Good to hear some positive news on the heritage front that plans for the creation of a new History Centre for Staffordshire have been approved. With the award of nearly £4 million earlier in the year by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the proposed centre will house the collections of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service, the County Museum and the William Salt Library. A glazed link will be created between the Georgian building that houses the library and the record office, which will form a new entrance and exhibition space. Reading areas, research labs and extra storage that will accommodate up to a further 55 years of additions to the collections are part of the overall £7.1 million plans.
As an archivist, I was fascinated to learn that, for more than a century, Spanish families have kept certificates of birth, marriage, guardianship, citizenship and so forth in a collective document known as the “Libro de Familia”, which is essential for administrative procedures such as applying for an identity card, processing maternity leave or applying for unemployment benefits. But the family record book will now be replaced by an online file. From 1 May, every new-born baby will be registered online and all the facts relating to their identity and civil life will be recorded in the same document. The online file will have a personal code linking it to the individual’s national identity card and information will be uploaded automatically. Existing family record books will not be updated. Previously this involved a visit to the Civil Registry, so the new system will help to streamline processes and access to information. However, in many smaller towns, not all the Civil Registry offices have been sufficiently computerised to deal with the changes, so it could take a while for some individual documents to be issued. An interesting change, therefore, but one in which not all the consequences have been thought through in advance!
The V&A museum is proposing the merger of a number of departments based on material specialisms in order to create cross-disciplinary teams organised around chronology or geography. Under the proposal around 20% of curatorial roles and 10% of conservation roles are at risk. This is a similar action to that proposed by the National Trust last year, which was decried by critics as ‘dumbing down’. Some current and former V&A staff have told of their fears of a ‘brain drain’ at the museum. Curatorial staff argue that they are already stretched with the turnaround that the museum has with exhibitions. Inevitably, director Tristan Hunt cited the Covid pandemic as ‘one of the most significant financial challenges in the V&A’s long history’ and hopes that the changes will save £10m per year. But no price can be put on the knowledge and expertise that will be lost if the changes go ahead.
In addition, the museum is planning to review National Art Library services with a view to merging the library, together with the V&A’s registry and archives, under the V&A Research Institute, to create a single, integrated research and information directorate. Consequently, the library will remain closed until December 2021. Given that these services have already been closed for the best part of a year this action hardly serves the needs of researchers and fails to meet the V&A’s mission aims to create a world class learning experience and to expand its international reach, reputation and impact.
News earlier this month that the Wallace Collection, London, was consulting on the closure of its library and archive to the public led to an outcry and online petition. A campaign to try and prevent the closure was launched by a group of archive professionals and trade unionists working with the Wallace Collection staff and the Public and Commercial Services trade union. The Wallace Collection’s library contains about 30,000 books and periodicals relating to the museum collection, some of which are not held by other art history libraries, whilst the archive includes the papers of the Wallace Collection’s founders and other records and is designated as a ‘Place of Deposit’ for public records under the 1958 Public Records Act. The closure plans, which were described by the campaign’s organisers as ‘short-sighted and ill thought out’, would have meant redundancies for two full time members of staff. The petition argued that Wallace Collection director, Xavier Bray, ‘wants to orientate the museum to income generation and does not view the library and archive as part of this’. Moreover, questions about archives that were donated on the condition that they were publicly available, and on how curatorial staff would manage the book and archive collections that require specialist skills, have not been answered.
By the close of consultation on 11 February, the petition had attracted almost 30,000 signatures. On 17 February it was announced that the library and archive of the Wallace Collection would remain open to the public following an internal consultation, although Bray warned that a difficult road lies ahead for the institution as it counts the cost of the pandemic.
A report just published by Museum Freelance - the organisation that represents freelancers and consultants working in the museum, gallery, archive and heritage sectors - outlines the ‘devastating impact’ of the Covid pandemic on freelancers. Nearly 80% of museum and heritage freelancers responding to the survey stated that their income fell between March and October. More than half of the respondents have had one or more projects or contracts cancelled, whilst many more have had projects or contracts postponed. However, less than half have been able to access the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), with many having to find alternative sources of income, such as savings, borrowing or receiving a grant. Consequently, the pandemic has had a ‘detrimental impact’ on the mental health of freelancers, with many reporting feelings of stress, anxiety and isolation. As the report notes, freelancing has always been precarious, but the scale, severity and sustained nature of the issues being faced this year are extraordinary.
