Friday, 22 December 2017

The Role of Digital Reproduction in Cultural Heritage

On 8th December, the ReACH (Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage) declaration was launched at the V&A. On the following day I attended a morning conference on the practical applications of digital reproductions in heritage preservation, part of the Culture in Crisis series at the V&A. Before this I hadn't heard about ReACH but many of the contributors were part of the team working on this project.

ReACH is a response to Henry Cole's 1867 declaration 'Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of all Museums of all Countries' to mark its 150th anniversary. Cole had great foresight when he called for sharing of copies between organisations and this was a theme at the conference. We heard that museums need to move from being a treasury to a platform for ideas and have to be more open to the idea of sharing. A museum should be an agora of knowledge. Stefan Simon from the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage spoke about the need to view collections as cultural heritage and not as culture property: cultural heritage is made by people, through people and for people.

The talks throughout the morning really focussed on how people can use digital reproductions and what value they have in their own right. Historic Environment Scotland shared their innovative digital technology used to educate school children about life on the Antonine Wall and to repatriate a copy of a Roman sandstone tablet to where it was uncovered in Bo'ness. People were very much the focus of these digital reproductions and they have a value of their own to these communities.

Director of Digital Technology at Thomas's School in Clapham, Faye Ellis, spoke to us about her work in using digital technology in the classroom such as Google Tilt Brush, virtual reality headsets and 3D modelling and printing. We were blown away by the amount of technology available to these children and how well the staff are integrating technology into their syllabus. They face some issues with the accuracy of 3D models of museum artifacts as they are not necessarily created by an official source. These models can also be very expensive to download and there was a call to museums to provide historically accurate models for children to experiment with. This is a private school with hefty fees and there is still a very long way to go to get technology into the classrooms of all children regardless of their background. Better links are required between musuems and heritage organisations and teachers on their training courses to ensure that this sort of learning becomes more mainstream.

The final speaker was a co-founder of the recently launched Smartify app, Anna Lowe, which looks like it could make trips to museums a very different experience indeed. This free app lets you snap a piece of art and instantly find out its story. The team have partnered with 35 leading museums all round the world to launch with an impressive bank of data. Anna commented that more than ever, technology is changing our grasp and interpretation of reality and we need to adapt to this. Currently the art works will be accompanied by the museum text that you would read on the wall label but there is appetite to include alternative interpretations with particular slants eg. feminist or for children. They really want to move people away from using their phones merely to take selfies in the gallery and towards using them as devices for engagement.

All of these speakers served to demonstrate how useful digital reproductions can be well beyond the access and preservation mantra that we all know. It will be interesting to see the knock on effects of this declaration and how these take hold in museums and heritage organisations across the world. I for one will be staying tuned to their website and hoping for more events in future.

In an unrelated note, I got an early Christmas present when my Accreditation plaque arrived this morning!

Saturday, 25 November 2017

NT Archive awarded Accredited status

It was announced this week that the National Theatre Archive has been awarded Accredited status by The National Archives. This is something that I have been working towards for three and a half years and I cannot tell you how excited and relieved I am that we have passed!

Accreditation is the national standard for archives and recognises good practice in terms of governance of the service, collections management and providing access to stakeholders. It also recognises stability in forward planning and budgeting to ensure the long term preservation of assets.

The standard has been a really useful tool for improving documentation of workflows and processes in the Archive and for writing policies and strategy plans. I have enjoyed getting the house in order and am relieved that knowledge of the collections and our processes are no longer tied up in certain staff members' heads.

The NT is really excited to be the 100th service to be accredited and the first archive in a theatre to be recognised with the award. The process has raised the profile of the Archive within the organisation (we even got a press release and dedicated tweets from each of our archive team members!). I am hoping to use our new status to continue to advocate internally and externally for the wonderful collections and service that we provide.

Before I embark on a new big piece of work on digital preservation I am going to take a moment to appreciate how far we have come and celebrate our achievement!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Business Archives Council Conference

Yesterday was the annual Business Archives Council conference, held at the Harper Collins offices in the News Building. The location was fabulous, with stunning views of London on three sides of the conference venue - it definitely felt like I was more in the corporate world than usual!

I usually really enjoy business archives events as they are a chance to get out of the theatre bubble and network with people working in other businesses. Archivists who represent businesses are typically very enthusiastic about their jobs and passionate about their brand and a joy to speak to!

View from the conference venue over the whole of London

There were many types of business archives represented from the Wellcome to GSK to John Lewis and many themes cropped up throughout the day. I have a few takeaways to consider and thought I'd list them out here with some context:

- the presentation from the Wellcome touched on using techniques and vocabulary form other sectors to help with their library transformation. They are considering what the minimum viable product is for archival description - what needs to be included to meet researchers' expectations? This is an unusual way to look at the issue but one that would ensure satisfaction for the researcher while allowing for accurate resource allocation to the project

- the Wellcome are now collecting in a format agnostic way - makes a lot of sense and I feel like this needs to become more common - we need to be breaking down the distinction between paper and digital while appraising 

- the Wellcome staff also touched on a topic close to my heart - the routes into the profession. They are beginning to mix their teams far more with librarians, archivists and documentation officers all working alongside. They encouraged us to focus on people's backgrounds and experience rather than their qualification in order to match the breadth of skills required to be an archivist these days

- Elizabeth Lomas of UCL talked about the need to weigh up the benefits of digital assets with duplication and sharing and the negatives such as hacking and corruption. Will there ever be an original record in the digital world?

