NRN Blog: Making Friends with the Archive

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Elizabeth Howard

The NRN Blog returns, this time with an entry from Elizabeth Howard. After completing an MA in Performance Making at Goldsmiths College, London and a BA in Drama and Counselling from the University of Chester, Elizabeth was awarded a PhD scholarship from Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland. Entitled Performing the Region, her research project uses the Red Kettle archive as a primary source and examines regional theatre in relation to cultural policy through a performance studies methodology. Elizabeth is a theatre maker and teaches on the theatre studies programme at WIT. She has presented papers at seven conferences over the past two years, and her first publication will be with Palgrave Macmillan next year. 

It might be best to start this story off with the admission that it was only out of a mixture of desperation and naivety that I started studying for a PhD that used an archive as its main research source. After graduating from an MA in Performance Making I thought about going on to do a PhD, but dismissed the idea because I thought I could never have afforded it. Grants and bursaries always seemed to belong to someone else, and honestly, the thought of being a student for ANOTHER three/four/five (how many?) years was just not an attractive financial option.

However, after spending a soul-destroying year scratching around trying to make a living in the arts, I was so desperate for an opportunity to move my career forward in some way (any way), that a fully funded PhD scholarship felt like the golden ticket. I was employed to conduct research into the practices of a theatre company that I worked with in the past, and in my naivety I was thrilled to work with an archive that contained over two hundred dirty, dusty, uncatalogued box files that documented over thirty years of performance. My initial relationship with the archive was like one you might have with a wild animal that is much bigger and stronger than you. We entered into quite a few wrestling matches that ended with me being the sneezing and grimy-fingered loser. However, I battled on, and one day about six months ago the archive came up to me, shook me by the hand, and said ‘Hello friend. What can I do for ye?’

For the first time, I saw the beauty inside the beast, and realised that in order to manage the archive in the most effective way, I needed to understand its true nature. What I recognised at last was that the archive is more than a sum of its parts and has a dynamic, contextual and political dramaturgy of its own that requires interpretation. At that moment my whole thesis became clear to me, and the philosophies of performance that gripped me at undergraduate and master’s level finally synthesised with my PhD research. Remote days that I spent examining evidence that seemed to have no relevance suddenly became worthwhile and significant.

My identity as a researcher, and dare I say it, academic, poked its head out after this discovery, and as my confidence grows this identity becomes stronger. Sometimes I even feel that I know what I am talking about! If it wasn’t for that initial desperation and naivety that spurred me on to the beginning point, I would never have discovered what a gloriously rich and generous friend the archive can be. My bank balance has yet to benefit, but the adventures the archive has brought me on and the places we’ve visited together make me realise that I could never have afforded NOT to immerse myself in the, grimy, grungy, gripping world that is archival research.

How have the archives helped you in your research? How have you navigated them? Share your experience on the NRN blog: e-mail Emer and Kate at nrn@str.org.uk to talk about potential submissions. 

 

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