Cheeseman – Question 4
4What do recent developments in archival representation mean for the use of specific archives in teaching and public engagement?
Teaching Associate and Honorary Research Fellow – University of Sheffield
Project Leader, Sandpit – Furnace Park
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I’m only qualified to answer this question in reverse as I have only been funded to work with archives via public-engagement activities. In doing so, I have found the advent of apps for smartphones and hand-held computers such as the iPad useful for public engagement and, to a lesser extent, teaching. One of my projects has been based around the development of such an app, designed to engage the public with the musical heritage of Sheffield as they walk around the city.1 This was a collaboration with Sensoria, a Sheffield-based festival of film and music, which had developed a GPS-notated archive of sites of musical importance in the city. The app reads data from this database and geolocates its user amongst representations of archival material related to place. The user can be led on curated walks through the city that trigger recordings and images as they travel in the real world, or, alternatively, can access materials from the app alone. Such technology is relevant to any archival material associated with specific locations and can be easily used to introduce a sense of place to any collection. This has huge potential, but requires significant investment in promotion and is also expensive in terms of both development and staff time.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Also of importance to both teaching and public engagement has been the falling price of producing large, sturdy facsimiles of archive material. An attractive, informative, and sizeable exhibition of between ten to fifteen large images can be produced by a vinyl printer and mounted on foam board for less than £200. An extensive gallery show can be funded with between £2,000 and £3,000, an amount easily justifiable for grant budgets. Furthermore, once made and exhibited, the materials are durable enough to reuse elsewhere at little cost. Such developments have arguably been of much greater significance than smartphone apps and GPS to my public engagement and teaching work, although of lower profile. I should note, however, that it is still expensive to exhibit actual archival material given security, insurance, and display costs.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The digitization of archival material and its accessibility on sites such as YouTube, not to mention the ease of scanning, has allowed representations of the archive to penetrate teaching sessions so seamlessly that one often forgets the effort involved in previously accessing it. As digitization continues to mutate our practices, illustrating a discussion in class with archival material can often be performed on the fly, there and then, with a simple search.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Finally, a note of caution: I have found it very easy to lose my identity as a researcher when performing public-engagement work, becoming less of an interpreter and more of a designer of “archival experiences.” This takes a considerable amount of time and energy and, if done well, usually makes people happy. I’m not convinced it has, however, been the best use of my time. Firstly, it is performed at the expense of working with the archive as a researcher (something that I have been trained to do) and secondly, it positions me as a curator engaging the archive with artists and the public. This is distinct from teaching in that the emphasis is more on entertainment than learning. Engagement is pushing the limit of what the university and its employees do, encroaching on areas that museums, galleries, and libraries have traditionally occupied. The public’s welcoming of this encroachment is flattering, but it is also an indictment of funding cuts to museums, galleries, and libraries.