The University of Bristol Theatre Collection: ownership and the archive


Evidence of the previous use of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection’s building as a printers.

Our latest blog post is by Kate Holmes, an STR NRN Committee member. She is in the third year of her PhD researching female aerial performers of the 1920s and early 1930s at the University of Exeter. She undertook her MA at the University of Bristol where she first developed her affection for the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. (You really should visit it!)

I’ll admit it, the title blog post is deliberately a little bit misleading. This isn’t a philosophical discussion inspired by a specific archive but is instead about my feelings of affection and ownership towards the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, an archive I first encountered during my MA at the University of Bristol.

There are a few things that make this archive special for me: it was my first (and you have to have a certain amount of affection for your first don’t you?); it was the place I developed an interest in theoretical archival concerns when working on Clare Thornton’s Unfurl artist-in-residence project, and practical archival concerns when employed by the Theatre Collection on a range of small projects from scoping materials to administrative and marketing support.

I can’t help but feel affection for this particular archive and just a little bit of ownership because of it. Part of that is because Unfurl gave me a chance to open boxes from the M&M Collection that hadn’t been opened for years before the Collection had been catalogued. (If you’re interested in reading about my thoughts on Unfurl, then this blog post for Theatre Bristol will tell you a bit more.) There are so many emotions that run through your body as you open a box and don’t know what you’re going to find. Carefully unpeeling the acid free paper is like unwrapping a present – just without the frenzy of ripping paper. What was special about this experience was the unusual situation of looking for something with an aesthetic rather than a research imperative – there is something liberating about that experience!

Affection is also a prevailing emotion because through working with this archive on an on-going basis I’ve been lucky enough to class these archivists as friends. Having worked both as a member of staff and a volunteer, I also know my way around the public reading room and back-stage in the stacks. For me, this archive is not a series of disembodied boxes, but is a series of rolling shelves and plan chests. Opposed to archives I visit as a guest, my home archive has a vast sense of physical space. I know where my archive boxes sleep.

Classing these archivists as friends also means I’m lucky enough to hear some of the discussions that go on about how best to make the huge variety of different materials available to researchers. (I’m only privy to a fraction of this, but I can promise you that it is fascinating!) And, that is something I really want to highlight, if you are interested in performance you would be unlucky not to find something of interest here. The University of Bristol Theatre Collection’s holdings range from live art and traditional theatre to my area of interest, popular culture and circus.

It is an archive that is interested in the many pasts of performance, including those that are more immediately passing, but it is also interested in inspiring new works. As part of Unfurl objects from the archive lived again through the moment of performance, acquiring new layers over the ones for which they were acquisitioned. Tinsel prints within the Collection inspired new creations that even included a tinsel print of Bradley Wiggins. For me, this is an archive that lives.

If you’re not aware of this particular archive, you should be.

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