‘I Never Thought I’d Archive That!’

This blog post reports on the London Region Archives & Records Association (ARA) meeting on Wednesday 19th November at the UCL Institute of Education.

On Wednesday of last week I had the pleasure of attending my first ARA meeting! As well as the meeting, they had three guest speakers come to give talks on the theme of ‘I Never Thought I’d Archive That!’. Having never been to an ARA meeting before I was not sure what to expect. What I found was a room bursting full of archive professionals ready to share their experiences. I sat next to another lady also studying for her archives qualification (although at Dundee). For both of us it was out first experience, and we both agreed at the end that it was so enjoyable and worthwhile!

The Chair for the ARA London Region, Patricia Dark, opened the meeting with a motivational morale-boosting reminder that as archivists (or archivists-in-training), we have ‘the best job in the whole damn world’, and she’s absolutely right. Patricia reminded us that in our roles as archivists we help to make history, we find stories, we share stories, and we help other people to access stories about the past. How wonderful is that? I can honestly say that I’ve never been happier at work than when I’ve been working in an archive. It has great job satisfaction. Having been working and studying in the archival world for only a few years, I know I have much to learn, but I wholeheartedly agree with Patricia. We have the BEST job.

Elizabeth (Communications Officer) and Sara (Treasurer) from the ARA’s Section for New Professionals stood up, introduced themselves and told us newbies a bit about the Section. The Section has been around for about 5 years and supports archive students and newly-qualified archivists for 5 years after qualification. The Section offers training opportunities for new professionals, such as CV Writing. They also run a Peer Pals scheme, an informal e-mentoring scheme that teams up trainees and newly-qualified archivists with experienced and enthusiastic mentors across the UK and Ireland. Elizabeth said that there is a lack of mentees at the moment and there are lot of keen mentors ready to pass on their advice, so if you’re interested, the Section would love to hear from you! For more information about the ARA’s Section for New Professionals you can follow their Twitter account @ARAnewprofs and I’ve linked their website here.

The first speaker was Peter Judge from the Wellcome Library. Peter’s archival history at the Wellcome Library involved working with such collections as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, the personal papers of Wendy Savage, obstetrician and feminist, a collection from Sheila Kitzinger, author and advocate of natural childbirth, and a collection for the Family Planning Association (FPA). Already we’re starting to see a link! Peter presented a highly entertaining and extremely interesting talk ‘Too Great a Risk’, looking at the challenges of archiving contraceptives. The FPA today are primarily involved in education and information, and they previously worked to get birth control/contraceptives free to everyone. They worked to try and remove the stigma from contraceptives so that people could take control of their family sizes.

As an archivist, Peter never thought that he would spend so much time working on contraceptives, let alone vaginal foam and hundred of condoms! From a conservation point of view, this was really interesting. The hundreds of condoms in the FPA collection were all housed in packaging with spermicidal jelly, and the executive decision was made to remove all of the condoms from the collection in case of a leak. The items are seen as fully-functioning drug substances (spermicidal jelly), and so this created a difficulty in storing the items. Peter updated us on the current situation: he is in contact with archives holding similar collections of contraceptives to see if they would like them, as it was deemed too big a project to take on the appropriate housing of the condoms at the Wellcome Library.

The second guest speaker was Susan Snell, Archivist and Records Manager for the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. Her talk ‘Treasures from the Collections’ took us through some of the more diverse collections in the archive. The first treasure that Susan talked about was Mr Loveless Overton. Hailing from the West Indies, Loveless challenged assumptions about the Freemasons as he was one of few black Freemasons at the turn of the nineteenth century. Loveless was a trumpeter in the Queen’s Dragoon Guards until he burst a blood vessel in his neck and could not play anymore. Loveless appeared in records for the Freemasons and for the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and he even appeared in Henry Perlee Parker’s nineteenth-century painting of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, titled ‘The Baggage Train’ below. (Loveless is the West Indian man sitting behind the woman holding a baby in the left foreground).

Susan also talked to us about the Golden Dawn collection. The Golden Dawn was not a masonic order, but a hermetic order interested in astrology, divination, inner alchemy, Egyptian magic, scrying and Enochian magic. The Gold Dawn collection was in a complete mess when it was purchased by the Library, and it held some unusual items. There were Golden Dawn certificates written in a cipher, which threw up questions of how to read, catalogue or understand it. After some research Susan was able to find some information online to help answer these questions. The collection also included several Enochian chess boards, like the one pictured below.

According to Susan, Enochian chess is an invented chess game, although no-one really knows how to play it. Other unusual items in the collection include wands, cockleshells, scrying mirrors, and Golden Dawn regalia, lots of which were produced by female members of the order. Susan said that ‘sometimes you can find the most amazing things in the most unusual places which can reinforce just how lovely our job can be’. In the theme of ‘I Never Thought I’d Archive That!’, Susan never thought that she would be archiving such different and unusual objects.

The final speaker at the meeting was Laura Brown, Archivist at the Royal Opera House (ROH), who talked to us about the costume, furniture and art collection. Most of the archives at the ROH date from 1946 when the organisation was set up by the Arts Council, although a theatre has been on the site since 1732 (we’re now on our third theatre, as the previous two burned down!). The aim of the ROH collections is to document, preserve and provide access to information from all of the three theatres that have stood on the site – a big task!

The costumes, masks and props collection hold a huge variety of items, including furniture, artworks and musical instruments. Items in this collection are collected for specific reasons, such as a connection to an iconic production or designer, a prominent wearer, and anything really obscure. This collection created challenges: fabric has memory and you don’t want creases to form, so costumes are kept in the shape of the human body to maintain the shape, and other materials such as leather, foam, glue, pain, and various fabrics create immense preservation issues. In her role as an archivist, Laura never thought that she would archive items like furniture, ballet tutus and and a green animatronic prop head!


Animatronic prop hear of the Green Knight in Birtwhistle’s Gawain. Image source: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/apr/14/hidden-treasures-covent-garden

I never thought that I would ever be thinking about or blogging about the issues surrounding the preservation of  animatronic props or contraceptives! But that’s the thing about being an archivist, the work is not always straightforward. There are constant challenges to be overcome, and treasures to be discovered. I’m looking forward to the treasures and obscure items that my future in archiving might bring!

Is there anything that you never thought that you would archive?