Is there an Archivist in the House? – SCA Education Blog

Is there an Archivist in the House? – SCA Education Blog

November 2019

Douglas Roberts, SCA Education Development Officer

You know the situation. You’re at the theatre; your first night out for weeks and you bought the (expensive) tickets so long ago that it feels like an unexpected and delicious treat. You settle back into your seat after the interval with a second glass of wine, the lights go down but nothing happens for a few minutes, then a suited junior theatre manager of some sort steps awkwardly on to the stage in front of the curtain.

“I’m very sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s been a slight incident backstage. Is there, by any chance, an archivist in the house?”

The weary inward sigh, and you raise your hand. We’ve all been there.

Well I haven’t, because I’m not an archivist (as is now well-established) but I can imagine what it’s like. The point is that there are some situations that simply require the exact right person with the exact right skills, which brings me, circuitously, to the subject of Trusts. Leisure Trusts, or Sport and Cultural Trusts, or Heritage and Random Services Trusts are the uneasy collective organisations into which local authority archive services are increasingly finding themselves subsumed. Originating in the 1990s, when local authorities in the UK started looking for ways to save their dwindling funds, charitable “Leisure Trusts” – whose “charitable” nature and origins are sometimes questioned by charity regulators – benefit from tax advantages, focus on their core business of community engagement, are distanced from the politics of their local council, and usually have bright breezy logos and catchy (if cryptic) names and taglines.

All of which is vaguely interesting but what, I hear you cry, is the Archives Angle here? Well, I was in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago meeting with a group of education and heritage officers, archivists, museum staff and academics. We were discussing ways of delivering effective heritage education with schools, drawing on museum objects (stay with me here), exhibitions, heritage sites and archive records in a way that engages with students, teachers and the curriculum. Several of the heritage education staff there work across a number of sites and organisations within one or other “leisure trust” or equivalent hybrid body incorporating several specialist heritage professions, including archives and special collections. Sometimes this is because a trust simply cannot afford education officers for each “department” in the trust and often it’s down to the aggregation of archives, museums and historic sites into a “heritage” service with a single education output. And this is where communicating your specialist knowledge is crucial, where explaining the unique nature of archives can make the difference between inclusion and exclusion from the latest heritage education programme, exhibition, tour timetable and activity schedule.

What struck me throughout the meeting is that there is some great work going on in the Trust models; opportunities for schools to work in new and valuable ways with local heritage because the different professions are under one roof and talking to one another. The best education offering isn’t always The Visit And Guided Tour, but a more subtle facilitated enquiry into historical knowledge and viewpoints through a series of objects, documents, images, questions, discussions and creative activities. If a child can see and experience the relationship between  – for example – an archived photograph, a poorhouse record, a local historic building, a preserved suit of clothes and a farm implement, and the role that each plays in solving a puzzle of the past, then education is enhanced and the value of each profession is reiterated. Set this collective value alongside learning about the distinctiveness of archive collections and the particular skills and perspectives of the archivist, and children begin to realise the complexity and importance of conserving and curating history. The exact right people with the exact right skills.

Inclusion in a trust is the reality for many local archive services in Scotland now, and finding a voice within the clamour is necessary for funding, professional integrity, and for the full potential of the collections to be realised. Education and outreach work is a fundamental part of that process. For Archives to be part of the outward and visible signs of the inward and invisible grace of a Culture and Leisure Trust (insert name here) it’s essential for archivists to articulate not only what we have in our collections, but what we actually do and how we actually do it, particularly in the context of collective education offerings. Are you part of a charitable trust? What’s your “elevator pitch” about your archive service, and about your work as an archivist?

And next time you’re heading out to the theatre? Make sure there’s a snake weight, a magnifying glass and a pair of nitrile gloves in your jacket pocket, because you never know when you’ll be called upon to serve.

Douglas Roberts

SCA Education Development Officer