‘How to’ Navigate an Archive

Our latest blog post comes from the ever fantastic and knowledgeable Jill Sullivan. Jill completed her doctoral thesis on Victorian regional pantomime in 2005, and has since published a monograph, articles and book chapters on the subject. Her most recent publication is ‘English Pantomime and the Irish Question’ in Politics, Performance and Popular Culture: Theatre and Society in Nineteenth-century Britain, edited by Peter Yeandle, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards (Manchester University Press, 2016). She is currently co-authoring a book on optical entertainments in the nineteenth-century. Much of Jill’s research has been archive-based; in 2013 she decided to retrain as an archivist and now works as Archives Assistant at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, a role that enables her to support the research enquiries and searches of students and other academics. This dual relationship means she is one of the best people to talk about how to navigating an archive! – Ed.

Autumn is definitely in the air and the new research semester has started. Some of you will be at the start of your doctoral research, or starting to think about the archival research element of your work. Archival research can be exciting and rewarding; sometimes it can be frustrating, sometimes surprising and sometimes it can provide a whole new direction for your research. If you haven’t used an archive before, don’t worry – here’s a short ‘How To’ Guide to using archives…

What exactly is an archive? 

An archive contains a single or separate collections of material which may have originally belonged to individuals (an actor, writer, or designer for example), or a theatre company, such as the National Theatre or Bristol Old Vic. Because of this, materials that you are interested in researching may exist in different collections across a single archive (and in different archives!)

An archivist is responsible for the care and preservation of and providing access to those collections. The archivist is also responsible for maintaining the integrity of these collections and keeping them in their separate order; in other words collections cannot be mixed up. Unlike a library, materials are not sorted by subject matter so if different collections all have material related to the actor Sir Henry Irving, that material will not be taken out and put into a separate ‘Irving box’ – it will all be kept within the individual collections.

An archive comprises largely paper-based information. So, for theatre and performance history this may include: scripts, prompt copies, production photographs, playbills, programmes, financial records, correspondence, production notes, show reports….

University of Bristol Theatre Collection website screengrab

(Note: Some organisations, such as the V&A and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection are also accredited museums so their collections also include 3D objects, which may include set models, paintings, costumes, props, ceramics, make up, wigs.…)

How do I know which archive to use?

Find out what archives are out there that are relevant to your subject area. The APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) has an excellent website for UK collections.

There are also University Special Collections e.g. University of Kent (Templeman Collection), Birmingham and Glasgow. And don’t forget that there are major archives in the USA including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas; Harvard Theatre Collection, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and the Billy Rose Archive at the New York Public Library. Some theatre companies retain their own archives, such as the National Theatre and the RSC. And Local Studies Libraries and County Record Offices often have good holdings for local theatre history.

You will need to research your research plans to find out where you need to be!

Researching the archive holdings
University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search screengrabMost archives will have an online catalogue. Remember to search these using different filters to find relevant materials. Don’t search too broadly (you might just regret putting ‘Shakespeare’ into a catalogue search!) but don’t be too narrow either – think around your subject.

Archive cataloguing systems often use literal spellings based on the way in which they were originally populated by an archivist (this isn’t Google!). You may need to try different versions of a name (e.g. Peter O’Toole, OToole or O Toole) to find relevant materials.University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search results

Bear in mind that all archives will have at least some uncatalogued items and that they will have different policies regarding researcher access to uncatalogued materials – if a collection has only recently been deposited, the archivist may yet have to check it for any confidential material (we have to adhere to the Data Protection Act); and some archives don’t allow access to any uncatalogued archives.

Contacting the archive and preparing for your visit

First of all, check the organisation’s website for general information about directions, opening times, closure periods etc. – this will help you to plan your research visit.

Please don’t turn up unannounced at an archive asking to see everything on Hamlet! Plan your visit.

Also check for any required identification that you will need to take with you and publicised rules about camera/copying materials and charges.

