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‘Experiencing the Archive’ explores untold stories, communities, histories and legacies

Arts University Plymouth launched the project with Knowledge Exchange funding, promoting meaningful engagement and collaboration with artists, archivist and communities

Dr Steven Paige and Arts University Plymouth recently completed work on ‘Experiencing the Archive’, investigating the ways that archival collections are gateways to communities and histories that reflect important societal and cultural lineage, in a Knowledge Exchange project funded by Research England. Outcomes from the project will be used to inform Arts University Plymouth’s new MA Museum Studies, which launches in September 2023 in collaboration with The Box, Plymouth.

‘Experiencing the Archive’ was initiated and led by Dr Paige, primarily through three themed workshops with key regional cultural institutions and community organisations set up to address experiences of the archive from multiple social and cultural perspectives. The goal was to explore how archives and archival collections can be newly utilised and shared through meaningful and consequential interaction, with artists, archivists, institutions and communities. Through the shared dialogues and interactions of the participants, they would develop new understandings of archival practices that would impact their own work and approaches.

The project encompassed an exploration of current strategies and processes accessing and exploring historical records, proposing new approaches to community engagement, augmented with new understandings gained from an invested community. Workshop participants were regional and national creative practitioners, invested stakeholders and archival specialists.

Each of the three workshops were recorded to create four 30 minute podcasts that will be published at a later date. These podcasts will be available to the public and will be promoted via archive-related networks and institutions.

With a focus on what needs to be newly considered to reveal the social, diverse, authentic, sometimes problematic and missing narratives and how these can be creatively manifested, the process considered the environmental and economic impact to such activities. This includes investigating how and where collections are held and accessed and what digital innovation in sharing collections can offer, extend, or limit the experience of archival research. 

The first workshop, named ‘Archives & Artist Legacy – Creating, Sustaining and Using Artist Archives’, was hosted by Dr Jeanie Sinclair and held at Bill’s Attic in Redruth, Cornwall. Bill’s Attic is an immersive record of Cornish theatre maker Bill Mitchel, and participants of the workshop were invited to use a range of documents, letters, oral histories, articles, books and newspapers to explore how archives are used to create artistic legacies and how custodians of artistic legacies attempt to protect them.

Dr Jeanie Sinclair is a feminist art historian, researcher and curator interested in exploring hidden and alternative histories, and explores how history and memory can be performed in order to disrupt and subvert existing historical narratives.

The second in the series of workshops, titled ‘Archives & Activism – Archiving Counter Cultures and Social Practice’, was held at The Box, Plymouth and hosted by Sarah Haylett. The workshop explored what it means to archive in an activist capacity, collectively thinking about the marginalised voices who have been excluded from historical records and how critical, community archiving works to counter this.

Sarah Haylett is a London based archivist and researcher, and was the Archives and Records Management Researcher on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum at Tate. She is currently an  AHRC collaborative doctoral student at UCL and Tate researching if and how community and participatory archiving practices can be used to collect the traces of socially engaged and activist art. 

MA Museum Studies offers students a unique opportunity to reimagine the role of the museum within contemporary socio-political debates, working with The Box, Plymouth’s award-winning museum, art collection, gallery and archive (also home to the South West Film & Television Archive), and a range of regional and national museums and collections.

The final workshop explored LGBTQ+ narratives, with the workshop titled ‘Archives & Communities – LGBTQ+ narratives’, and was hosted by The Box, Plymouth and presented by Sophie Myers. The workshop discussed the power structures that exist in archives and ways of researching and finding narratives that subvert and undermine those structures. Participants explored LGBTQ+ archives, looking at the ‘Outback Newsletter for Lesbians in Cornwall and the far South West’, examining the themes, language and limitations of cataloguing queer collections.

Sophie Meyer is Director of Queer Kernow CIC, Trustee of Cornwall Pride and is a published and award-winning historian. Queer Kernow acts as a conduit for LGBT history in the local area, partnering with local museums and archives to research this facet of Cornwall’s past and share the stories uncovered. Sophie has worked in heritage for over ten years and alongside her pride work, currently works with Cornwall Heritage Trust.

Senior Lecturer and Subject Tutor of Arts University Plymouth’s Creative Education Masters degree, Dr Natalia Eernstman said of the project:

“I really enjoyed working on this project; which has allowed us to bring together people to reimagine the function and shape of archives. It raised a multitude of insights around whose stories are normally documented and archived, and which ones are systematically excluded; around how certain groups and histories are represented, and whether they get a say in this curation of their image. These are all very relevant questions that museums and heritage centres are currently grappling with. Institutions like The Box are starting to find new and exciting ways to respond to these complexities and we are very excited to further the thinking around these and related themes in our new Museum Studies Masters degree.”

MA Museum Studies at Arts University Plymouth is now open to applications and launches in September 2023. This new postgraduate qualification offers students a unique opportunity to reimagine the role of the museum within contemporary socio-political debates, working with The Box, Plymouth’s award-winning museum, art collection, gallery and archive (also home to the South West Film & Television Archive), and a range of regional and national museums and collections including Tate St Ives, Tate Britain Archives, and RAMM Exeter.

The ‘Experiencing the Archive’ project is an Arts University Plymouth Knowledge Exchange project supported by Research England’s Knowledge Exchange Funding for Smaller Providers.

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