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

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!