw great value in using the opportunity to reflect on what has gone before in order to impact the future of their organisations.

The day also touched on the importance of oral history recordings, particularly when the anniversary you are celebrating is within or on the edge of living memory. They are great opportunities to prompt discussions and memories but, as I from the National Theatre and Claire from Mercury Theatre noted, capturing memories has to be well thought out beforehand. It can be difficult to create a suitable space and opportunity for people to contribute their memories without careful planning. Laura from the Mercury also noted that the location of interviews has been very powerful for their project as different locations around their building could spark particular memories for their interviewees.

Steve Mannix introducing Mercury Theatre's anniversary project Mercury Voices
We ended the day with a discussion around the use of the word 'heritage'. It can be difficult within an arts organisation to drum up support for a heritage project while for us archivists the term is second nature. Alan Butland of Tyne Theatre and Opera House even referred to it as 'The H Word' due to the difficulties it can bring to projects. I have found that embedding the Archive in work at the NT has been pretty straightforward, mostly because people are passionate about their work and are proud to see it archived - I haven't focussed on heritage as a term, I've focussed on the content of the Archive and this seems to sit better within a theatre.

All in all it was a useful day to network with like minded individuals and hear about projects from all sizes of organisations with varying levels of funding. I hope that the attendees found it as enjoyable as me!

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Unboxed: Artists and the Archive

Today I attended the Unboxed: Artists and the Archive event at the Southbank Centre supported by the Art Fund and Australian Council for the Arts. It was linked to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Hayward Gallery and the growing enthusiasm around artists and curators to use the Hayward's archive to create exhibitions.

Although removed from my work as a performing arts archivist, it was an interesting day to explore how a very similar realm is using its heritage and archives. The audience was a mix of curators, academics, artists and archivists and the presentations were a good mix from each perspective resulting in fertile discussions.

Many strands of archiving and performance art were explored and I wanted to select a few of the tidbits that really captured my interest:

  • how do we inject serendipity into the experience of searching digital archives? They only work due to extensive tagging and metadata mapping so do we ultimately 'kill the romance' (Hammad Nasar) of engaging with archives by providing access to them online?

  • archivists have become comfortable with the fragmentation of their collections while researchers or artists may find this 'incompleteness' frustrating and have a desire to 'complete' the works. Stephanie Rosenthal, curator for the Hayward, commented that curators are interested in archives because they love stories and want to make sure that there is as complete a story as possible told in and by exhibitions

  • the Southbank Centre archive is developing a more straightforward hierarchy for their catalogue than one might expect by keeping the end user in sight and not being side tracked by archival theory, which can sometimes lead archivists into overly complex trees. They are keeping their end users in mind as they are the ones helping them to catalogue in the first place! They have an incredible open archive policy where they have so far welcomed over 150 helpers in the last few years to their new Archive Studio to assist with cataloguing and repackaging projects

  • never trust anything you hear in an oral history - always check the facts! Cathy Courtney from the British Library National Life Stories project shared some of her pointers about interviewing artists. Oral histories are brilliant for documenting the undocumented or undocumentable and we had an interesting discussion around the difference between male and female interviewees and how each gender responds to questioning

  • to whom you are accountable has a huge impact on what sort of exhibition you curate according to Jo Melvin, and, I would argue, the same is true of archivists and what they collect

Besides the many talks from which the above were garnered, we also witnessed a performance piece called The History of Performance, performed by the Barbara Cleveland collective. This consisted of two artists sitting in a circle of chairs and inviting the audience to sit with them. They proceeded to recall memories from visits to the Hayward Gallery and welcomed the audience to participate with their recollections. This was a fascinating performance as people came forward, some cautious to start with, and narrated snippets from their memories of this building. Some people sparked memories in others and some remembered the same event in a slightly different way. We were watching oral history being created and it was being recorded for posterity. This approach could be done with any organisation reaching an anniversary and what was lovely was that we were hearing personal memories, which belong in and will remain in an institutional archive. This mix of the private and the business is unusual and allows the spirit of an organisation to shine through. Oral history provides the mechanism for filling in the gaps of personalities and staff in institutional archives.

Certainly the best view I've had at a conference in a while!

To end on a light note, we had an hour of movement run by Florence Peake. I am not one for physical contact with strangers but it was a beautiful hour, at first very awkward and self-conscious, spent exploring others' bodies and movement. I am not sure that I fully appreciated others' bodies being 'archives' as I think I was meant to because I found myself thinking of people's bodies as very similar as I felt my way around with my eyes closed. Nevertheless, I appreciated a moment of contact and calm - it was certainly a good ice breaker and not something I've experienced at an archive conference before!