Then, use the online catalogue to identify items you’d like to consult. Make a note of the catalogue reference numbers. Once you have identified the items you’d like to see, start an email conversation with the archivist. Tell them what you are researching and for what purpose (e.g. an article or your thesis or dissertation) and what you’d like to see in their archive. Ask them if they have any advice about other related materials that may be of use to you in their collections (in case they have uncatalogued but accessible materials). It is much easier for an archivist to help a researcher if they know what the research project is about and the sort of materials you’re looking for.

Get to know your archivist and help them to help you! Remember that they want to make the archives accessible.

Contact the archive well in advance of a planned visit – not only do you need to check for any closure periods which may affect your plans, but the archivist needs time to retrieve the requested items ready for your visit. Agree a date (and time if necessary) for your visit. And it’s a good idea to just double check on any identification required.

Having established the items you want to see, work out how much time you think you’ll need at the archive. Bear in mind that archival material can contain research surprises so allow time to explore further. And be practical – there’s no point in ordering up lots of items if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

Some archives will have a limit on the number of items retrieved per visit or during a visit – you need to know this beforehand. Many archives are huge, with hundreds of thousands of items that take time to retrieve. Be patient and work with their retrieval systems.

Working in the archive

You’re finally there, in expectation of the research treasures contained within all those files and boxes! Make sure you introduce yourself to the archivist – we like to put faces to names! You will also be asked to complete a registration form/show identification when you arrive.

Although you may have found reprographics information on the organisation’s website, you should also clarify with the archivist at this point about copying/scanning/camera use. This varies from organisation to organisation and there will probably also be different procedures depending on whether you want images purely for personal reference or whether you want to make them public (in articles, conference presentations, exhibitions, and any social media use or blogs etc.) Archives also vary in how they class the use of images in theses.

The archive does not automatically own copyright on its collections. In establishing early on what you want images for, you will be able to timetable plans for arranging copyright clearance and permissions – this will be your responsibility although the archivist may well be able to help you with information about copyright holders and who to contact. Don’t leave copyright clearance until a month before you submit your thesis or paper – it will invariably take longer than you think!

When working at the archive, be aware of in-house regulations. Standard requirements are that you use pencils only (accidental ink marks can ruin original documents) and that you wear gloves (either cotton or nitrile) for handling photographs or glass plate negatives. When making your notes, always be sure to clearly detail the catalogue number or the box or accession number if it is uncatalogued, for each item, plus the collection that it comes from. If you are unsure, ask the archivist for the correct accession or catalogue number to cite.

This is important for three reasons. Firstly, you will need these details for your own citations and bibliography – there is nothing more irritating than getting to the final proofs for your work and finding that you didn’t make a note of the reference number, and you may not have time to revisit the archive. Secondly, if you want to request the item again on a later visit or for a copy of the item for publication it will enable the archivist to find it quickly. Thirdly, remember that these citations are not only for your own reference but may also be used as a reference point for others using your thesis/papers as a starting point for their own research.

Finally, when your work is submitted or you have work published, do let the archivist know – we love to hear about our researchers’ successes!


Committee Member Kate is a bit of a fan of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, so if you want to read some of her musings on this particular archive click here.

The Physicality of Writing

Committee member Kate Holmes invites everyone to take a break and look after your body. If you want to know about Kate’s research, check out her eprofile.

Think: eyes look to the side slightly. I raise my right hand, push it and the mouse across the desk, finishing the action with a downward pressure to cause the mouse to click and to put the in cursor place. I lift my right hand so that it comes to meet the left hovering over the keyboard. The action facilitated by the light engagement of shoulder muscles that hold the hands in place. Now, I push fingers down, hardly noticing the link between movement and mind. Without thinking, I press the backspace, not noticing how the process of writing is also edited through the movements I make which track back from finger to shoulder.

I’m struggling to work through an idea. My immediate instinct is to reach for my notebook. I lift the notebook with both hands, and lay it on my lap. One hand rests on the left edge of the notebook, whilst the right hand lifts to pick up the pen and position it over the page. Again, the right shoulder facilitates the movement of my hand pushing from left to right across the page, stepping downwards to fill it with my script.

Until 8 April this year I hadn’t really thought about how I use my body when I’m writing. Instead I very much thought of it as an activity of the mind. What changed my perception was when I was involved in an accident that left my right shoulder immobilised. I had just entered the last six months of my PhD and was very much in writing mode and was suddenly brought face-to-face with how I use my body and mind together when writing.

