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Community Engagement and the Television Archive

A post by Centre for Television Histories Research Assistant Katie Crosson about our recent workshop, Community Engagement and the Television Archive, 5th July 2019, Milburn House, University of Warwick


In July a workshop took place at the Centre for Television Histories that saw exceptionally stimulating discussion from some of 2019’s most eminent television historians and archivists. The day’s lead organiser, Helen Wheatley (University of Warwick) emphasised that both these groups of people who are engaged in and with television’s history are ona shared journey. Throughout two sessions comprising of presentations and discussion, we asked why television history is important, who we want to engage in the stories and processes of television history, how this work could be done, and where said work would take place.

Starting the day off were Clare Watson and Phillip Leach from the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), a regional, public, Midlands-based media archive, as they discussed the organisation’s aims in preserving and making accessible the moving images of the East Midlands. An interesting aspect of their practise which they shared with the room is the disparity between the 70,000+ items in their archive and the 6,000 digital copies available online, raising important questions about sustainability as well as the tangible correlation between funding, space and access. The pair gave insight into the drive to define and engage ‘new communities’, explaining the industry emphasis on young audiences and the positive impact of engaging young people insofar as new perspectives are valued. MACE have led on subjective metadata enhancement projects with younger audiences who offer starkly different observations upon first viewing of a text to traditional forms of metadata, prioritising for example initial impact and the mood of a film, adding a personal, subjective element to cataloguing through a volunteering process. Here, reflections were made about the potentials of community archiving versus who that ‘community’ currently excludes. Successful stories were shared from ongoing projects however, including Projecting Identities between MACE and Somali communities in Leicester from 2019-2021, which is an exciting project expanding the remit of MACE. Another positive update Clare and Phillip discussed was the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme, an initiative to make 10,000+ geotagged films accessible online via Britain On Film that can be selected by map, extending the reach of regional resources. Clare raised the interesting point in this session that as well as all the gains to be had through the digitization process, there were also losses: focusing on the ‘village hall’ as a previous site for public engagement with the television archive, she argued that we might reconsider how archives can be brought back into direct contact with communities.

This presentation was followed by Ellie Groom working in community engagement at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford (NSMM), who explained the work being done in the museum exploring production and reception technologies, heritage and experience. She brought up the importance of television and other media in connecting visitors/participants to their cultural roots, drawing on the example of people from diverse ethnic background living in Bradford translocally by using technology to travel virtually by accessing media outputs from overseas, linking this to the success of pirate radio. Ellie critiqued some current curational practices and the overbearing focus on national nostalgia and elements of television history with broad appeal such as children’s television, and emphasised the importance of verifying what the local community want to see in their collections (as with work being done by Bradford Community Broadcasting’s oral histories project). As the local community comprise the majority of the museum’s visitors,she clarified that re-establishing the community back into the museum was imperative in ensuring it fulfils its duty as a site of cultural value, explaining how the NSMM was threatened with closure and saved by a large public campaign, evidencing how communities keep resources like this alive.

Next, Mark Macey from the BBC’s Archive Editorial team gave a presentation on the forthcoming initiatives and issues faced by the BBC’s archive, arguing that the BBC works well with new communities when working on event coverage or anniversary celebration, but must do more outside of these instances. Mark also noted that while Genome is a crowdsourced resource open to all, offering a level playing field for communities and offering a service that can be used globally, only a fraction of the BBC archive remains available to the public. Looking forward to more positive changes, Mark enthused about REMARC, a project utilising 30 second audio clips to inspire memories in people with dementia, with a new initiative rolling out towards the end of 2019 to make other languages accessible. He also fed back the exciting news that 9 million TV assets have been digitised and are in the process of being rolled out to libraries within the next year, a project currently being tested in Cambridge. Simultaneously, he told us about how work with the Educational Recording Agency (ERA) aims to make pre-1989 content available through Learning on Screen and Box of Broadcasts among other resources, while the Save Our Sounds project is working on saving audio recording heritage throughout the country. Feedback was given as to how virtual reality has been successful in engaging the ‘new community’ of 16-30 year olds in Northern Ireland, while the centenary of the BBC and associated projects planned for 2022 rest upon funding decisions. Ending on a critical note, Mark noted that a large hurdle in engaging communities is simply that people do not know what is in the archives, while access is limited to the BFI for a lot of academic purposes, with issues in getting hold of items range from format and standardisation problems to sensitivity issues and inconsistencies across content providers.

Andrew Burke introduced the idea to the room that people working with and holding found footage material are allies to the television historian, pulling out ‘the weird, whacky, idiosyncratic and magical’ as ‘co-conspirators’ who aid us in our understanding of what regional television was like. He also explored the importance of the representation of marginalised groups that goes beyond a sober, public affairs tone, evidenced in the significance of the Electric Circus archive of television dancing, an important resource for the black and queer communities in Toronto in its provision of a representation of joy and pleasure.

To close the first session, Birmingham City University’s Paul Long directly confronted the fact that the political economy of television archives and institutions engaged in/with television history is of upmost importance, revealing forthcoming research in this area and prompting questions about our status as researchers and subsequent claims to authority. Affective dimensions of the archive were discussed, with Paul eloquently touching on both Stuart Hall’s conceptualisation of the archive as a deeply affective and affecting experience, and quoting Walter Benjamin’s notion of wanting to be seen as scholars, rarely lovers, exploring how engaging with archives can be the work of love. Here, in response, Helen Wheatley proposed that ‘it is our job as archivists to prompt the rediscovering of old love and the discovery of new loves’. Paul also alluded to the ways in which social media usage throws up some interesting questions in relation to the political economy of the archive.

During this session, we discussed the importance of the transparency of institutions in garnering public trust, willingness to engage and reputation in the long term, as well as maintaining a healthy skepticism of any simplistic understanding of the term ‘communities’. We reminded ourselves that intellectual property and internet protocols are two significant barriers to sharing copyrighted texts transnationally, critiquing the bounded national frame that prohibits circulation of this material beyond the nation state. Moving on to session 2, we began to think about what is truly at stake in the process of television history and archiving. One recurring question seemed to be: if the programmes that are valued enough to be archived do not speak to a particular demographic, why would these people seek to engage themselves or be interested in the work archives do or the texts that they keep? These gaps were seen to harm the project of television archiving in tandem with limiting access and experience.

In an open discussion, Christine Geraghty critiqued the notion of linking archives and their cultural worth solely to identity and the process of seeing oneself and one’s ‘community’ represented and reaffirmed in a way which prioritises remembering, misremembering and myth creation as this framework of love. This, Christine argued, can obscure and misplace a sense of criticality and vital cultural critique. Bringing pleasure and knowledge together was recognised as vital, and it was said that identity may be a start-point for engagement, but without providing a reductively one dimensional view of what the archive can offer, acknowledging the value of learning about others and other communities is a crucial aspect of the work to be done by archivists and historians. Agreeing with this sentiment, Helen Wheatley further discussed the importance of finding a space to say ‘that’s not my history’, exemplified in critical responses to material shown in the Ghost Town project wherein people could not select what they wanted to see and were instead exposed to a 4.5 hour showreel that shocked, surprised and sometimes offended audiences: by exposing viewers to things they would not normally encounter through their networks of affiliation and affective connection, the project Helen was discussing highlights the role of curation as a political practice.

Counter-archives were discussed by Andrew Burke who offered the perspective that citizen (counter)-archives are more effective when documenting the lives and taste cultures of subordinated subjects at the edges of the screen to highlight marginalisation; not just showing a group but exploring how they are on screen and in what context, and also how they are peripheral. These insights sparked a debate on different ways of valuing television in archives and the failings of neoliberal metrics including footfall, with archivists and historians asserting the importance of micro-narratives evidenced in talking to people who may make claims akin to ‘this programme saved my life’, and how those more personal achievements cannot be measured so neatly. As the open conversation drew to a close, it was asserted that a large problem with the TV archive was its position as part of an exploitable public entity, revealing that the relationship between cultural value and exploitable value muddies the waters, with large corporations having a monopoly on rights and requiring huge sums of money for access.

The first presentation of this second half of the day was given by Jennifer Vanderburgh from St Mary’s, Canada, who led a conversation asking the questions of ‘who is the citizen archivist and what can we learn from them?’ Ellie Groom contributed to the discussion asking how we should determine what is kept and how to ensure donors and citizen archivists can feel that a public collecting is also their collection, reiterating that archives exist to fulfil a public function. These prompts sparked a discussion with John Wyver around the importance of properly understanding legal frameworks on a deep level and not fearing the language of ‘risk assessments’, reiterating that knowledge is power.

Christine Grandy from the University of Lincoln then gave a presentation on how the terms ‘citizen archivist’ and ‘citizen historian’ can be alienating from a BAME perspective, particularly in the current hostile environment in which citizenship in Britain is highly contested. Christine elaborated on the ways in which archives operate as colonial spaces infused with colonial practices, establishing the ways in which new efforts to decolonise the archive and history at large are gaining prominence in the industry, and how rethinking our practices, training and ideologies necessitates rethinking the archive. The Black and White Minstrel Show(BBC, 1958-1978) was used as an example of a long-running, successful, and deeply racist television programme, exemplifying one way in which historic television can be a site of trauma and thus how as archivists and historians we must carefully consider what we are asking people to engage in, acknowledging the fact that BAME audiences are historically overlooked viewers. Andrew Burke contributed to this discussion by critiquing the colonial role of the archivist as erasing the function of the memory keeper in indigenous communities, ignoring the way those practices have been updated since, for example, digital memory keeping.

Lastly, Chris Perry from Kaleidoscope explained how the items a citizen archivist keeps may not be viewed as financially or culturally valuable assets, but become primary history that can be relevant and useful at different points in time. He also elaborated on the ways in which Kaleidoscope has the time and resources to undertake deep research looking in search of programmes, letting us know that the institution is available to help Centres and archives attain programmes that may otherwise be inaccessible.

As the day drew to a close, we thought about how young people can be encouraged to retain a critical perspective in the current, stifling environment, affording them with proper training rather than leading them to enter an exploitive, corporate industry that seeks to utilise the archive for financial gain, while pondering over the importance going forward of efforts to engage research from non-academic sources. It was a wonderfully fruitful workshop overall, highlighting the mass of work to be done on many levels: creatively, institutionally, politically and personally, but offering plenty of hope for a brighter future for television archiving and history, if only for the sheer amount of dedication in the room to a defiant resistance in the face of a marketised, gate-kept and inaccessible industry, and the evidenced effective and enthusiastic collaboration between the academy, archives and institutions.

If I can contribute anything as someone from the elusive 16-30’s ‘new community’, it appears imperative to me to move away from a marketised higher education system if we want more critical archiving, while simultaneously paying young people fairly for their work. While voluntary work may appear mutually beneficial to those in the industry, one has to question who that unpaid labour in the name of ‘experience’ pushes out from the archiving process. As soon as young people view themselves in the industry as exploited subjects, their role - given it is even a possibility to engage in this way - becomes framed as a straightforward means to an end for the gain of an institution and thus they are far more likely to visualise the purpose of the archive and their relation to it (or lack thereof) in simplistic terms. This begins to stifle passion and strips young people of agency and confidence in their creative voice or ability to enact change for fear of reprisal as their labour is seen as a favour to be paid to an organisation in the name of exposure. Valuing archivists work and extending opportunities to marginalised communities is crucial for all aspects of improving the work we do in television history and that work’s output, including the deriving of pleasure, love and knowledge.

I also feel strongly that it is important to avoid being overly utopian about the democratisation social media affords in its presentation of new forms of archiving: the logics of social media must be critiqued by people who use the platforms and are familiar enough with their mechanics to highlight their shortcomings. For instance, Instagram is a prime example of a curational site forming archives of content for and by users that on the surface may appear neutral and free from the kinds of gatekeeping and barriers to distribution that are present in traditional forms of archiving, when in fact it is subject to the stronghold of large corporations and cultural hegemony, with the reach of images heavily dependent on, for example, whiteness, wealth and proximity to a well-known brand.

For me, Friday’s conference was a deeply enriching experience for a number of reasons, not least insofar as it encouraged me to think of archives and television history in brand new ways, leaving me with the resounding impression that firstly, more work is being done to retrieve, preserve, restore, and make accessible television programmes from throughout history than I could have ever imagined; secondly, that there are a number of incredibly exciting projects on the horizon with admirable social aims; and thirdly, that unfortunately these efforts are all up against a plethora of challenges within an industry that suffers, as we all know, from the undervaluing of television as a cultural asset as well as an incessant drive towards profit at all costs. But I left thinking ‘if anyone can get past that, these people can’.

Workshop participants

Workshop questions

Workshop questions

Workshop questions