The Archive at Fife Cultural Trust (or ONFife as it styles itself, with its vibrant paint-splatter logo) is located in the former Amazon distribution centre in Glenrothes. The entrance and corridor areas feature soaring sky-lit ceiling spaces where you could comfortably fly a drone or suspend the skeleton of a prehistoric sea-going dinosaur. The more agoraphobic amongst us might prefer to stare down at the floor while traversing these spaces, and there we find a curious pattern. Yellow and red painted lines weave randomly across the floor and around corners, disappearing under the walls and reappearing elsewhere. Large numbers and letters are dotted here and there at odd angles to the corridors, as if the building has been lowered haphazardly on to a massive old school gymnasium floor. These mysterious markings hint at hidden pathways running under the Trust’s overlay of walls and cubicles; undiscovered Kingdom of Fife Nazca lines telling the story of the building’s former peoples and their beliefs and systems.
It’s a nice decorative feature for an archive; the building itself retaining an archival record of its former existence. The Trust’s installations of offices, hallways, shelving, desking and cubicles have a strange temporary feel because the floor markings are at odds with their geometry and alignment, telling an older story from before the dawn of the Trust’s time. Ley lines transporting us back to the days of Amazonia.
I was in Fife last November as part of SCA’s Education Coaching Programme, working with the archives team there to develop a schools tour of the archive store and some units of work based on their records. The resulting programme of activity is on hold now, of course, while the world holds its breath to avoid inhaling the coronavirus. When things resume, in whatever modified form, those units of work might well translate to online delivery using digitised records, video communications, downloadable materials, shared storage spaces to upload and exhibit finished work. It would serve the same purpose; to make archival records accessible, relevant, meaningful to another generation of young people learning about their heritage.
Also in November I visited Perth where Sarah Wilcock, Assistant Archivist at Perth & Kinross Archives, was researching a secondary schools learning module about crime and punishment in Scotland. We sifted through records of trials and sentences, Victorian mug shots, death penalties and transportations. It was a tough gig being a criminal in Scotland in earlier days, and somehow easier to become one. Again this development work is in a hiatus just now, but Sarah will get it rolling again in time. You can read a better worded and more detailed account of our work in Perth here; one of several case studies we published last week about 2019’s Education Coaching Programme. You can read about Argyll Estates’ successful grant applications for a multi-arts heritage project on Tiree, Scottish Jewish Archives Centre’s education units about children escaping wartime Europe on the Kindertransports, Abertay University’s volunteer training programme, and lots more.
This year we’re hitting the road again to bring support and expertise to your archives education and outreach work, but this time we’re offering it online. Archives outreach programmes are going to be a central feature in ensuring archives remain resilient to budget and staffing cuts. Showing that you are out there in the community sharing these precious treasures with schools, local organisations and the public is vital when budgets are tight. Learning how to do this in an environment where gatherings and on-site visits will continue to be limited is something we want to assist with and facilitate, so we’ve extended our coaching programme and made it easier to apply. The full story is here; a page detailing the launch of our programme for 2020-21. Do take a look. There’s even a little animated film about it.
What makes good education and outreach work? In a word: storytelling. Good communication takes us through a story. The most basic story is beginning – middle – end. Start somewhere with someone or something, go from there to some other place either physical or in mind or mood, then end up somewhere else or back where you started but changed in some way. Janice Miller, Archivist at East Dunbartonshire Archives, notes in her case study (here) about devising an exhibition of archive material that
“..people need an emotional connection to remember and engage with the material. You can’t just display items and expect people to be interested. The challenge is to guide them to this emotional connection and make it meaningful for them. I see now how important it is to signpost and guide people through interpreting archive material.”
An exhibition, a worksheet, a website, an educational activity; all are enhanced and made memorable by some sort of narrative that guides and enables this emotional connection with the material.
Our archives are full of stories, of course, and often particular records and collections themselves have an origin story of being found in an attic or passed down through generations, or surviving fire or flood. But the story that unlocks an archive record’s educational potential isn’t always the one on the surface. There may be layers of story that connect a record to its origin, or a place, or event, or even the instrument that wrote the words on the page. These layers can be hidden in plain sight, and good interpretation directs our gaze upward, downward, inward to where they can be seen; Nazca lines pointing to the past. These layers of story are what connect and engage learners and viewers with our archive records in effective outreach and education work.
Whether you have existing education and outreach provision that you want to review and update for a COVID-19 world, or are starting from scratch with a few ideas and some good intentions, consider applying for our coaching programme by June 17th. It offers you focussed professional support to develop good education and outreach materials, but also to build the confidence to be creative and innovative in bringing archive collections to schools and your local community in a meaningful and memorable way, just like ancient Peruvians in the Kingdom of Fife.