Monday, 24 July 2017

APAC Symposium 2017: Bridging the Gap between Archivists and Researchers

Last week I attended my first event as APAC Chair: the APAC 2017 symposium in Leeds. I had put a lot of work into organising this event and curating the schedule so I was a little nervous on the day. Once I had my welcome speech out of the way I could settle in to enjoy what was a fantastic day of talks, discussions and networking around the subject of bridging the gap, or perceived gap, between archivists and academics.

The symposium was held in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery
The speakers were diverse and a mix of academics and archivists, which allowed us to view the issues from both sides and start to consider where and why issues arise. Ella Hawkins, a PhD student at University of Birmingham and currently embedded in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Natasha Bonnelame, Archive Associate at the National Theatre and lecturer at Goldsmiths University, both spoke from an academic perspective about the importance of being embedded in a cultural organisation to make the most of their research. This integration results in benefits for both the academic and the host organisation. The academic builds their skills in working in a cultural organisation, building long-term links, and improves their ability to engage with non-academic audiences while having unprecedented access to archive content. The organisation benefits from the exposure the academic may bring with them, future research projects being identified, improved accuracy of catalogue entries and better connection with HE institutions.

Brotherton Library at University of Leeds

From the archivist side we had Tim Procter of University of Leeds Special Collections (who was our wonderful host for the day) and Joanna Baines from University of Kent. Both of these speakers focused on work they were doing to engage their university bodies with their collections. A few pointers from Tim were to break down physical and psychological barriers to access, map how students come to find you and build relationships with academics one to one. Joanna focussed on using the British Cartoon Archive to advocate for finding aids written for specific audiences, plan sessions by theme rather than by collections as researchers may not appreciate this differentiation and make sure that you have unified policies so that researchers have a consistent and logical experience.

Tim had organised a great handling session of performing arts related materials
The last part of the day was given over to a provocation from Chris Jones of Rambert and University of Roehampton. She spoke about the gap between academics and archivists and how we tend to speak within echo chambers. This was a familiar discussion, I recall when working at St John's in Cambridge that those in the library profession were worrying that they were tweeting into an echo chamber and we must be aware of doing this. We had a lively discussion about how we can bridge this gap and, for archives like the NT's, it is just as important that we include practitioners in this discussion as well. For me, it is a triangle of dialogue where academics, archivists and practitioners are as important as each other in the preservation of theatre for generations to come.

I visited the Hepworth, Wakefield and the Theatre Royal while I
was in the area, beautiful buildings with such amazing history
Now it is APAC's job to keep this call to arms going and make sure that we break out of our echo chamber and take this discussion to the relevant people. We will be instigating a resources section on our website with relevant case studies about engagement with academics but more must be done and we need to link up with others working in this area such as the Documenting Performance group (DocPerform - an interdisciplinary research project), with their conference in November. Call for papers can be found here.

There is a long way to go, particularly in instigating a three-way dialogue but there is movement across the sector to engage with the issues and I am excited to be part of the journey to ensure better preservation of our theatres' history.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

National Jazz Archive - new trustee, new challenge

Ever since Clore, I have been thinking about joining a board of something not as directly related to my work as the Association of Performing Arts Collections, of which I became Chair this week.  I wanted something a little bit different, which would truly push me out of my comfort zone.

This month I officially became a trustee of the National Jazz Archive.  I can easily say that I am well and truly out of my comfort zone and inhabiting that scary zone called 'stretch', a little before 'panic'. I have had my hands full with the interview, induction, exhibition private view, first board meeting and today, the first talk, which have all fallen in the last month or so. It has been a steep learning curve to get my head round a very unique organisation, learn all the names and find my way round the projects as well as try to not look too ignorant about jazz. I see this role as one where I can bring my archiving expertise to an area as unfamiliar to me as theatre was 5 years ago. Everyone has been incredibly kind and welcoming and, although I am very much in the minority as a young woman on the board, I feel quite at home.

The NJA holds the finest collection of written, printed and visual material on jazz, blues and related music from the 1920s to present day. Based in Loughton Library, the NJA serves researchers from all over the world and is coming to the end of its second large HLF grant. This one was focussed on intergenerational jazz reminiscence and culminated in an exhibition in the Southend Forum. Hence my first ever trip to Southend last weekend. Bolstered by some fish and chips on the beach I made my way to my first event as a trustee and it was a great experience. The exhibition looks fantastic and really takes advantage of the beautiful architecture of the building. It was lovely to hear from those involved in the project including community groups and volunteers and see how their work has developed and illuminated the history and heritage of jazz.

Location of the 'Say it with Music' exhibition, in situ until the end of May
Today I headed out to Loughton for a talk, part of a series of events run by the NJA to raise money for its services. Today's speaker was Stuart Nicholson, a patron of the National Jazz Archive and author of multiple books, one of which is Jazz: A Beginner's Guide published in February, which I have just purchased. It sounds like a good place for me to start!