As you can see from the description above, the shoulder muscles I wasn’t able to engage are used in most of the activities of writing. But, not only that, being left with just one hand makes performing a range of tasks associated with it really difficult. When I write I often have files open on the floor or pieces of paper on my desk, so I frequently find myself reaching, lifting, crouching and using both hands to flick through papers. Obviously these activities were no longer possible in the same way.

But for me, the hardest part of temporarily losing the use of my right shoulder, was the link between the mind and the physical acts of typing or putting pen to paper. I experimented with using speech dictation software – in fact this post was written using it a few weeks back. For anyone who has ever tried to use this, it is a really strange experience. In fact, you might notice that I’m generally using quite short sentences in this post which is as a result of dictating. This sort of software requires more thought because you need to speak a full sentence rather than being able to delete as you go (you also need to be really careful about using the word ‘delete’ because it can remove something unintended! Can you guess what just happened!) There are commands you can use to edit text, but you generally need to have got the sentence out in one go first. Credit goes out to anyone who uses this sort of software every day, because although it is great I find it a real challenge. Although I can see how it might help when suffering from writers’ block because it feels such a different way of working from typing.

But when my brain was fuzzy through painkillers and I wanted to think through the fuzziness by putting pen to paper I couldn’t. I couldn’t capture or clarify those things I thought I might forget when I got back to work. When I physically write with a pen I feel like I’m accessing a different part of my brain. And, to be honest that is something that I had to put to one side for a while, (alongside my timetable for completion). Technology has meant that I could have a Google document that I could speech dictate into on my phone, but it’s still not the same…

So, I suppose the point of this post is really to try and make people privilege the relationship of your body to your mind – because I was in danger of forgetting it. Despite the fact that my research uses my bodily understanding of aerial practice, I still didn’t value my body enough in the writing process. This experience has made me realise I need a healthy body to really write well. That means that as I re-approach the last six months of my PhD I need to look after my body, because I might well have put writing in front of exercising or eating as healthily as I should. For me this is going to mean putting my body first in terms of doing my physio and trying not to push my body too far by working at my old work rate, before I even get back to exercising as I once did.

For you, particularly if you’re in your last stages of your PhD I’d love it if this post made you finish work early on a day you needed some rest, or encouraged you to go to the gym when it was rainy and you felt like the exercising but didn’t want to get wet. Put your body first now because we all rely on it: the act of writing is a physical one that is assisted by a strong healthy body and mind.

Before Shakespeare PhD scholarship

Before Shakespeare is a very exciting and very important project (we recommend perusing the website and reading some of the excellent blog posts up there). They’re currently advertising for a PhD student to join their ranks (based at Roehampton): if you’re interested in early modern London theatrical culture 1565-95, consider applying.

Before Shakespeare

We are delighted to announce a fully-funded PhD scholarship on London theatrical culture and its context, 1565-95. Full details can be found here, and all current Roehampton PhD scholarships are posted here.

This PhD will be supervised by Dr Andy Kesson and Professor Clare McManus and run alongside much of the work of our project. This will provide multiple opportunities to develop networks for future career plans and develop the impact of the candidate’s own research. Candidates are being asked to propose their own topic within the remit of the project, in the hope of adding new ideas to our own for everyone’s mutual benefit. Any questions, contact Andy on andy.kesson@roehampton.ac.uk.

Andy Kesson

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NRN Blog: Innovation in Research, Innovation in the STR

2014-09-13 12.36.04-1To tie in with the recent opening of registration for our symposium (what are you waiting for? Get going!), we asked our previous Chair, David Coates, to write about innovation in his research and in the STR at large — and we’re glad he did! David is a part-time doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick writing a thesis on Private and Amateur Theatricals in Britain, 1830-1914. He completed his MA by Research in 2010 with a thesis that interrogated the social, cultural, political and theatrical significance of the Chatsworth House Theatre and the Duchess of Devonshire’s Private Theatricals, 1880-1914.

