Transforming Archives: ARA Audience Engagement

on Tuesday, 24 May 2016. Posted in Archives

As part of my year-long ‘Transforming Archives’ traineeship I have a training (and separate travel) budget from The National Archives (with funding from HLF). This budget gives me the chance to not only scout out learning and development opportunities that I wouldn’t normally have access to, but also lets me attend them for free – which is absolutely brilliant really. Obviously there are limitations, we can’t go jetting off around the world for a lecture, or get them to pay for a Masters course. I have however been to quite a few places around the UK; I’m off to Glasgow for the Copyright and Cultural Memory Conference next month, for example.

Anyhow, on 18th March 2016, a perfect training event popped up for me to attend for a mere £35 of my training budget (plus my travel and a hotel for a night). The Eastern and London Regions of the Archives and Records Association (ARA) held some core training in, ‘Audience Engagement: Strategies and Practices’, at the central library, Cambridge. After a warm welcome from the ARA Training Officers Diane Hodgson and Anne Jensen, it was straight into six different talks from people with a wide range of experience in the field.

First up was ARA’s Head of Public Affairs, Jon Elliot, talking about the Explore Your Archive Campaign and how it can be used to project the archive profession and the value of what archives hold and do. Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign between the National Archives and ARA that encourages archives across the UK to host events and projects that highlight their service. Using marketing materials to create a cohesive campaign, the focus is on a week-long celebration of archives in November (though events can also be held throughout the year). Jon believes the campaign has been a success so far, but that improvements do need to be made, which they are aiming to implement over the next 3 year phase.

Next was a thorough and very informative talk from National Archives Outreach Officer, Sandra Shakespeare. Sandra pointed out the importance of actually evaluating your evaluations. There’s no point collecting lots of data on visitors if you don’t actually review that data and make use of it to shape your engagement plans. Sandra explained the many benefits of creative approaches to audience engagement, including working in partnerships to deliver projects, which can give you an opportunity to navigate around boundaries and take risks. One point that really stuck with me was that you need to empower people, start conversations and really build relationships, and then people will respond if they feel that they are valued and their opinions matter.

Transport for London (TFL) Archivist Tamara Thornhill then gave an impressive presentation about how she managed to raise the profile of the archive within TFL itself, proving the importance of outreach as advocacy within your host organisation. Tamara re-branded and transformed the TFL archive, which had previously had a very low profile. The low profile was so low that many people within the company didn’t know of the archive, or they assumed it was the Transport Museum; in fact Tamara had great difficulty finding out where to go for her job interview as there was no clear message where the archive was even based. Since being in her post, Tamara has re-branded the archives and raised its profile using a new website, exhibitions, lunchtime talks and more. Tamara emphasised the importance of making sure everyone within, as well as outside of, your organisation knows: where you are, what you do, why you do it, and how they can use you!

Next was Liz Rees, (Head of Archives & Collections at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums), who gave some very useful tips on using social media to engage with a wide variety of audiences. This included making sure you tailor posts to suit the particular social media you are using, as not one size fits all. Liz also emphasised that you should choose the right social media for your organisation, whether that’s only one, or a few of them, and you should remember that it does take time so don’t take on too much. Liz particularly extolled the virtues of Flickr, as a means to promote and provide access to large image collections. Liz stated that pictures of people tend to be the most popular, with historic mug shots doing particularly well, but shared that the most popular image in their whole collection is of the inside of a German Submarine, UB-110, taken from the Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd. Shipbuilders Collection!

From the Record Office of Leicestershire Leicester & Rutland - Jenny Moran and Robin Jenkins gave a lively, funny, engaging, and incredibly inspiring talk (which even involved audience participation) on a rather serious subject: how to engage audiences when you have faced crippling budget cuts. Facing massive cuts to their funding, they decided if they were going to out, they would do so with a bang! In effect their message was do more in the face of cuts, show how brilliant you are, and be creative with how you do that. For them this meant: holding an open day that involved (among many other things) a real-time re-enactment of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; building a trench in the carpark; using said trench for school engagement activities as well as Christmas carol evenings; and much more besides – all on a very small budget! They found this not only raised their profile within the community, but really did help raise staff morale in a time of uncertainty.

Finally, Jessamy Carlson, (TNA Partnerships & Programmes manager for the First World War), ended the day with an inspiring talk about 'Fun Palaces’, and how they can be used to engage younger local audiences. Fun Palaces is a campaign that focusses across one weekend, encouraging local venues/organisations to create community events that focus on creativity, learning, and fun. Jessamy took Fun Palaces’ ethos of ‘everyone an artist everyone and scientist’ and added ‘everyone an archivist’. Across a few hours on a Saturday, TNA had many art, craft, and story activities for children to enjoy focussing around the Lake Tanganyika Expedition, under the title: ‘The Chimp that Went to War’. I was rather impressed by the idea of creating multiple creative activities to engage local communities with art, the First World War, and archives, all in one day.

I’m so glad I managed to attend this ARA core training day. I found it to be not only interesting, but informative, inspiring, and very valuable to my continued development. I really feel I gained not only knowledge, but a greater passion and excitement for audience engagement. Plus Jenny and Robin really made me want to build a trench out in the history centre car park! What do you think?

Jessica Smith, Transforming Archives Trainee

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