Creative Use of Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

March 07, 2022

People may come to the archives as part of their creative process to expand upon or enhance a current project with archival research.

For example, authors of historical fiction, poets looking to explore visual resources, and dramaturges digging into sources to get background information for costume design can be informed by archival materials.

Archival collections inspire and inform creativity, allowing users to learn about different eras and view historical objects directly. To see how something was made or to imagine what may have inspired the creator is a very potent stimulus to the imaginative engagement with the past.

Archival Use

Artistic engagement can take many forms. Artists have used archives to explore various topics, including culture, identity, memory, social systems, and politics. Creative engagement with the archives broadly fits into three main categories, which can overlap. The artist can be an archivist, an archival user, or an archival commentator.

Archival-based artwork does not always contain or display primary sources. However, in some cases, artists utilize the archival collections themselves, rather than the information they hold, to form part or all of a creative piece. The use and meta-use of archives are particularly exciting when artists use, interpret, and recreate visual and audiovisual records creatively.

Some Understandable Reservations

Archivists, who strive to preserve context, may understandably have reservations about the creative use of archives when they know this may help eliminate their intellectual control over the archives. Furthermore, the removal of context by artists may impact the future understanding of the original archives. However, archivists need to contend with many ethical, political, and professional questions about removing context from archival material—especially sensitive archival material. For example, is it acceptable to allow archival material to be potentially misrepresented? Where exactly does our professional duty to defend the moral integrity of our archives begin and end?

These questions presume an underlying assumption that there is one correct interpretation inherent in primary sources. There is also a notion that repositories and their archivists possess the right and ability to establish a correct understanding and then judge if a user has interpreted it correctly. Users, coming to their conclusions, may be seen as undermining the character and authenticity of archives, with certain usage of parts of the original whole seen as ethically wrong.

Tackling such issues practice may cause tensions between archives and their users. A deeper problem could be tension between archives and their donors due to the creative use of their archival materials. Some archives have tried to preempt such conflict by setting clear boundaries regarding the creative use of archives through the use and access policies and donor agreements.

Archival Programming

Arts programming is another way to attract new and different users to archives. It exposes a wide range of people to arts of all kinds and promotes local arts organizations and individual artists. It also provides opportunities for users to interact with artists in their community, which allows them to learn from peers and develop their artistic skills.

The development of national arts programs that individual states, cities, and towns can tap into is one significant way the web has benefited the arts community. Examples include National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo), National Poetry Month, the Big Read/Dance/Draw, and National Craft Month. More traditional annual events are National Archives Month or History Day.

Major organizations administer these programs nationally by providing marketing toolkits, program how-tos, forums for asking questions of other organizations, logistics, and planning tips. These programs are an excellent opportunity for practicing artists to raise awareness of their craft and engagement with their community; equally, archivists can tap into a vibrant group of local artists to provide new life into collections.

No matter what form the creative approach to archives takes, the key factor is welcoming access to historical primary sources for new and non-traditional users. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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