To access the full report:
Troubling news comes from the Ministry of Justice, which is threatening to destroy papers relating to the composer, Sir Malcolm Arnold, who was a ward of the Court of Protection from 1979 to 1986 due to mental health problems. The Ministry claims that it cannot retain the papers because of the personal information contained in them and has “exhausted all possible options” for preserving the files. This is nonsense, because data protection does not apply to someone who has died and there are several repositories that would be only too happy to accept the archive. An appeal for the preservation of the archive has been signed by many eminent writers and artists. The Ministry is believed to be in discussions with The National Archives, so watch this space for further developments.
The government has said that museums and galleries in England can open from 4 July provided that safety measures are implemented. Guidance developed by the National Museum Directors’ Council sets out nine considerations that need to be in place before re-opening to support the safety of staff and visitors. They have also created a suggested timeline to help museums plan their re-opening.
National museums in London have said that they are phasing their opening, but should all be open over the summer. But, how many smaller museums and galleries will be able to meet the requirements of social distancing...? As I’ve already reported, many well-known smaller venues have already announced that they are struggling. The Museums Association says that substantial financial aid is still needed to help the sector, but will the government see the necessity?
The National Archives has also produced guidelines to help archives plan for re-opening that include links to a checklist and risk management template:
But it is very odd that archives and libraries are still scheduled to be closed when shops, often far smaller spaces, are allowed to open and some archives already operate a booking system, so why not extend that? Most archive staff that I know have not been furloughed and there has to come a point where they simply have no more work that they can do from home. The benefits of access to libraries, museums and archives are well-documented so, for everyone’s well-being – staff, visitors and users – let’s see them re-opened sooner rather than later.
Restaurant menus are “curated”, fashion shows are “curated”, playlists are “curated”. So, when everything is “curated,” what does the word even mean? The term has become a fashionable buzzword, but its ubiquity has left it almost devoid of meaning. It is used to suggest reassurance, implying that the thing curated is meaningful yet, mostly, its use in these contexts is meaningless. Even worse, is use of the phrase “carefully curated”, which is tautological.
The origins of “curate” lie in the Latin word “curare”, meaning “to take care of”, which is what traditional users of the term, in museums and galleries, have done for a very long time. But, the idea of curators as creative agents in their own right is new, signified by the move from vocational work to independent and critical engagement and reflected in the move in recent years by museums to credit the curators of their exhibitions. According to Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London “The current vogue for the idea of curating comes from the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, processed information and images in the digital age [and that] this contemporary resonance risks producing a kind of bubble where the word in itself loses meaning.”
For me this has parallels with the archive sector and the hijacking of the terms “archivist” and “archiving”, initially by IT, but now used in a wider context to simply mean collection or storage, and not just of documents, whereas the classic definition is of records selected for permanent preservation for their historical and informational value. With the dilution in meaning and value of this professional terminology, what then can those working in the arts and heritage sector use to reflect their skills and training?
Inspired by an article - “These days, everyone’s a curator” - in The New York Times, 3 March 2020.
Following on from the story that Northamptonshire County Council planned to severely restrict opening hours at the Record Office and introduce charges to use the archives, comes the news that councillors have voted to close 28 of the county’s 36 libraries. Three options were tabled but all involved closure, none to retain the status quo. Being a rural county, many of the libraries offer a community service way beyond that of lending books and with a poor public transport system people will lose access to food banks, children’s clubs, issuing of bus passes and so much more. Petitions have been launched and the campaign to the save the libraries has high profile supporters like authors Alan Moore and Philip Pullman. Here’s hoping that that campaign is as successful in overturning the council’s decision as was the reversal of the proposed cuts to the record office following the public outcry.
You can read more in this article in The Guardian:
Completed my last teaching session at University College Dublin last week. This autumn semester I’ve been teaching the Records Management module to the students on the Masters course in Archives and Records Management whilst one of the lecturers is on maternity leave. I’m really grateful for opportunity I was given. It was a bit scary at the start but really enjoyable and it was no hardship going to Dublin every fortnight! They are a great bunch of students this academic year and I wish them the very best for their future careers.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture