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Coventry 2021: Engaging with the Television Archive

A post by Kat Pearson | 4 May 2020

Archive footage projected onto the Coventry Cathedral ruins as part of Historic England’s installation, ‘Where Light Falls’ (author's photo)

I’m in my first year of a PhD in the department, studying television archives and UK Cities of Culture. Coventry will be the third ever UK city of culture in 2021 and the University of Warwick is one of the principle project partners, so it’s a really exciting time to be working in the city. My research is shaped by the fact that I am studying for a Collaborative Doctoral Award meaning that it is jointly supervised by the University of Warwick, the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), and Illuminations production company. I was really drawn to this way of working because it gives me the opportunity to combine research with understanding how television archives operate and are used outside of academia.

< Archive footage projected onto the Coventry Cathedral ruins as part of Historic England’s installation, ‘Where Light Falls’ (author's photo)

Illuminations are working on a documentary film about Coventry Cathedral made entirely from archive footage from a range of public and private archives, to be televised during Coventry 2021. I have been fortunate enough to be able to help find footage, and to be able to view beautiful historic films of Coventry Cathedral in order to identify themes, artworks, key people and significant moments in the design and construction. This has been an amazing experience, not only because I love Coventry Cathedral and I’ve enjoyed learning about vision of Basil Spence and the many construction processes involved to creation of this iconic building, but also in terms of my own research. As someone thinking about the role of the television archive in relation to public art cultural events such as Coventry 2021 (and the former UK Cities of Culture years in Derry and Hull), it has been invaluable to learn about the process of working with the archive. Having some understanding of the vision of the film makers, the commissioning process, difficulties of tracking down ‘lost’ films and the many rights issues that go along with using archive film gives me a fresh insight into how I think about archives.

MACE's Midlands (https://www.macearchive.org/about/maces-midlands) >

MACE are based at the University of Lincoln but I have been able to spend some time with them learning about their archive and how they achieve their stated aim "to make film, video and digital materials of the region as accessible as possible." This is a very broad remit which covers a huge geographical region and so it has been really interesting to work alongside them to see what this means on a daily basis. Collaborating with MACE has given me an understanding of the practical implications of working with the television archive. I have learned so much in a short space of time, from different types of film formats and how they can be viewed at MACE, archival storage, digitisation, accessioning, obtaining rights, and perhaps most importantly who uses MACE and the different ways that users engage with the collections. Thinking, for

example, about the time it takes to digitise one short film, and all the processes which are involved to make it a suitable quality for inclusion in a modern programme, has helped to deepen my understanding of the academic debates around the future of television archives and digital content.

< Viewing the television archive at MACE (author's photo)

Unfortunately, the public screening events which we had planned to take place in April and May to bring some of MACE’s Coventry films to people in the city, and showcase some of the work that MACE does have been postponed. However, I’m really excited about the prospect of being able to allow people to

think not only about their engagement with the current television archive, but also how their own films can become part of that archive and shape its future, and to be part of Coventry’s City of Culture year in 2021. Hopefully this type of public engagement work will enrich MACE’s archive collections relating to the city and will be a lasting legacy for the City of Culture year.

A still from a 1988 news report about an award winning pub in Foleshill (taken from the MACE archive) >

Alongside these two partnerships, my academic research focuses on the role of the television archive in relation to of public engagement, memory and placemaking. This is a significant topic in terms of Coventry 2021 because television partnerships have been identified as a key aspect of the success of the UK City of Culture scheme, but for Derry and Hull’s year there was relatively little analysis of television coverage.

This research uses a more recent television archive to that which I’m working on with Illuminations and MACE. I am using Learning on Screen’s resource Box of Broadcasts to track coverage for Derry’s City of Culture year in 2013, Hull’s in 2017 and ultimately Coventry’s in 2021.

< A graph compiled from programmes on Box of Broadcasts

Thinking about the archive in these different ways has been both interesting and challenging and I am looking forward to continuing to use the television archive as a tool to engage with, enjoy and critique Coventry 2021.