Recently, documents from the 18th century and the Georgian monarchs were digitised and released online for free. Around 33,000 documents, some surrounding the American Revolution and King George III’s reaction to it, have been published and it is part of a bigger project which, by 2020 aims to digitise more than 350,000 documents. This announcement made me consider about how public archives are.
While museums are very much universally known and appreciated, I wonder whether this could be the same for archives. When one thinks of archives, it would not surprise me for people to ask what exactly they are, especially if they are not from a historical/ academic background. Archives are not like museums where the displays and collections are set up for the public to come in and see. You have to know what you want to see, sit in a quiet room and make notes in pencil. Archives are for the academics. Or are they?
I argue that there is a huge, untapped potential within archives that can help to make them accessible to all and open them up to a wider audience than genealogists and academics. Archives are like museums for several reasons.
- They both have a collection that is for the public.
- They both want to educate.
- You can display them both.
- Collections need to be balanced between access and conservation.
I feel that for too long, archives have been stereotyped and believed to be the realm of academics. There is untapped potential within them to make them and their collections more accessible to everyone.
One area in which archives could open up more (and learn from their museum counterparts) is in exhibitions. Now I know that many archives, such as the Parliamentary Archives and the University of Leicester/ Kent Special Collections, already do displays and exhibitions. However, I feel that the issue with these is space. They are either in not very accessible places or they are in the archives themselves. This means that they do not have a lot of space in order to create a really extensive exhibit. Furthermore, a lot of these areas are within the archives and an issue with this is attracting people to the archive building in the first place. Archives are not like museums in which people know that exhibits are part of the fabric of the buildings. I would argue that most see them as places of research. Because they are not so known as museums it makes marketing all the more important. However, it only seems to be the larger institutions such as the British Library and the National Archives that put forward their exhibitions. Exhibitions do seem to be advertised on their websites but one would have to actively go looking for this, be engaged with the news at the archives and again the location presents challenges. For example,the Canterbury Cathedral archives hold exhibitions but they are housed within the cathedral itself and may prevent people from accessing them because you have to pay to get in. How archives could go about addressing these issues is though partnership. My idea is that archives could pair up with local museums and have a case which they can rent/ lease out and thus create an exhibition. I know that archives and museums do pair up and share documents already (I have had experience of this within the Nottinghamshire Archives), but this idea is about the archive having a space which is can call its own. Firstly, this would give archives a lot more space in order to display their collection and could give archivists and exhibition designers a chance to explore and develop archival exhibition design (something which could be developed a lot more). It would give archives a chance to be displayed in a more innovative way and museum colleagues could help lend their expertise to this effect. Secondly, with museums and archives collaborating, it could help create an interesting and more engaging display overall. Thirdly, by having the exhibition within a museum, it may help to conquer the issue of drawing people into the archive in the first place. People know that museums exhibit and are more likely to go in there. Thus, an archival exhibition would probably gain a larger audience and thus would be more accessible.
Another area in which archives could explore is that of school loans. Museums already do this by having schools come in and have workshops or lessons within the museum or they have some objects set aside to be set out for schools to use. Birmingham Collections Centre have such items and a system in place. People who work within the archives could research the curriculum and identify any objects within their collection which fit in and could help in the teaching of certain subjects. For example, a lot of children do World War II during history lessons at school and so an archive may have a ration book, an evacuee’s diary or a poster within their stores which they could use within a lesson/ workshop context. By taking these into schools and allowing pupils to engage with them, not only are you allowing children to add an extra dimension to their learning, but you also help them gain familiarity with archives from a young age. Hopefully, this would help to break down some of the barriers and stereotypes that modern archives have. Nevertheless, while these are all very beneficial, there are some issues. Firstly that of palaeography, language and document care. Yet these could easily be overcome by suppling a transcript along with the document to allow children to read the document. Moreover, addressing document care, archivists could develop this as part of the workshop. It would allow children to see what archivists do on a daily basis and again allow them to develop an appreciation for the profession and for archives. Secondly, archives do get involved with events, like the Make History Happen event that Nottinghamshire archives was involved in. I have not found an example, however, of an archive that goes directly into schools. If anyone knows of such an example, I would love to learn more about it.
The idea above is aimed at a younger demographic, however to develop upon this and aim at a more teenage/ young adult audience, we need to look at social media. Again, this is something that, to their credit, archives such as the national archives already do and I believe they do well. On days when a significant event has happened or just randomly on each day, archives do make use of twitter to post images of what they have within their collection (see the images below). Moreover, I have had experience of archives like the Parliamentary archives where they have held a Q&A session with some of their photography and collections care team. So what, you may ask, could archives do more? I think this will be expanded with the next factor.
Something that museums such as the Natural History Museum have begun to do is to do a weekly live show with a curator of a collection talking about objects within their care. While with museums this may be slightly easier because they have a physical 3D object, I wonder whether it would apply the same to archives. But this idea of a lecture, exploring what is usually hidden away, is an idea that can work both online and in person. Archives could get local historians or experts in to come and give a talk, which they broadcast live on social media. They could invite people to come to the talk and before they arrive, guests could be asked what topics in which they are interested. By asking this question, archivists could explore their stores to see if there is anything that corresponds to someone’s interests and get it out for them to view after the lecture. Something similar to this was done while I assisted an archive tour at the Parliamentary archives. The group in question was asked their interested days in advance and thus towards the end of their tour, they were greeted with a variety of documents which related to their interest areas. What resulted from this was several visitors being excited about what they were seeing and interested in coming back or acquiring a digital photograph of the document. Thus this idea has a proven track record with regards to tours. Returning back to the lecture idea, it would be a lovely opportunity for local historians to present their research as they are people who utilised local archives regularly. Thus being able to show what they have researched would demonstrate what a good resource archives are. This lecture idea would allow you reach a wide audience, not only those who would visit the archives, but those who may be curious in a topic, who may not be able to get to the archive or who may not know what they do.
I began this blog post talking about a huge digitisation project on the documents relating to Georgian monarchs. This is significant as digitisation is something which is a growing field within both museums and archives. Digitising documents has so many benefits. To begin with, it allows the documents to be accessed anywhere and at any time. This would enable people to engage with archives who may not have been able to get to the archive building because of work/ geographical restrictions or other responsibilities. If they wanted to explore a topic or do some leisurely research in their own time, it would enable a wider demographic and group to do this. Secondly, by putting the documents online, it would help with conservation concerns and indirectly help to combat some of the strict etiquette within archives. Like objects, allowing people to engage with these documents, holding them and exposing them to varying conditions, can damage documents overtime (especially the most popular ones). There are strict rules within archives as to what you can and cannot do within a reading room which may put people off visiting because such strict rules are designed to keep the documents safe. By digitising them, it allows the document to be enjoyed by a wider audience because multiple copies could be sent all over the world, but it would also ensure that the original document can be kept under better environmental conditions, thus enabling it to last for longer. However, digitising does have drawbacks. The big three are cost, time and people. To have all of the equipment to take quality photos of the documents and to have skilled people to be dedicated just to do this just would cost a lot and take up so much time. If archives have a backlog just cataloguing documents normally, then photographing and digitising them would only make this more extensive. The second issue is revenue. A lot of archives are owned by local councils or by institutions such as churches or universities. While it is free to go in and view documents, extras such as photocopying and photographing could cost extra. If all of the documents were digitised, then this revenue raiser would be withdrawn and, with cuts to all parts of arts and culture occurring, this may have a negative impact upon the archive as a whole. A system could be in place where you have to request a document and pay to view it or you can only read a certain percentage of the document before you have to pay; but then that counteracts the wish for archives to be freely accessible. It is an interesting conundrum. However, an issue with digitisation which can be called romantic in some respects, is that I fear that by digitising the collection, it may result in people not making the visit to archives any more. This is something that I am worried about. I want people to visit archives and use them. They can experience and handle history or society (more so than any museum!). But if it is all online, then what is the pull factor that would still make people want to travel to come into the building? Furthermore, there is some things that digitisation can never replicate. Delicate watermarks or marks on the pages, the smell and the feel of the paper, how thick/ thin it is, relative size etc. As much as we can put these within a description, this will never amount to the same impact or effectiveness as seeing the object in the flesh.
However, despite these issues, it seems that digitisation is where a lot of the heritage sector is moving towards and one which archives can embrace in a way that combines 2 factors: digitised collections and exhibitions. If archives end up having a digitised collection, then the prospect of a digitised exhibition would be an interesting addition to a physical archive space. This could be displayed on a TV screen within a museum in which people are shown that these are documents from the local archives. However, these exhibitions could also be online. Places like the National Archives, as we have seen, already do online exhibitions – an example being their Magna Carta exhibition. These are a fantastic resource that can target a wide audience of all ages and abilities, provide transcripts for difficult handwriting/ languages and also immerse people with a story, like museum exhibitions seek to do. Having a document that a visitor can click on, enlarge but also see videos, pictures, images etc. attached could help bring that document to life more than just presenting it within a case with some text.
In all, as we have seen, some things archives already do in order to try and make themselves more accessible. Some things they are beginning to do and some things could be explored in the future. But I think the main issue affecting archives is challenging these preconceptions that archives are for researchers and academics. This is eerily reminiscing to what I have been learning and researching within my Master’s course for museums. In a Britain Thinks study, people described how they had a perception that museums were boring and old. But in fact, museums now are becoming more visitor focused and developing digital and more interactive elements. Museums have recently been actively trying to overturn this stereotype to be more accessible to a wider, non-typical museum audience. This renaissance within museums is something that I believe that archives can and should go through. I know that they have slightly different functions to a museum, but as I argued at the beginning, there are so many similarities between them. Archives are documents detailing the history and development of people like objects within a museum and as such they should be used and accessible to all. At present a stereotype is a barrier to this and what I have detailed above are some ideas that could help brig archives into more mainstream consciousness and more familiar to a wider audience.
- British Library, What’s on, https://www.bl.uk/whats-on, [accessed 12/2/2017]; National Archives, Online Exhibitions, <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/online-exhibitions/> [accessed 12/2/2017].
- BritainThinks for Museums Association, Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society, 2013, <http://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=954916>, [accessed 13/2/2017]
- Canterbury Cathedral, Sharing Histories Exhibition, <https://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/whats-on/event/sharing-histories-exhibition/> [accessed 12/2/2017]
- Ducibella, Jim and Langley, Courtney, WY Daily, W&M releases thousands of British royal documents online, <http://wydaily.com/2017/01/30/wm-releases-thousands-of-british-royal-documents-online/> [accessed 5/2/2017].
- National Archives, Magna Carta, <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/medieval/magna-carta/> [accessed 12/2/2017].
 Jim Ducibella and Courtney Langley, WY Daily, W&M releases thousands of British royal documents online, <http://wydaily.com/2017/01/30/wm-releases-thousands-of-british-royal-documents-online/> [accessed 5/2/2017].
 British Library, What’s on, https://www.bl.uk/whats-on, [accessed 12/2/2017]; National Archives, Online Exhibitions, <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/online-exhibitions/> [accessed 12/2/2017].
 Canterbury Cathedral, Sharing Histories Exhibition, <https://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/whats-on/event/sharing-histories-exhibition/> [accessed 12/2/2017]
 Ducibella and Langley, W&M releases thousands of British royal documents online.
 National Archives, Magna Carta, <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/medieval/magna-carta/> [accessed 12/2/2017].
 BritainThinks for Museums Association, Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society, 2013, <http://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=954916>, [accessed 13/2/2017], p. 11.