David has been a member of STR since 2011 and sat on the Executive Committee after founding the NRN, from February 2012 until September 2015. He’s also a member of TaPRA, and was fortunate enough to sit on the Executive Committee as a Postgraduate Representative until Summer 2015. He continues to attend the Historiography working group at both TaPRA and at IFTR, and for the latter organisation acted as Administrator for the Warwick World Congress in 2014.

Innovation In My Research

The Call for Papers for the NRN’s annual symposium draws attention to the importance of innovation in academia and states that innovation is ‘at the core of our development as scholars’. Though undoubtedly true, our determination to find innovation in our work has occasioned a proliferation of micro histories that – as fascinating as they may be – ultimately fail to acknowledge the bigger picture. Equally, it has resulted in skewed theatre histories and has left some areas of our discipline heavily under-researched and underappreciated. Amateur theatre pre-1914 is but one of these areas.

Amateur theatricals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been investigated by a handful of scholars, including Sybil Rosenfeld, Gillian Russell, Kate Newey and Mary Isbell. More often than not, these histories have categorised and compartmentalised amateur performance into distinct types, such as Private Theatricals, Shipboard Theatricals, Garrison Theatricals and University Theatricals. These microhistories have their place – they’ve been enlightening and have contributed hugely to my research – but I think they’ve missed something crucial. They’ve lacked the scope to allow for understanding the relation these forms have to one another.

Way back in 2010 I started my PhD with an emphasis on Private Theatricals in country houses, but that focus very quickly expanded. You could say that I got distracted. I was convinced that so little had survived to tell the story of amateur theatre in the period, that any material to have made it through the last two centuries relating to amateurs in any form would help to contextualise my rather niche field. The truth was that there was more evidence surviving than I could have imagined and seeing as much of it as possible hasn’t been light on my pockets or my time. I’ve taken over 24,000 images of materials relating to nineteenth century amateur theatricals in Britain, and have created a database of the thousands of performances that I now know to have taken place. This database continues to grow!

It’s safe to say that some colleagues were concerned by the increasing scope of my project and I was encouraged to narrow my focus. Others thought I was mad to have gathered so much material and yet not put pen to paper to start writing my thesis. I too was beginning to question it! But, luckily I knew that there was method to my madness. In doing all of this research, the innovation came from the good fortune of being able to take a holistic approach. By looking very broadly at the field, at the various forms of amateur theatre previously studied, and at many lesser know examples of amateur performance, I was able to fully explore their interconnections for the first time.

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Figure 1: Lady Monckton became famous as an ‘amateur’ society actress. She was the member of many of the leading amateur dramatic societies and was frequently invited to perform as part of amateur theatricals across the country. Lady Monckton is the perfect example of the ‘professional amateur’ I have uncovered during my research. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

The research has revealed a group of what I term ‘professional amateurs’, who were invited to country house parties, were performing in charity theatricals in the West End, and were connected to the Canterbury Old Stagers and Windsor Strollers – two of the country’s most elite amateur societies.[Figure 1] Many of the male ‘professional amateurs’ had performed at Eton, Harrow, Cambridge or Oxford together, had mingled together at the Garrick Club, and had been involved in theatricals onboard ships and at garrisons. The well-documented literary theatricals of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, which otherwise had been assigned to a literary culture, could very firmly be connected to this world of ‘professional amateurs’.[Figure 2] Thus, my research reveals a network of aristocratic and middle class men and women who formed what could be perceived as a national amateur theatre network, well before any formal organisations, such as the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (1899), had been founded in Britain.

This holistic view has done much more than revealing the interconnections between amateur theatrical forms in the period. It’s also exposed interconnections with amateur sports and amateur music making, consequently documenting the changing attitudes to labour and leisure time through the century. I’ve uncovered the macro – at least in Britain! – but this work could undoubtedly be extended to look at the profusion of materials across Europe, North America and the Empire.

