About the Exhibition & Information Booth
In October 2013 we held a series of high-profile awareness and advocacy activities in the Scottish Parliament. This was our first opportunity to 'introduce' archives to MSPs, Ministers and those who work at the Parliament.
The sector was represented by a range of experts who manned an information booth, confident in terms of the underlying principles and with hands-on experience and day-to-day practice. These booths were enhanced by an exhibition of images from archive collections across Scotland and also original records.
The initial task was to secure sponsorship from two MSPs, the first to obtain permission for the exhibition and booth and the second for the reception. It was a crucial moment when Jean Urquhart and Jenny Marra agreed to do the necessary. The parliamentary staff, including the researchers for the two MSPs, were more than co-operative and helpful. Then we had the indefatigable Linda Ramsay, Head of Conservation at the National Records of Scotland, who dispensed the matter-of-fact wisdom that comes with ‘been there, done that’. With support from within the Parliament and from Linda, we were off.
From early on in the planning of the event, it was recognised that even the best quality copies of archive material cannot rival the impact of displaying original items. With the support of colleagues, Linda was crucial in meeting the need. Original documents were drawn from among the vast holdings of the National Records of Scotland. The guiding principle was simple – what might intrigue, even fascinate, MSPs. Of course, it was guesswork but Linda came up with a superb selection of material: love letters from the infamous Madeleine Smith case, through the wills of First World War soldiers killed in action, to the Great Seal of Scotland, the Register of Tartans, Mary Queen of Scots’ signature and the first written mention of whisky. Early each day Linda and her staff put on display a new selection of original documents. The turnover was used not only to engage with MSPs who had seen an earlier selection of documents but also to convey the core message that the display could be no more than a taster from among the riches of the archival heritage. Click on the cover (right) to download a copy of the exhibition catalogue.
Over the three days MSPs came and went, looked at what was on display, asked lots of questions and listened with interest. The outstanding impression we had was that MSPs were interested both in what was on display and in the whole area of archives as ‘the documented national memory’. The First Minister, Deputy First Minister, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs and the Presiding Officer all found time to engage with us. MSPs from right across the political parties asked questions and showed their interest. Certainly a big draw was the display of original documents.
All the weeks of planning, of making phone calls, of researching and attending to every detail had paid off, and handsomely. Spirits were high on the evening of the 9 October when a reception was held in the Parliament. Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop delivered a key speech in which she set out her view of archives and the archives sector. She referred to the vastness of the holdings across Scotland as ‘a treasure trove’ that had the power to ‘inform, educate, inspire and motivate us.’
Archives are the documented national memory. We are a people moulded by past experiences and memories. We connect with what has forged our nation, our communities and, indeed, we as individuals. The story of Scotland in all its richness, diversity, tragedy, joy, success and, yes, failure too is captured, preserved and made available through thousands of archive collections cared for by a relatively small but dedicated cadre of archivists and conservators. They are the guardians of an essential part of our culture - that documented national memory.
The Cabinet Secretary recognised the contribution of the sector to the Scottish Government’s strategic objective of a Wealthier and Fairer Scotland, notably through ancestral tourism and supporting the ‘Scottish experience’ for visitors. She referred to archives as a research tool ‘integral to business’. She focussed on the ‘enormous challenge’ of future access to the digital records being created today and called for that challenge to be met by ‘Co-operation among those with archive, records management, IT and business skills’ so that they might produce ‘the solution or solutions that meet the needs of government and of citizens who depend on easy access to reliable records for everyday transactions.’
Jenny Marra spoke eloquently of her family’s connection with the jute industry in Dundee, which had inspired her to pursue an interest in politics. She made clear what is often an important connection, that between personal and family memories and records and archives.
The Chair of the Scottish Council on Archives, Irene O’Brien described the reception as ‘a wonderful opportunity to bring together a range of guests and, most importantly, MSPs’, to talk about the present-day and future importance of archives’.
Those present were treated to a display of the musical talents of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in what was proof that archives – in this case musical manuscripts – can inspire across a wide range of human activities. It also showcased the talent of young Scottish musicians taking their first steps towards a career that enriches those who hear them perform.
Success was possible only with the co-operation of the Parliament’s staff, the MSPs’ researchers and the team of experts who fielded questions. However, the vital ingredient was the MSPs themselves. They gave of their time, listened, asked questions, engaged. Over three days the sector had the opportunity to show MSPs that it is interesting and contributes to the wider needs of society. The event at the Scottish Parliament proved that practical co-operation in the sector ‘delivers the goods’, secures quality and raises the profile of archives. In that sense, it was a template for the future.