Stuart's talk was about how we listen to music in the digital age and what effect streaming is having on jazz music, music more widely and even on the attitudes and aptitudes of younger generations, who are growing up without the same listening experience as his generation. He picked up on the growing trend for songs to play it safe in the first 30 seconds as this is how long someone needs to listen to a streamed song for it to count as a 'stream' and so contribute to sales and the charts. Stuart also touched on the increasing lack of empathy among younger generations, who are used to connecting with people through devices rather than face to face and the increasing impatience and choice overload that we are now experiencing thanks to the internet. This reminded me of this photo essay in the Guardian that I recently saw and is something that I am trying to think about more and more in my own life.

More of Southend
An interesting discussion ensued about how optimistic or pessimistic we should be about the future of music.  Stuart is concerned that the lack of empathy experienced by younger people will lead to them not engaging with music in the same way as the older generations but this was countered by the clear benefits of availability and accessibility to huge swathes of music that older generations did not have the fortune of knowing. Whatever the future holds in store, it is good that we are aware of the changes and discussing them.

I'll keep you posted on my progress as a trustee, I am thoroughly enjoying it so far. I have met a variety of people I would never have had the chance to meet and I am excited to see how I can apply my background and experience to this new environment. I hope having some 'stretch' time will stand me in good stead for my work and personal life more generally...Chair of APAC will definitely take me into that zone too, more on that soon no doubt.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

ICA Section for Business Archives Conference, Stockholm

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ICA event, the Section for Business Archive annual conference in Stockholm, hosted by the Centre for Business History in the beautiful Eric Ericson Hall.  The focus was on the future role of business archives and with delegates from all over the world it was quite an introduction to international business archives of all shapes and sizes.

Eric Ericson Hall in the sunshine
The keynote from Katherine Maher of the Wikimedia Foundation set the tone of transparency in a fact-resistant world.  Openness was discussed throughout the conference and is something that business archives understandably battle with for a variety of reasons.  Although I didn’t agree with some of what Maher discussed, I fully agreed with her impassioned talk on archives being the strength of companies as the store of our history and shared knowledge.

Katherine Maher's presentation

Many of the talks focussed on the use of archives in creating and strengthening brand identity.  This was the case for archives from Coca-Cola and Hallmark to Mercedes Benz and Anheuser Busch.  A really interesting point was the range of job titles of those presenting, there were even a Historian, Chief Storyteller and a Director of Heritage Communications.  Each organisation finds a different way of describing their archive department and it was great to see how they have been integrated into the structure of their organisations.

There was a lot of discussion around the value of digitisation, which no one can argue, but there was time to consider the difficulties, such as digital preservation, the push for content to be king and the public the president and also the tendency to raid the archive rather than using it as a place for thinking and discovery.  Digital issues came out top of an exercise to highlight our challenges in the next five years.  Alongside this there was:
  •       Maintaining free and open access to archive content with the increasing pressure to monetise
  •           How to preserve decision-making processes when they are increasingly on email, by phone or in instant messages
  •           Legal responsibilities
  •      What happens to our professional role as more and more content is digitised
  •          Recruitment and training of the next generation of archivists
  •          Need to train business leaders while they are at university about importance of archiving
  •          How to spread knowledge in a responsible way
  •          Lack of diversity in collections of global organisations

These were just some of the topics that were raised around the tables and show that we have some way to go to make business archives as open and accessible as our keynote suggested.

View from Eric Ericson Hall
There were a few other points that I want to mention as they really hit home for me.  One was from Jane Seaton, Historian for the BBC and a Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster.  When asked if she thought businesses had a soul she said yes.  Institutions need a memory for better and for worse and the sense of soul is held in the values of the organisation.  The values inform the actions of the organisation and this is all captured within the archive, thus ensuring that the soul of the business is preserved for future generations.

Another point that hit home was from the host Anders Houltz at the Centre for Business History in Stockholm.  He stated what we all know, that archives deal with the past and we cannot change this.  But we preserve the remnants and provide material to shape the future.  It is this last part that was so on point.  Many archives struggle with dark parts of organisations’ histories and we touched on this a few times over the conference.  It is important that archives do not shirk from this history or hide it, they must accept and own it if they hope to improve themselves and have progressive conversations about improving their work.

Words to live by

As I always find with business archive events, it was amazing to spend time with people so enthusiastic about their job.  To be a business archivist, you need to love your brand and these speakers were fantastic reps for their organisations. I really enjoyed this conference and the opportunity to learn from people managing the history of the largest companies worldwide was fantastic!

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

How do we remember?