- Mary Rutherford from GSK talked about how materials have gone from paper to digital, personal to impersonal, informal to controlled and from bulky paper to big data. What are the knock on effects for appraising digital assets? Her colleague, Chris Campbell went further, posing the question - do we keep everything or nothing?

- I was particularly interested in the presentations on the collaborative projects between universities and business archives. A project between University of Liverpool and Barclays Group has embedded a PhD student in the corporate archive to understand the structure and constraints on archive services. For the university this sort of research grows archival science as a research discipline, promotes knowledge transfer and extends links with the professional community. For Barclays, they have an extra staff member, can evidence commitment to local community and are identified as a site of professional excellence

- Margaret Proctor, speaking on the above project, outlined the positives as aligning with strategic objectives of both partners, creating practical outputs and building on and developing already existing relationships. The negatives can be the interdisciplinary nature of the research with changing aims and research team assumptions and also the difficulty of recruiting suitable candidates

- Judy Faraday from John Lewis spoke passionately about the role of the business archivists in serving the truth as well as ensuring that there is no repetitional damage to the organisation. She encouraged us to know what is on the business agendas and find out how we can serve that purpose. This can make the archive more sustainable as the business value of the archive is evidenced

There was certainly a lot of food for thought and I will be considering our digital assets in a slightly different light. I am also interested in pursuing the idea of collaborative academic work with the business archive rather than necessarily with the cultural archive. It is always useful to step outside of the theatre archive sphere and meet others in the wider sector to get informed and inspired.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

DocPerform2 Conference

DocPerform is a research project based at City, University of London, focussed on the concept of documenting performance in all its guises. The audience was very mixed and quite different to the theatre archive audience I am used to - there were more academics, students and practitioners than I was expecting, which provided rich networking and discussion opportunities.

I presented a paper on the work of the NT Archive, the challenges we face with future technologies, gaps in the collections and how we are collaborating with colleagues in New Work to ensure that the Archive is as involved in theatre-making as we can be. My own research focuses on the documentation of performance: what, how and why. This was an excellent forum in which to air my initial thoughts from my research and they were very well received. A lot of what we are working on at the NT touched on the main themes of the conference, which were to look at documentation of new technologies and of intangible things like emotions and relationships.

One of the phrases that recurred throughout the two days was 'embedded archivist', which is the idea of having an archivist or documentation enthusiast in the rehearsal room. They would encourage the documentation of that production. This is easier than it sounds and we had a discussion around the real and/or perceived limiting factors of documentation on the creative process. There is the constant issue of deciding what should be documented without affecting the creative process itself. And would an embedded archivist be a better fit than a practitioner who knows the value of documentation? Should we not be focussing our time and effort into improving the relationship between archivists, academics and practitioners in order to ensure the safeguarding of performing arts materials for the future?

Several questions kept coming up throughout the conference and are really useful for considering as an archivist:
  • what are we documenting?
  • who are we documenting it for?
  • from whose perspective are we documenting?
Sometimes we can get too caught up in capturing what we have always captured that we forget the importance of knowing who it is for and how it will be used in the future.

The second day of the conference was more focussed on where documentation is going in the future. We heard a lot about filming of performances and it became clear that we need to become more digitally literate in terms of digital content. This is particularly important as we become swamped with data - there is no longer the issue of not having enough content left over form a production but of too much. The necessity will be around curation of content rather than just collecting it.

The conference definitely threw up some thought-provoking questions and I could see a promising start to collaborative thinking across the sectors. On the way home that night I saw the below mosaic...I definitely love what I do, particularly when I can see the enthusiasm and dedication of those in my sector and beyond to document the performing arts.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Creative Role of Research

I attended the launch of the Creative Role of Research yesterday at King's College London. This report has been written using case studies on the impact of research beyond academia that were provided by universities in REF2014. The aim was to understand the relationship between all fields of research and their impact within the creative and cultural sector.

I have previously attended a workshop at KCL on how to improve research undertaken by academics in partnership with cultural organisations and we are actively looking into the idea of research at the NT and what that could look like for us. So I was very interested in attending the launch of this report as the starting point for discussions into how to make the relationships between academics and cultural organisations more fruitful for both parties.

The morning launch comprised of talks about how the report was compiled, how the narrative case studies were interrogated for data and what the findings can tell us. It is now widely accepted that academic research is useful beyond the production of knowledge and a few main headlines came out for me:

1. the impact case studies mostly involved relationships with the public. Public engagement is a major new area for universities so cultural organisations and universities are now all on the same page
2. research in all academic disciplines led to outputs in the creative and cultural sector
3. cultural partners tended to come from London and national or international organisations - there was a lack of regional partnerships

A panel discussion provided an opportunity to hear from academics and cultural organisations, including Complicite, about how embedded research can benefit both sides as well as provide challenges.

There was a conversation around the very idea of 'impact' and trying to measure it, which is something that any organisation with Arts Council funding will appreciate. As people in the arts should we not be trying to create a new language in which to evaluate our work rather than relying on science to do it for us? One audience member asked if we are devaluing the arts further by deferring to science for evaluation. A more positive way to think about this was proposed, which is to turn the negativity of being reticent or defensive about funding cuts in the arts and academia into a positive and create a new language around cultural collaboration, leadership in the arts and how we can evidence this.

It was obvious that this report will raise more questions than it answers and so there is a lot of work now to be done to analyse the findings and consider where the work with cultrual partners can go form here. I am really looking forward to reading the report, which can be downloaded here and seeing what I can learn from it for my work.

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!