APAC and STR (Society for Theatre Research) Joint Symposium: Clear Sailing: Navigating the Archive

Setting Sail

On an especially sunny summer day, almost 50 members of APAC and the STR set sail together for their first ever joint event held in the wonderful setting of the V&A’s Sackler Centre for the Arts Education lecture theatre.

The day was superbly chaired by Erin Lee (APAC Chair & Head of Archive, National Theatre) and Simon Sladen (STR Chair & Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance, V&A Theatre & Performance). Alongside leading proceedings they also chaired the panels helped by Bethany Johnstone (PhD student, Department of Information Studies). The speakers comprised both researchers and archive professionals which meant the discussions were well-rounded leading to constructive advice about how to support one another.

stylised graphic of a tall sailing ship

Navigators

Deborah Jeffries (PhD student, University of East London & Rose Bruford College) talked with great passion about her mixed experiences of accessing and engaging with archives. Her refreshingly honest talk highlighted the frustrations, surprises and common experiences many researchers have when contacting, visiting and using archive collections.

Eileen Cottis (STR Vice President) gave us an insight into her extensive knowledge of theatre collections and described with much eloquence her experience of consulting theatre archives in the mid-1950s when many collections were accessed via lengthy correspondence and building personal relationships.

Erica Charalambous (PhD student, Coventry University) spoke about disappearing content and performativity in archives of dance. This fascinating talk would have made many in the audience involved in managing dance archives think about the way in which we record, catalogue and maintain dance archives in all their varying formats.

Stylised compass points graphics

Archive Professionals

From the University of Kent, Karen Brayshaw (Special Collections and Archives Manager) and Dr Helen Brooks (Reader in Theatre and Cultural History) co-presented a paper about the ‘hands-on history’ two-week internship initiative launched in June 2019 by the University’s Special Collections & Archives. The initiative has proved a wonderful collaboration between archive professionals & academics and a great way of opening up their collections to students and researchers in a ‘hands-on’ immersive way.

Lindsay Ince (Assistant Archivist, Heritage Quay) described how the University of Huddersfield archive has been advocating engaging new uses of the Mikron Theatre Company archive especially by untypical audiences. The proactive approach by Lindsay and Heritage Quay to bring this collection to the attention of new users and the Company itself was an inspiring example to other archive professionals and researchers alike.

Jane Pritchard (Curator of Dance, V&A) shared her huge wealth of knowledge both using and caring for dance collections. It was a joy to hear how collections generally have become more accessible for researchers over the past 40 years, and informative to know what challenges to access and use still remain.  These included collections relocating, over usage of collections and changing relationships of parent organisations to their archives.

Additionally Caroline Sampson (Development Manager: National & Networks, TNA) addressed the audience about the newly refreshed TNA, ‘Guidance for Collaboration for Archives and Higher Education’. Take a look here: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/archives/2018-edition-archive-and-he-guidance-all-sections-combined-ci-final.pdf

Symposium Treasure

For Navigators:

  • Manage your research time and be realistic about how much you can see in one visit.
  • Be wise as to reprographic charges, opening hours and facilities onsite.
  • Get personal! Make a named contact at the archive and build rapport.
  • Be willing to share your knowledge to enhance catalogue records.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell an archive about a collection in private hands that needs a home. They may want to acquire it and you could be the bridge.
  • Offer to speak about your research as part of public lecture series or to archive staff for them to gain a better understanding of the collections in their care.

For Archive Professionals:

  • Provide behind-the scenes tours, hands-on / volunteer opportunities for researchers
  • If possible, provide different / longer opening hours suited to researcher needs.
  • Could you have a separate email box for PhD students who often have different needs
  • Try to show a human face as much as possible, hard in larger archives, but it improves the experience for researchers enormously having a personal contact.
  • Could you host occasional but regular afternoon tea and chats with researchers?
  • Hold open study days at which items not normally seen are contextualised by staff / researchers.
  • Manage the user’s expectations and help empower their understanding of archives. What level of assistance do your users require?
  • Make special access arrangements to certain items / collections are made clear.
  • Provide adequate space to researchers to handle items correctly esp. objects.
  • Offer online appointment booking where possible.
  • Offer remote access – Skype chats or a Facebook Live hour for researchers.
  • Provide advance information for the researcher that charts their journey – info before they visit, how to locate the online catalogue, what to expect on arrival, how to handle the collections etc.

Liz Harper, APAC Trustee & Archive Manager, Royal Albert Hall

These and other points from the day have been brought together in this resource for archives to develop research access: