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. 

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NRN Blog: The Archivist and the Repertoire – acting as interpreter for NUI Galway Special Collections

 

Culture Night at NUI GalwayPhotograph by Aengus McMahon

Photograph by Aengus McMahon

For our next installment in the NRN blog series, we’re pleased to feature Barry Houlihan! Barry is an archivist at the James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway. Current projects include the archive of Druid Theatre Company. Barry is a member of the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive Project Group and Executive Committee member of APAC (Association for Performing Arts Collections). Barry is also a PhD candidate in the School of English, NUI Galway, researching a sociological history of Irish theatre and everyday life, 1950s – 1970s. For more information see http://library.nuigalway.ie/archives/ and Twitter: @nuigarchives and @stagedreaction.

I work as an archivist at the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Within the Archives and Special Collections we hold an ever-growing collection of unique and wonderful archives of Irish theatre and performance. These collections range from single items (a framed playbill from a production at Kirwan’s Lane Theatre, Galway, 1783, which featured among the cast the Irish revolutionary, Theobald Wolfe Tone) to the largest digital theatre archive in the world – The Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, at over 1 million multi-media items, spanning over 110 years of Irish cultural history, from 1904 to present day.

Other theatre collections at NUI Galway include the archives of Tony-award winning Druid Theatre Company, Macnas, the playwright Thomas Kilroy, actors Siobhan McKenna and Arthur Shields, archive of the national Irish language theatre, Taibhdhearc Na Gaillimhe and also the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, often described as an unofficial ‘national’ theatre for Northern Ireland. Taken individually, these collections are themselves incredible resources for researchers studying any aspect of Irish theatre history, performance or production. Taken as a collective and interlinked unit, the sum of all these parts is an unrivalled record and memory of the theatre of a nation that predates the establishment of the State itself.

The most time consuming but also most rewarding aspect of being a theatre archivist is reconstructing what was never meant to be saved in the first place. The passion and desire to see theatre is to witness something and be part of something that is unique to that one night and to that one performance. What is happening outside of the theatre – in society or politics, or within your own job or in the relationships you have with friends, family or partners, can all affect how you see but also how you remember a performance. The archive is as personal to the audience as it is to the actor or playwright.

Quite commonly an archive arrives for cataloguing in a mass state of disarray. Boxes upon boxes of records, with little organisation (or none at all) and can represent the life’s work of a playwright or the output of a theatre. The archivist must become the medium between this material and the researcher who will study it in detail. I would compare this task of rebuilding the archive to trying to complete the largest jigsaw you could imagine – tens of thousands of individual pieces, but without having the picture on the box to work from. You will never know how ‘the archive’ will look until it is completed and catalogued in full.

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Figure 1: Portion of structure of the Druid Theatre Archive, NUI Galway

I would always approach this task from the point of view as a researcher. Archivists often love ultra-complex hierarchies of structures that make perfect sense to other archivists – those whose job it is to build a skeleton for an archive onto which the material can sit. I would think primarily (of any collection) as if I was a researcher of e.g. Abbey Theatre tours of the 1930s, and how visible can I make that material be in the midst of thousands of items? No matter the person or level of experience, the first question I frequently meet is “What material do you have on XXXX?” How can I structure that archive to faithfully represent that theatre or director that created it and which is still navigable for a first-year undergraduate to an experienced Professor?

As well as being a facilitator of preservation and access, a key job of the archivist is to be an interpreter of the archive. I often see researchers disappointed when I say a video or photograph does not exist for a particular production. While that may be the case, it does not mean the information you would get from visual sources does not exist in other forms, you just have to look hard enough and ask the right questions of the archive.

Prompt-scripts, for example, are invaluable resources that contain so much evidence, of text, speech, direction, design and even sound. You can plot and place each character’s entrance and exit points, you can follow the timing of lighting and sound cues, you can track the director’s edits and decisions and even ‘listen’ to the speech patterns of an actor who may note specific phrases, accent or regional variances to their lines. Press coverage will often carry images or descriptions of the set design and character’s costumes and of individual performances. Posters and tickets will tell you how plays were marketed and priced and so who the audience typically were. The play programmes can even tell you what chocolates couples shared during the interval. If you interrogate the archive in different ways, it can reveal really interesting insights into how not just a performance looked but also how it felt it to be there and how it might have been received.

