Transforming Archives: Immersed in a New World

on Tuesday, 08 November 2016. Posted in Archives


Latest cohort for Transforming Archives - Image reproduced courtesy of Emma Stagg, The National Archives

The day that I found out I had been selected for the Skills for the Future ‘Transforming Archives’ traineeship was a strange one. Partly because it was only the day before that I’d attended interview for the role – this was the quickest I’d ever heard back!  Admittedly, another aspect of the strangeness was due to my still being ‘spaced out’ with tiredness, following several nights of too little sleep; the build-up to the big day had been so incredibly intense. Combine all this with the mixed rush of excitement at hearing that I’d been successful, and the utter shock at having been chosen for one of only 12 traineeship positions nationwide which over 700 people had applied for – and you’ll have some idea just what was going on for me that day. It was strange. Once the shock had settled and I’d finally got some sleep, the reality of how incredibly fortunate I was set in. The world of archives, history and heritage has always drawn me, but due to my career background consisting largely of military and police service – I wasn’t exactly the type actively recruited into the sector. Unless Archivists are now being trained in close-quarters combat drills, (I mused), in an attempt to curtail the growing and ever-present threat of angry genealogists, waving their pencils frantically and uprising en-masse to bring down the current system (of cataloguing documents). Unlikely. This is why I felt sheer delight at seeing the advert for the traineeship online:

‘Through the Transforming Archives programme we are hoping to diversify the archives workforce, address skills gaps in the archives workforce and provide new routes into working in the sector.’ The National Archives were actively looking for new skills, fresh energy and people from unique, untypical backgrounds. My hopes of beginning a fresh new career in the archives and heritage sector had been rekindled… My posting was to be at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, and my first day there was inspirational. Everyone was so warm, welcoming and personable – I immediately felt right at home. (Helped, no doubt, by all the delicious and colourful cake on offer in the break room!). I was given a tour of the building and facilities by Claire, the Principal Archivist, and introduced to a whole range of smiling staff members. I got a tangible sense of the wide scope of work that went on at WSHC:  Under one roof we had Archivists, Archaeologists, Conservators, the County Arts Lead and Conservation and Museums Manager, an Education Officer, the Wiltshire Buildings Recorder, county Registrars, World Heritage Site officers, Community History Advisors… many of whom were overseen by Terry, the Heritage Services Manager. Such an incredible wealth of resources and information available in one place! Once more, I felt that tingling sense of deep gratitude welling up inside me; how fortunate I was to have been chosen for this role.

Over the following week I undertook various inductions, training and ‘orientation’ a WSHC, before being whisked off to Manchester for the enigmatically named ‘DCDC16 Conference’. My meticulous and painstaking research later uncovered that this stood for ‘Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities’. (Clearly I had what it took to be an excellent Archivist!).

To be honest, I’d been so busy I hadn’t had time to think or get excited about going to the conference. It was only after the restful 3 hour train ride and short walk to my hotel, which overlooked Old Trafford football stadium, that the excitement really began to kick-in. So much learning, networking and FUN to be had over the coming few days! A quick shower and cup of tea, and I donned my suit in preparation for the pre-conference reception.

When I rocked up to The Lowry at Manchester’s Salford Quays, it felt like I’d stepped onto a Hollywood plaza. The bright glowing lights of the ITV building, the BBC, the ‘Coronation Street’ set and the futuresque architecture of the Imperial War Museum North, all set upon the harbour’s edge; an array of colourful signage being reflected into the rippling, dark water below. Absolutely magical. The spell continued as I headed up to the reception room at the top of The Lowry, to catch a beautiful display of precision-timed fireworks popping and frazzling in the sky directly outside. How wonderful, I thought - I’ve never been welcomed to a conference in such style! (It later transpired that the fireworks had nothing to do with DCDC16, we were just fortunate be overlooking the water directly opposite Media City, in all its opulent extravagance).

Looking around the room on that first night of the conference, I was amazed at the wide variety of people present – all ages and backgrounds seemed represented, the space abuzz with excited conversation and the chinking of wine glasses. A glass of delicious red was popped into my hand as Emma Stagg, coordinator of the Transforming Archives programme whizzed over to greet me and to introduce some of the other lucky trainees from across the UK. Before too long the room was hushed and an elegant lady appeared on stage… she introduced herself as Jo Reilly, Head of Participation and Learning at the Heritage Lottery Fund. HLF funding made all our traineeships possible as part of the £40 million ‘Skills for the Future’ grants programme, which is currently delivering work-based training placements across the wider UK heritage sector and encouraging a more diverse workforce. Jo continued by speaking about this exciting and opportunistic time in the archive sector, and the ambition of the HLF to continue their support with projects such as this. I began to feel an inner sense that I was part of something so big, so important and so meaningful; preserving and enlivening our nation’s rich history, to ensure it remains accessible to as many diverse communities as possible, for as long as possible. That’s no insignificant matter.

Jo then handed the stage over to Dr Valerie Johnson - Director of Research and Collections at The National Archives – who introduced the Transforming Archives programme and began to present fancy certificates to the previous cohort of trainees, who had now come to the end of their traineeships and were heading off to exciting new pastures across the heritage sector. ‘That’ll be me up there, next year’, I thought. I learned that some of the cohort 2 folks had secured awesome jobs in places such as The National Theatre archive and Rambert Dance Company archive (apparently the oldest dance school in the UK), as well as various placements in other corporate and county archives. Some of the trainees were going on to study for their Masters in Archives and Records Management – another path of progression in the world of archives. Clearly the Transforming Archives programme is working. Fortunately for me, I got to hang out with the former and the new trainees over the coming days and hear their personal stories first-hand. They were all such lovely people, with a shared passion for history and heritage.

The following day the conference proper began, with an introduction from the CEO of The National Archives – Jeff James. He described the essence of a ‘new vision’ for the nation’s archive, which, he said, is so important in order to carry our collective history forward in these uncertain times. We also enjoyed a personal video message from the Minister for Digital and Culture, Matt Hancock, which was so inspiring. Matt described how important the digitisation and preservation of our historical archives is for the government, and how they are seeking to do all that they can to support the new vision. I felt humbled to be here and excited to learn how all of his was going to be achieved! 

The conference continued as it had started – inspirationally. I attended presentations by archivists, museum curators, archaeologists, artists, librarians, software engineers and academics. Topics ranging from National Trust initiatives, Copyright laws and preservation of women’s history, to archaeology projects that are engaging BME, low income and ex-military communities. We saw how massive advances in technology are making archives and museums more accessible through engaging younger audiences; building archival content into video games, apps that turn museum visits into an interactive ‘role play’ game, and teenagers ‘solving’ historical crimes picked from their local archives by means of a smartphone-filmed documentary project. We learned about the importance of partnership and collaboration, crowdsourcing content, embracing change, and the myriad resources now available to help overcome challenges we’re facing in the sector.

For me, the absolute highlight of the conference was the keynote presentation from Phil Lyons MBE and Sarah Coward of The National Holocaust Centre and Museum. They shared how it’s their vision to use the atrocities of the Holocaust to shed light on extremist views within our contemporary culture, re-educating and inspiring communities; that collectively we can open to a new understanding and tolerance of the differences that make us all so unique. One way in which the centre is doing this is by working with police ‘hate crime’ units and local authorities to educate individuals and break the cycle of hate that seems prolific in our modern world. “Rather than giving answers about what should happen”, Phil explained, “we’re simply asking questions. We’re asking ‘what were the values that went missing during the Holocaust?’ and ‘how can we teach children today to cherish and guard these values?’. This is ultimately about the human condition”. Powerful stuff indeed.

One other exciting way in which The National Holocaust Centre and Museum are bringing history to life to support this vision is through their ‘Forever Project’. This is an ambitious programme that will preserve the voice of Holocaust survivors for generations to come. Using advanced filming technologies, survivors (who currently speak and educate groups of school children at the centre) are being digitally ‘recreated’ as 3D holograms, which children and adults alike will be able to hear, see and interact with, as they share their powerful and emotive testimonies. Not only that, but people will be able to ask each survivor questions and hear them giving answers on hundreds of frequently raised subjects! In short, although the Holocaust survivors themselves won’t be with us forever, the archive of their shared oral history will be digitally preserved for time immemorial, allowing us always to remember the atrocities they faced and the lessons we can learn. As Phil spoke, my mind was officially blown! Thoughts began to race at the opportunities now available to us in the archive sector… Thanks to huge leaps in everyday technology, the possibilities seem endless.

Since returning from the DCDC16 conference, my mind hasn’t stopped racing as I’ve continued learning about our archives at WSHC and the heritage sector at large. I’m also lucky to be taking on roles in two separate projects – ‘Wiltshire at War’ and ‘Creative Wiltshire: Collecting Cultures’.

In just a week’s time my cohort of friendly trainees will be reconvening at The National Archives in Kew for ‘basecamp’ – an opportunity to undertake specific training in various skills necessary to work in archives and records management. It’ll also be a great chance to socialise with the others and see how they’re getting on in their placements. (I’m sure there’ll be more wine involved!). Then early next year we’re up in Edinburgh at the Scottish Council on Archives for basecamp part two – with lots of fun things happening in between.

Image reprodued courtest of Emma Stagg, The National Archives

My time so far as a trainee on the Transforming Archives programme has been incredible. I can’t help but feel so blessed to be here, undertaking the programme in such a warm and positive environment as WSHC, with so much learning, growing and opportunity ahead of me! And best of all is the realisation that this is only the start of my long and exciting journey through the world of Heritage.

Leighton Gosai, Transforming Archives Trainee


Accredited Archive Service