(Re)Presenting the Archives

I know that, when it comes to blogging conferences, one should really strike whilst the iron is hot and post one’s thoughts soon after the conference has finished. However, almost a week has passed since the excellent (Re)Presenting the Archives conference at the University of Sheffield and I find myself blogging about it now, because the opportunity to reflect upon it in tranquility was too hard to resist. Since archives are often planned, maintained, re-imagined and re-purposed over long periods of time, perhaps allowing some water to flow under the bridge before posting was not entirely inappropriate.

from Wikimedia commons, Federico Fuertes

from Wikimedia commons, Federico Fuertes

I posted some time ago that I had decided to forgo large, expensive, conferences for a while in favour of smaller, more specialised, ones. My decision to attend this one was a good one. The conference offered a packed schedule of well-selected expert speakers who have some involvement in the creation, maintenance, use of, or teaching, of archives – especially themed towards digital resources.  The morning began with a wonderful ‘masterclass’ aimed at postgraduates and early-career researchers. As someone pointed out, it was less of a masterclass and more of an exercise in getting the brain neurons firing about how archives form, how they are curated and how they are and can be used. Sophie Baldock began with a very interesting presentation about how she has used the email archive of Wendy Cope in her thesis research. It was a fascinating topic of discussion, as Cope is well and truly alive (not a challenge I’ve had to encounter with my medieval correspondence), and so obviously has an influence over the compilation of her personal archive at the British Library. As one person said, ‘If I were sending my emails to the British Library to be archived, I would not send the ones in which I sound stupid’. Me neither!

The first keynote address was by Tony Edwards, entitled ‘Filling the Archive: Closing the Mind…(?)’. For all those who were there, I hope I got the title correct! The talk was as controversial as it was thought-provoking, with Edwards expressing considerable reserve about several existing digital humanities projects. He warned against a creating a ‘digital junkyard’ of obsolete resources and, importantly, against wasting funding money on digitising manuscripts just for the sake of it. This lively and engaging talk really got me thinking about why we create digital archives and what exactly they contribute towards scholarship and/or public understanding. As Edwards said ‘do we need to think less about getting digital, and more about getting scholarly?’ Well, I am personally one of those advocates for more and more (well-planned) digital projects, so I was not on board with some of what he had to say – but have absorbed and noted his words of caution.

A junkyard - a digital one?  Wikimedia Commons, Los Angeles Times photographic archive

A junkyard – a digital one?
Wikimedia Commons, Los Angeles Times photographic archive

Another speaker who I found especially interesting was Matt Cheeseman, whose exhibition project on the 1970s/80s Yorkshire music scene, ‘Do it Thissen: DIY Music Culture in Sheffield and South Yorkshire’, reminded us that archives need not be dry or static. Cheeseman asked us ‘how do you curate when you are not the expert?’. This was an important question, since Cheeseman would have been a mere young’un at the time when many of the musicians were creating their music. Many of the Yorkshire men and women who attended his exhibition might, quite rightly perhaps, think that they knew more about the subject than he. As a medievalist, I am comfortable in the knowledge that my research subjects cannot talk back and say ‘that wasn’t how it happened!’ But Cheeseman’s can, and will!  His answer? Providing minimal interpretative notes, and instead letting the exhibition pieces speak for themselves. Inviting contemporary artists to write pieces for the exhibition. Having live performances of the music for exhibition-goers to enjoy and comment upon. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of this talk, for me, was learning that the research output for one of Cheeseman’s projects was a cassette tape (virtually unreadable by most people) and that his research methodology involved a séance!

Fiona Douglas, from the University of Leeds, provided the second keynote talk of the day, with her engaging and confidence-inspiring talk ‘The Archive: Corpus, Repository, or Catalyst’. Douglas did the admirable (some might say brave) job of sending her undergraduate students out to three rural museums around Yorkshire to do independent research towards the assessment for her ‘Language, Community, and Identity’ module. As someone who has taken undergraduates into a manuscript library and witnessed the wonderful effect that it had upon their levels of interest and motivation, this was good to hear! She showed how, with the appropriate level of organisation and support, students can be inspired by archives and museums, and can work towards making them better. Part of Douglas’s talk was about the archives that hold the words that compliment the artifacts that are held in museums. She showed that by bringing these archives to museum exhibits, we can create institutions that truly facilitate learning. Douglas showed that archives should not be places of restriction, but places that bring knowledge out into the open. Otherwise, in a world where material is held away and restricted to an increasingly smaller and more select group, archives will be unused and will die.

There is lots more that I could write about this conference and each talk was worth writing home about! However, I will leave it here with some thoughts from the postgraduate/early career workshop:

‘Is an archive a … manifestation of power?’,

‘Does an archive bring distant things closer … or does it open a gap between the past and present?’

‘Is an archive a place where fragments remain fragments … or can its parts add up to a whole?’


‘Must the archive be made to speak … or can it remain silent?’


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