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Figure 2: audio material for Philadelphia, Here I Come! in the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, NUI Galway

Through digitisation and digital access we can also make available formerly inaccessible material. Reels, beta tapes, DV tapes, floppy disks cassettes and mini-disks are all obsolete media but which retain their original evidence. For instance, if we listen to the sound score of Tomás MacAnna’s production of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Abbey Theatre in 1972, we learn the play opens to the sound of a train whistle departing a platform, which then morphs into the sound of a jet engine. This signifies the play and the theme of Irish emigration has been updated from the train/boat imagery of traditional Irish emigration to the modern arrival of transatlantic flights.

Text searching across the script archive of the Abbey Theatre by means of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) means every script (typescript at least) is word searchable. This throws up a lot of interesting points about Ireland and various aspects of culture. For example, the depiction of drugs and drug-taking in Irish (Abbey) playscripts – In the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, the word ‘heroin’ appears 58 times in the context of drug-taking. The earliest mention of cocaine, however, is actually seen as early as 1942, in An Apple a Day by Elizabeth Connor. This may have been a surprise to Abbey audiences in the midst of ‘Emergency’ Dublin, where even fresh fruit was a black-market commodity (the period of World War II in Ireland was called ‘the Emergency’). A search of words and phrases can show not just what plays but where exactly within each play audiences meet certain events, actions and people.

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Figure 3: Programme with map of West of Ireland tour of Famine by Druid Theatre Company, 1984

The digital theatre archive can be searched by a single click to reveal the place of female characters or male characters, Catholics or Protestants, bankers or politicians, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, emigrants, murderer or thief. By tracking the touring records of Druid Theatre company, we can see, for example, how and when they toured certain plays to certain locations in specific times, such as the reception of The Playboy of the Western World in Tokyo (2007), the Playboy of the Western World on Inis Mór island (1982) or a touring production of Famine by Tom Murphy, (1984) within the West of Ireland, the area worst affected by the Great Famine of the 1840s.

In piecing all of this back together, the memory of performance and all its elements becomes clearer. We learn more about how theatres and playwrights sought to depict everyday life in Ireland, how various European design styles may have influenced stage design, how women were not afforded a clear voice by a lack of access for female playwrights at the national theatre. History does become clearer but importantly the archive also keeps offering more questions. The answers are not always so easy to find but they are certainly worth opening the archive for and looking for the answers yourself.

How does your practice inform your research? What new discoveries have you made in the archives? Talk to Emer and Kate at nrn@str.org.uk and your work might be featured here at a later date!

 

NRN Blog: The Power of Networks – Supporting Collaborative Students

Acatia FinbowAcatia Finbow reflects on the benefits she has found from engaging with a range of networks, including us!  Acatia is an AHRC funded collaborative doctoral award student, at the University of Exeter and Tate, based in London. Her research looks into the value of performance and performative art documentation for contemporary art museums, and is focusing on the collections and programmes at Tate since the 1970s. She is also attached to the AHRC funded research project, ‘Performance at Tate: Collecting, Archiving and Sharing Performance and the Performative’.

I must admit that, before I applied for one in 2014, I had never heard of a Collaborative Doctoral Award; I barely understood what I was letting myself in for with a PhD really! As it turns out, a collaborative doctoral award allows a doctoral researcher the opportunity to work within the boundaries of a cultural institution whilst being supported as a student at a higher education institute. They are usually working as part of a larger research project, contributing to an exhibition or research publication within that cultural institution, or generating materials around an underexplored archive or aspect of the organisation’s collections, while also working on their related thesis. In my case, I am a student at the University of Exeter and am attached to Tate’s research department in London as a member of the research team for ‘Performance at Tate’, a two year AHRC-funded project looking into the history of performance and performative art at Tate, while completing my own research into the value of documentation for contemporary art museums.

