Arts Archives as Catalysts for Change: DWAN collaborate

At the RNCM Archives, I’ve been poking at the idea of arts archives as arts resources. A lot of the collection at the College is either manuscript music, drawings, programmes or photographs. It’s a dream for outreach and engagement because so much of it created specifically to be engaged with. Music is for listening to, art is for looking at, etc..

Arts and politics, social change and protest have all been linked before and there are cultural and heritage institutions that recognise the potential for their sectors to make a difference in the here and now.

This hadn’t been the case so much for the RNCM Archives and I was itching to side-step into it, arms happily laden with politics and archives.

I’d been bringing artists and arty people down into the basement (not as Hammer Horror as I make it sound) for a good 18 months and they’d been loving the collections. Then, the opportunity to jump on the Digital Women’s Archive North Research and Development project was offered last year. It was timely and nicely experimental. Just what the archives needed.

Digitised archives vs. digital objects

You can read about the R&D on DWAN’s website but the clincher for me was the that digitsied archives on DWAN’s site would function primarily as digital objects in their own right, utilising the tools and potential that digital objects can access, which may help enable them to be used as inspiration for social and political change.

Consider this in comparison to the idea that digitised archives are just images of archives, simple visual representations of physical items that have their restrictive conditions of use transferred to the digital images. This isn’t invalid. It’s a very useful thing to do. But just popping something online doesn’t really make use of the potential that a digital platform can offer your archive collections, service and users.

Digital objects and digital platforms add so many more options for potential engagement and added value that the possibilities may very well be endless. To explore this, DWAN collected a number of professionals in different fields to work together and come up with some prototype ideas for how the DWAN site could present these digital objects.

Artists, archivists and digital technologists

So there I was, in a room of archivists, artists and digital technologists and some wonderful people who somehow find the energy to be all three, working with collections on loan to the project, including those of the RNCM.

It was brilliant. The artists were interested in exploring the collections in a myriad of ways and the digital technologists were approaching items from different avenues all together.

I was happily skipping (very professionally) down memory lane with all of the loaned archives that I had previously worked with. All but one had been under my care at some point. I felt like quite the collector. (I can now boast to 100% since working with the fascinating Museum of Transport archive with the brilliant enJOY Arts project, Her Hidden Histories.)

Problem solving and spiders’ webs

A lot of the conversations during the sessions focused on the pragmatic considerations of digitising collections for a very DWAN-specific purpose. Namely, the opportunity to be a catalyst for positive social and political change. Justifications of why you would use certain tools or why you would offer certain objects to the site came with a focus which had that in its cross hairs.

This did not mean that the conversations were limited to ricocheting within a very narrow tunnel vision. I was giddy with surprise at the number of approaches these people were coming up with to solve one problem, creating an atlas of crossroads and intersections at which they would meet, touch base and redirect themselves until a sort of spider’s web of opportunity and ideas was spun around the main goal.

I can’t help but think that if it was a room of archivists, the conversation would have been very much different.

When we came together as a round-table to chat about what we thought, it was so refreshing to have so many ideas offered, so much creativity and energy focused on archives. I felt that the College’s collections were one vital step closer to becoming items for inspiration and change and arts, not just historical reference.

Some questions for you

Which organisations do you think stride through the boundaries between heritage/activism/politics/arts?

What do you think of the idea that archives can be equal parts historical reference and creativity catalysts?

Have you approached these ideas in your own work?

I’d love to know so please do get in touch.

For an idea of where I’m up to with RNCM Archives, check out its Twitter feed. I get terribly tweety when I’m at the College.