British Library Conference Centre, 29th February 2016

Archives care for the past, but what is their role in caring for the future? Rebecca Nelson, PhD Researcher on the ‘Antislavery Usable Past’ Project, WISE reports on a resent event……

As part of the ‘Archives into the Future’ seminar series, co-organised by the ‘Antislavery Usable Past’ (www.usablepast.ac.uk)  and ‘Performing into the Jewish Archive’ (http://ptja.leeds.ac.uk/), this one day event sought to provide a forum for creative debate about the issues facing archives today, and looked to explore innovative approaches towards archives in the future. Both of these projects are funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward Through the Past’ theme.

This particular workshop was organised by ‘Antislavery Usable Past’, in collaboration with the British Library, and focussed on the relationships between archives and the Third Sector. ‘Antislavery Usable Past’ is an inter-disciplinary investigation into antislavery legacies across both time and space. Its aim is to demonstrate that applied knowledge of the antislavery past offers a way to ‘care for the future’. To that end, this workshop aimed to create an arena for an exchange of ideas between archivists, heritage professionals, academics, NGOs, charities and human rights organisations on the value of archives in the Third Sector and how heritage resources can be utilised in modern day campaigning.

With a packed programme ahead, Professor John Oldfield (from ‘The Antislavery Usable Past’) delivered a welcome to the sixty or so attendees from across academic, heritage/archives and third sector organisations. He set the scene well, describing just how important archives are to a vast wealth of academic work, and the need for academics to use the skills we possess in helping to promote and protect the archives, as well as raising awareness and increasing access for the public. Following this Drs Mary Wills and Kate Donington (both post-doctoral researchers on the project) gave a short overview of the ‘Antislavery Usable Past’, introducing the idea of using histories and heritage as tools for creating a greater theoretical understanding of the issues we now face in society, and also as practical aids for creating strategies and campaigns to tackle these issues. Finally Gillian Ridgley, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts (Politics and Public Life) at the British Library, outlined just some of the issues she thought would arise in discussions during the day, most notably the dilemmas associated with archives of the future becoming increasingly digital, both in their creation and their content.

The day was then split into two sessions, focussing around themes. The first of these took place in the morning, and addressed the relationship between archives and the third sector with a particular focus on how they relate to public policy and social activism. Professor Zoe Trodd (another researcher on ‘The Antislavery Usable Past’) chaired the panel, which included both archive practitioners and academics working on archive projects. The papers were opened by Philip Gale, Head of Independent Archives at the National Archives, who spoke passionately about the need to move away from viewing third sector archives as merely ‘the country cousin’ of big, well-known, national collections. He believed that these archives need protecting in this rapidly changing environment of the twenty-first century, and the best way to do this is for leaders within the sector to offer strategies for good conservation, interpretation and promotion. He was followed by Dr Andrew Flinn, UCL, who does a lot of work with community-based archives. Dr Flinn then described the benefits of those, both for archives themselves and academics working with them. One of the most interesting things Andrew discussed was the idea of these collections being participatory, both in allowing their communities to get really ‘hands on’ and participate with creating and curating their own history, as well as the archive participating in all sorts of contemporary community campaigns. Dr Charlotte Clements, from the UCL Institute of Education, talked about the biggest challenge she has faced in her own research, for the ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Great Britain’ project, in getting third sector organisations to see their work as an archive and understand the value of it. She put forward eight reasons for this, which can be seen in a recent blog by her colleague at the following link- http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2014/08/20/eight-reasons-charities-should-be-interested-in-their-archives/ The final speaker for the morning session was Dr Stephen Muir, a Co-Investigator on the ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ project, from the University of Leeds. Stephen discussed the difficulties working with such a sensitive collection, ‘there can be dangers when mining what is a sensitive archive and exploiting it for artistic means.’ He also summarised the dual nature of his project in increasing access to the Jewish Archive through alternative interpretation methods, like music and performance, as well as the creation of a new, digital archive of these performance pieces. The audience and panellists then broke into discussion groups to discuss these issues further in a seminar-style session, more will be mentioned about this later.

After a delicious lunch (always the test for the success of a conference- I think!) the second session on experiences from the archives began, chaired by Dr Mary Wills, and focussing on experiences from the archives. This was a really good counterpart to the morning session which had discussed ideas and strategies, to hear how these were dealt with inside example organisations. The first speaker was Matthew McMurray from the Royal Voluntary Service Archive. Having been in his post ten years, Matthew was well-placed to deliver a good presentation outlining the changes he has seen in archives in recent years, most notably their increasing professionalization. Following Dr Clements paper in the morning, he talked of his own struggle to convince his organisation of the value of their archive as an asset, in financial, historical and promotional terms. Matthew also argued that third sector archives struggle to balance the needs and resources of their organisations against the demands of academic and public researchers. He provided some food for thought when he put forward the idea that those wanting to use the archives should also be the ones to foot the bill for them! Next was Nicky Hilton from the Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections & Archives, which works with collections of ‘hidden histories.’ The institute aims to archive the stories of ordinary people, and in this she often takes on collections from other groups. In doing this, the groups must demonstrate to her themselves, the value they perceive their collection to hold for its audience. She also believes that the future of archives will see a move towards increasingly digital technology and content and because of this organisations will have to focus more on their contemporary collecting. Furthermore, she also argued that within the professional archives sector more needs to be done in the way of offering free advice and support to these third sector archives, “if we act now we can ensure that everyday lives become everyday archives.” Ruth Macdonald, archive assistant for the Salvation Army presented next, and talked about the difficulty as an archivist in pushing forward collection material for use in contemporary social campaigns. Instead, she wondered if creating increased open access would permit audiences to find and use this material for themselves. Liz Sykes, from Manchester’s Together Trust, was the last speaker to give an inside archive view. She delivered a very interesting paper describing the essentiality of promoting the archive back to its organisation as the key to its survival. In doing this she offered examples of the work done by her archive in this vein, including exhibitions, outreach programmes and other digital tools like social media and blogs.

The final speaker on the panel was Professor Pat Thane, of Kings College London, who spoke as a user of archives about their importance in supplementing academic work. She also discussed the pressure felt by third sector organisations to almost self-censor their archives where they fear there may be examples of behaviour or thought that might not be deemed acceptable now. She concluded by summarising her own research writing a history of the Child Poverty Action Group and promoted the assistance that can be provided archives by academics in their own need for well-preserved and organised archives.

The event concluded with a feedback session from the morning’s break out groups. This was led by Professor John Oldfield, and each of the chairs of those groups delivered summaries of the issues raised in the discussions, based on the ideas of third sector archives being used in public policy and social activism, the tensions associated with this, and what might be done in the future for these organisations. What was interesting was that all four of the groups seemed to have come up with the same ideas, based on the common understanding that third sector archives will be facing some challenges in both the short, and long term future. The key issues raised related to the lack of resources afforded to these organisations, both in terms of funding, and manpower, the ownership of third sector archives if they are deposited within larger organisations, increased access for the general public, and how to tackle challenging histories. Different solutions were put forward on all these accounts, often rebutted by another delegate, suggesting that whatever the answer is, it is not going to be a straight forward one. What was clear though, is that events like this are vital in creating a network of archivists, other heritage professionals, academics and organisations from the third sector who can work together to sound out different solutions and offer support to these archives for their future development and growth.

Overall, this was a fascinating event; well organised and thought provoking. For my own research, it raised interesting points about working with challenging histories and the potential for third sector archives to work with museums in creating exhibitions to showcase their own collections, therefore increasing access. Hopefully this is something I will be able to look further into in the future.

Leave a Comment