For me, the CDA has been a wonderful opportunity. I had been thinking vaguely about doing a PhD at some point in the future, but when this specific project came up, it seemed to be the perfect topic for me and I jumped at it. The chance to work with Tate was also something I’d been hoping to do, and it was a great chance to extend the work I had done for my MA dissertation. I’ve had amazing access to Tate’s archival materials and gallery records, have had the opportunity to participate in practical research work, generating a documentation archive around a live dance event, and to work on a variety of written materials for the research project. I have also been wonderfully supported by members of Tate’s Research Department, other members of the research project team, and the wider staff at Tate.

However, there has been one particular challenge which I have, at times, found it difficult to overcome. It’s probably one you’ve been warned about, or have experienced for yourself: the loneliness of the PhD. For CDA students, I have found, this can be particularly heightened by the lack of a strong community of other students around you. Living in London, in order to make the most of the opportunities working with Tate offers me, I am 200 miles away from my university and my department. I have my majority of supervisions on Skype, and probably only travel to Exeter once every two months, usually for no more than a two day stay. Tate has a small group of CDA students, there are seven from my intake year, but we are attached to different departments, sometimes different branches of the Tate, and without a centralised working space, it can be difficult to generate the same feel of community amongst students which you find at a University.

This is why research networks have been such a great thing for me! They offer the opportunity to discuss my own research, ask questions about doing a PhD as well as mores specific questions around my field of interest, and to generally meet people working in a similar area. I have had the chance to meet other students from Exeter, other CDA students, and other PhD students from across the world. While I was slightly terrified attending my first network – last year’s STR NRN Symposium at the Shard – not knowing anyone, and not being sure how my research would fit with other people’s interests, I have come to realise how valuable these opportunities to spend time with other students can be, to avoid feeling like you’re the only person in the world struggling through certain aspects of doing independent research.

There are a number of forms these networks can take. I found Twitter a great place to start; hashtags like #phdlife and accounts such as @phdforum offer the opportunity to participate in discussions, ask general questions and connect with other students. Getting to know about specific PGR and ECR Networks, like our very own STR NRN, and working groups, such as Theatre and Performance Research Association’s Documenting Performance working group, offered the opportunity to make more specific connections with other researchers working in a similar field. I am also a member of the postgraduate CoCARe network – the Conservation of Contemporary Art Research network – which is part of a larger multi-disciplinary research network, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, which also includes researchers from practical as well as academic backgrounds. Through this I have connected with other PhD and Post Doc researchers across Europe, who keep me informed about developments in their fields of research, and opportunities which are opening up. Each network offers something different in terms of the field of study and the way that they meet and interact, but each provides the chance for researchers at various points in their careers to meet, discuss their work, offering opportunities for support, collaboration and discussion.

Whether you’re a CDA student, a distance student, or even a traditional on-campus PhD student, research networks offer fantastic opportunities for connecting with other students outside of your University environment, and can throw open new collaborative opportunities. It can be a daunting process to jump straight into talking about your research and having to meet a lot of new people all at once, particularly if you’re attending a networking meeting where you don’t know anyone, but I can assure you that the rewards are great and all sorts of exciting opportunities can come out of it! And for those of us already embedded in networks, I think it is really important to remember what it can be like to make those first few connections during your PhD and be as welcoming and as supportive as we can.

 

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. 

 

LiveStream our symposium!

Here are the links for livestreaming our symposium on Friday! The updated programme is here for your perusal too.

So, no matter where you are, no matter how far you may be, you can join in the event! If you’re inclined to tweet, our hashtag is #nrnarchives: we look forward to seeing your comments throughout the day.

Our keynote and panel sessions will take place in the East Lecture Theatre and South Lecture Theatre respectively. Use the programme as your guide as to which panels you want to tune into.

East Lecture Theatre

South Lecture Theatre