Figure 2: The theatricals of Charles Dickens have thus been viewed in isolation as part of a literary culture. Instead, this research reveals the amateur theatricals of Dickens and his company to be part of the emergence of amateur dramatics more broadly. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Figure 2: The theatricals of Charles Dickens have thus been viewed in isolation as part of a literary culture. Instead, this research reveals the amateur theatricals of Dickens and his company to be part of the emergence of amateur dramatics more broadly. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Finally, by taking a step back I’ve also uncovered a distinct repertoire for amateur theatre in the period. This repertoire may be used to challenge our current understanding of the nineteenth century theatrical canon – a canon which presently upholds the notion that only professional theatre is worthy of study. Expelling the hierarches and binaries associated with ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ theatre when looking at the canon, and beyond, could provide fresh perspectives.

Through this research I’ve become acutely aware that our discipline is skewed to focus almost entirely on professional theatre. This skew may well have derived from our desire to unearth innovations in theatre history. We know far more about the innovative amateurs from the turn of the twentieth century – such as the Elizabethan Stage Society, the Independent Theatre Society and the latter’s continental forerunners – than we do of the everyday amateur.[Figure 3]  I feel proud to be part of a group of scholars, including Claire Cochrane, Helen Nicholson and her colleagues on the AHRC Funded Project Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Place, who are taking an innovative approach by setting out to redress that imbalance!

Innovation and the Society for Theatre Research

When the STR was founded in 1948 the individuals who formed its first committee were innovative in applying academic rigor to a new field – Theatre Studies. Many of the same individuals had started to produce the journal Theatre Notebook in 1945 and saw the value in bringing those interested in theatre research together in a society. It was only in the previous year that Glynne Wickham had established the first university department to focus on theatre research in Britain, at the University of Bristol. The STR was undoubtedly at the forefront of this new and emerging field.

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Figure 3: A programme for the Elizabethan Stage Society’s production of Doctor Faustus produced by William Poel. The event took place at St. George’s Hall, a venue which was available to hire for amateurs and became a hub of upper-middle class amateur activity. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

On the STR’s website we can read of some of the organisation’s success stories. The STR played a crucial role in the twelve-year campaign for a dedicated Theatre Museum, which opened in Covent Garden in 1987 but sadly closed in 2007, with materials being transferred to the V&A’s Theatre Collections. The STR were also involved in the debates over the abolishment of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and fought for a clause to be written into the act which stated that the British Library would continue to be the repository for the script of every play given for public performance in Britain. The STR were also the driving force behind the establishment of an umbrella organisation for our discipline in 1957– the International Federation for Theatre Research.  In fact Eileen Cottis, one of the current Honorary Members of the STR’s Executive Committee, was at that meeting where IFTR was founded.

Some scholars would argue that the STR’s days as innovative are long gone. But perhaps the Society just doesn’t shout loud enough about its success stories anymore? Arguably, the STR’s continued commitment to support innovative writing and research is one of its greatest assets!

The STR’s annual Theatre Book Prize celebrates scholarship in British Theatre. Previous winners have included Michael Billington’s State of the Nation (Faber & Faber), Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow’s Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840-1880 (Iowa University Press/ University of Hertfordshire Press) and Patrick Lonergan’s Theatre and Globalisation: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era (Palgrave Macmillan). The Society is also a firm believer in funding new and original research. Thousands of pounds are given away each year to support scholars, with past awardees including the NRN’s Kate Holmes, the V&A’s Simon Sladen, the University of Glasgow’s Prof. Dee Heddon, the University of Bristol’s Dr. Catherine Hindson, and the University of Manchester’s Dr Kate Dorney.

If this isn’t its greatest asset, then it’s surely the STR’s pledge to support new talent for the professional stage through the annual Poel Event? In recent years, this event has gone from strength to strength, with workshops being led by Jeannette Nelson (Head of Voice, National Theatre), Cicely Berry (former Voice Director for the RSC), and Sir Ian McKellen.

Alternatively, it would be the STR’s investment in new and emerging scholars through the New Researchers’ Network. The NRN has built up a regular membership since it was formed in February 2012, with new and returning members coming together for study days, workshops and symposiums to share expertise, skills, approaches and knowledge. The Teaching Theatre Practice workshop was a particular success story, as it provided valuable training for researchers with very little experience of teaching practice, who may need to adapt their teaching style as our discipline becomes more and more practice-centric.

