APAC Symposium: Performance Collections and their Users

Report by Arantza Barrutia-Wood

Around 40 people attended APAC’s symposium on archive users and audience engagement held at the University of Birmingham on 26 February 2015. The symposium explored the themes of users’ motivations to visit archival collections, their experiences when encountering original documents, and the outcomes of their study, not only from a research perspective but also as a personal journey of discovery. Additionally, it highlighted the mutual benefits of audience engagement for both the archive and the user. The symposium was funded by a Subject Specialist Network grant from Arts Council England.

Professor Ewan Fernie, Chair, Professor and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, opened the symposium with a presentation entitled ‘Collections in the Curriculum’. Professor Fernie convenes the pioneering Shakespeare and Creativity MA in which students carry out scholarly research to produce a piece of theatre work that responds to the history of Shakespeare in society.

He talked about the movement of the course out of the classroom and into society. Using original documents in the archives brings a real sense of historic context to his students, he said, and improves their understanding of the role of Shakespeare in his contemporary and current society. Professor Fernie also discussed the impact archives have on users’ creativity and the emotional connections they create with researchers and students. He explained that MA students work on creative projects whose outcomes are a crossover between archival research and intervention.

Then, five of his students presented Archives on Fire, a piece of theatre work based on World War I. The play took the audience from the outbreak of the war and the recruitment of soldiers to the battlefields. Afterward, the students showed the archival sources they had used to create the play, whose brief was to celebrate Shakespeare as well as commemorate WWI. They described the powerful emotions they experienced by visiting different repositories, collections and monuments during their research.

This had been their first experience of using archives of any kind. They summarised the process as a mind-opening experience, a journey of discovery, an inspirational experience, and a first step into exploring archives. They expressed an eagerness to work with archives in the future and to explore their potential in other areas of interest, such as working with schoolchildren and researching other personal narratives.

In his presentation, ‘All’s Well that Ends Well: the Collections of the Royal Shakespeare Company’ (RSC), Andy Horn, the company’s exhibitions manager, discussed the challenges encountered in past collecting and cataloguing practices as well as disjointed display and interpretation strategies. He touched on the capacity of objects to create stories, issues of increased public engagement work, and improvement of stored collections.

The RSC collections garner wide interest, from designers to students, from artists to curators. Users are offered access to the collections through exhibitions, loans, online through digitisation and cataloguing, as well as physical access to materials. In 2013 the RSC took part in the ‘Time Out’ project, a collections exchange between museums exploring experimentation with interpretation of objects within different contexts and the change of meanings that arose in this process. Horn surveyed the work the RSC is doing in brand management, tackling the challenges current collecting practices pose, and income generation. In the Q&A that followed, the discussion focused on collecting processes and documentation practices.

In her presentation ‘Creative Interventions: Re-imagining the Archive’, Jo Elsworth, Director of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, explained that the Collection has a strong focus on users, who range from researchers to people in the creative and cultural industries to the general public. Elsworth and her staff are developing new opportunities for users to re-imaging the collections, while enabling discovery of their holdings through research, outreach, and education. One aim is to link the public with academics. They also invest in low-budget projects that have a great impact.

Elsworth presented case studies related to creative interventions, such as working with performing artists, and reflected on some of the challenges they have faced when embarking in pioneering and unusual research. Archive staff experienced different ways to work with the collections when led by artists, which challenged their thought processes, practices and perceptions, and encouraged them to think creatively.

Elsworth also talked about the Theatre Collection’s involvement with a creative technologies partner in an experiment to understand whether users interact more with real objects or with digital renditions of objects. Through this project, they are examining the value of holding real objects against the retention of digital images only.

Elsworth shared her session with Cara Davies, Bristol PhD student, performance artist and hobbyist archivist. Davies spoke about her interest as a performance artist in archiving her own work as she creates it. Her PhD research draws on the archive, held at Bristol, of Franko B, a prolific performance artist. This collection contains a large amount of sensitive material, including human tissue and nudity, presented in controversial ways, and Cara looked at how to make this collection accessible, while preserving the integrity of the work.

She described the benefits of working at the archive, learning about documentation and collecting practices, copyright, access, digitisation and curation. She reflected on the relationship between archive, artist, documentation and interpretation. This joint session was followed by a Q&A that focused on the work the University of Bristol Theatre Collection does with volunteers and how different organisations organise the work of volunteers and manage volunteer projects.

After lunch, Erin Lee, Archivist for the National Theatre (NT), talked about the theatre’s teacher placement schemes with Myfanwy Marshall, a placement teacher working on an MA in English and Education. Lee discussed the projects and exhibition programmes that the NT is working on to open up access to the archive’s holdings and increase engagement and use. Some projects aim to reveal the complete life of a show, from its inception to its archival process, while others look at using collections in innovative ways with teachers.

Marshall described her first contact with the NT collections as inspirational. She talked about the power of original artefacts to connect with audiences. Her journey through the collections was guided by the national curriculum, but she was searching for material that was different and increased opportunities for creative work. The archive contributed to bringing literary works to life in the classroom through material that was either part of the creative process or associated with the life of a particular play. For example, press reviews added a social angle to the life of the piece and revealed its cultural impact in society. Marshall advocated using the archive as a tool to encourage students to work in a more creative way, creating responses and interpretations of literary work in theatre.

Matt McFrederick, a PhD student and sessional teacher in the Department of Film, Theatre and Television at the University of Reading, discussed the use of archives by research students. His PhD investigates the impact of Beckett’s work on Irish and UK theatre, culture, and practice. McFrederick explained how Beckett’s manuscripts and personal archive bring another layer and interest to his work by giving insights into his thoughts and creative process.

As part of his research, McFrederick is involved in the Staging Beckett Project, a collaboration of the University of Reading, Chester University, and the V&A, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. One of the project’s major outputs is the creation of a database that builds a performance history for the playwright through comprehensive data on productions of his dramas, revealing Beckett’s role as theatre artist and collaborator. The online database will launch in 2015.

Professor David Worrall, the last speaker of the day, is Emeritus Professor at Nottingham Trent University and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Roehampton. In his talk ‘Eighteenth Century Theatre Archives in Britain and America: A Researcher’s Perspective’, Professor Worrall said that using archives was the way for the scholar to depart from books and instead access the source of evidence: original material such as reports, account books, ledgers, notes, letters, and other material produced contemporaneously with the events they describe and related to the lives of the plays’ creators. The resulting social and historical context helps the researcher better understand the creators’ stories, lives, and achievements.

The programme and speakers’ profiles can be downloaded using the link (pdf, 135KB).

Arantza Barrutia-Wood is Collections Officer at the University of Sheffield, which holds the National Fairground Archive.