On Thursday last week I took part in my first NT Learning event.  I had always thought that the day would come when I could contribute to the programme and it was a really interesting to be asked to take part in an event entitled In Context: How do we remember?

Lost Without Words closed in the Dorfman Theatre this weekend and featured older actors improvising on subjects to highlight issues around roles for older actors and how they learn lines etc.  This event was run to coincide with this show featuring an academic in the field of psychology and a visual artist he was working with and me.

The session was paid for, which stressed me out somewhat.  I don’t think I’ve ever given a talk at a paid event and I wanted to make sure that what I was delivering was of use and interest to the people attending.  It was impossible to tell in advance who would be attending and so I had no idea what topics to talk about or who to pitch it at.

In line with my current research, which I’ll talk about a bit more on here in future, I wanted to touch on the importance of the archive as a place for memory and talk more broadly about how to document process and live performance to ensure that archives are an authentic and accurate representation of what happens on stage.  Matthew Reason mentioned in 2006* that many archive collection policies promise that 'they allow access to an authentic memory of past preferences' and I took this as inspiration for my talk.

On the day, however, the talks before me were very scientific and about brain damage in particular.  The audience seemed to be made up of students or people whose families were dealing with brain damage. This was really quite a different area to what I know about!  I stuck it out though (and gained confidence when a lovely lady sitting next to me told me that she had never met someone with my sort of job and that she was really looking forward to hearing what I had to say).  I presented on the NT Archive to make sure that we were all on the same page about what we already collect and then I took the conversation in a more academic direction, thinking about the different schools of thought around archiving and documenting live performance.  This led on nicely to considering how creatives use the archive and how they view it.  It is important that performing arts archivists have good relationships with creatives to ensure that their work is kept for posterity.

I touched on reminiscence projects, family history research, audience memory and how archivists make decisions about what they should keep.  This all seemed to go down well with the audience, who had lots of questions and suggestions about what we should be keeping.  An interesting and useful distinction was put forward between memory and fact.  The academic had been discussing memory whereas I was discussing how facts are held in the Archive but archives also hold memory and I was glad that I could share the NT’s oral history project with the group and explain how we are ensuring that we capture individuals’ memories as well as information and materials relating to what happens on the stages.

I had been really nervous about participating in this event as it was the first I had done and the first time I would have to sit on a panel to be quizzed by the audience.  I also really dislike presenting in front of colleagues.  Some people find colleagues, friends or partners in the audience a supportive thing but I very much do not so it was quite an achievement for me to present in front of colleagues.  I felt quite comfortable talking to the group as I knew my content and I was discussing my research, which I find really interesting. I hope that I will have the opportunity in the future to do this more often!

Reason, Matthew. ‘Archive or Memory?’ The Detritus of Live Performance. New Theatre Quarterly 19:73 (2003), p.82-89. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Clore Refresh

I've just noticed that I haven't written anything on here this year so a good start would be to reflect on the mini-Clore I attended at the weekend.  It was a chance to reflect on the 18 months since the Emerging Leaders course, catch up with my cohort and refresh the skills that we learned.  It was also a good opportunity to think about all those good intentions we had when we left Eynsham Hall and consider why they may not have happened...

We had the opportunity to discuss topics that were playing on our minds such as change, uncertainty and the value of the work that we do in a world cafe format, which was a new method for me but allowed good, open discussions. It was useful to speak with people, who work in the arts but in different professions, as they have very different opinions and ways of verbalising viewpoints.  We touched on topics as far ranging as Brexit and Trump to managing personal change and breaking down the barriers to engagement in our society.  A big topic was the civic duty of arts organisations in this volatile time and considering why the 'Arts' are viewed as the baddie and 'other' by much of the population.

Kenneth Tharp, dancer and ex-CEO of The Place, spoke to us about managing uncertainty.  He quickly noted that we don't manage uncertainty, we cope, and that uncertainty is around us all the time.  A heartening nugget was that uncertainty is key to creativity and I think that many of us, certainly I, found this reassuring as uncertainty can be a frightening thing.

A main takeaway from his talk was about when to know to move on from your job.  I think about this quite often, not that I'm considering leaving any time soon but how do you know when to make the leap?  Especially if you enjoy your job.  How do you know when is right for you and the organisation you work for?  He said that you need to line up your aims and ambitions against those of your organisation and see, firstly, if they are the same and, secondly, if you are really needed to help the organisation meet its goals. If you take your leadership values into account and consider what you truly want to achieve in your day to day work then that will help you to come to these sorts of decisions. I'm still some way from identifying my values but this piece of advice really stuck with me.  It is always useful to consider the bigger picture of your career trajectory and I enjoyed the opportunity to take a step back for a day and consider where I am and want to be.
Mastering our power poses