From its inception the STR has been committed to innovation in our field. While it may not have had influence over an act of parliament in recent years, today it shows that commitment through funding and supporting innovative new writing, practice and research. It therefore seems fitting that the New Researchers’ Network is asking its membership to consider their relationship with innovation – essentially that dreaded Viva question – ‘What is your contribution to the field?’. I look forward to hearing everyone’s answer to that question at the NRN’s Annual Symposium in Bristol!

How do YOU consider your relationship with innovation and your research? What new discoveries have you made in your work? Write about it for our blog: contact Emer and Kate at nrn@str.org.uk to talk about your ideas! And once more, here’s another reminder to register for: the symposium on 6 July AND for the study day at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection on 5 July. The symposium hashtag is officially #NRN16. 

STR New Scholars Essay Prize Competition 2016

Following the success of the first three New Scholars Prize competitions, the Society for Theatre Research invites submissions for the 2016 competition. The competition is open to postgraduate students, academics with an institutional affiliation, and independent scholars, but not undergraduates. Entrance is restricted to scholars who have not had more than one article published in a refereed journal.

Entrants do not need to be members of the STR or to reside in the UK for an essay to be eligible for the competition, it must be aligned with the aims of the Society for Theatre Research and be concerned with the history and techniques of the British Theatre. The word ‘theatre’ may be interpreted widely to cover, for example, activities that go on in theatre buildings, theatrical activities outside theatres, professional and amateur theatre, the business of theatre, stage design, the history of theatre buildings, acting techniques, or theatre outside the British Isles that relates directly to the history and techniques of the British theatre.

Essays must not exceed 4000 words and must use the current version of the MLA guidelines on scholarly presentation.

The closing date for the submission of entries is 03 October 2016. Entrants must take great care to ensure that their essay does not allow them to be identified by their readers. Essays should be sent as an attachment to newscholarsprize@str.org.uk. In their covering email entrants should include a brief biography and a confirmation that they are eligible to submit an entry for the prize. Essays should not be offered to other journals while they are under consideration for the prize.

The essays will be judged by a panel of distinguished judges chaired by Professor Trevor R Griffiths. In order to facilitate the double-blind peer review process, the names of the other judges will not be released until the prizes have been awarded.

The prizes include a cash element, a subscription to the STR, a selection of STR books and the guarantee that the essay will be considered for inclusion by Theatre Notebook under its normal guidelines.

STR Lecture Series 2016: ‘Re-evaluating the Actresses’ Franchise League: Suffrage Theatre, Networks and Activism’

You are warmly invited to the next talk of the 2015-16 Society for Theatre Research annual lecture series, which takes place on Wednesday 13 April 2016 at 7.30pm at the Swedenborg Hall, 20 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH.

DR NAOMI PAXTON will present ‘Re-evaluating the Actresses’ Franchise League: Suffrage Theatre, Networks and Activism’

The Actresses’ Franchise League was formed in 1908 by a group of theatre professionals keen to support the work of the suffrage societies. Neutral in regard to tactics, the variety of their work and contributions to the performative propaganda of the suffrage movement shows an organisation embracing new forms, new spaces, new ideas and new audiences. This lecture will explore the work of the Actresses’ Franchise League, the networks created by and through the League and the organisation after 1918, drawing on both suffrage and theatre histories to tell the story of suffragist actresses and actors and their political activism.

Dr Naomi Paxton is an actress, performer and researcher and has appeared in the West End and on tour in the UK and internationally. She has shared her passion for the work of the Actresses’ Franchise League at many events, including the National Theatre, Hay Festival and Latitude Festival and was one of the AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers for 2014-15. From 2015-16 she was Research Associate for the AHRC funded project Poor Theatres at the University of Manchester. Naomi edited The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays (Bloomsbury, 2013), is an Associate Artist of the feminist production hub Scary Little Girls and is currently Cultural Engagement Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

The talk will be livestreamed here: https://livestream.com/accounts/6741029/events/5156919

These events are free and open to everyone. For further information about the STR and events see the society’s website: http://www.str.org.uk/.

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection: ownership and the archive

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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.