Researching Archive Exhibitions with Peter Lester

Archivists are always looking for new and innovative ways to engage audiences.  From archival film screenings to performances based on letters and diaries, and from volunteering opportunities for the local community to working with people living with dementia, the potential of archival documents, film and photographs to offer transformative experiences for people is huge.  Having worked as a professional archivist for over ten years, I am now engaged on a PhD at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester.  My research focuses on one particular form of audience engagement: archive exhibitions, examining how exhibitions can provide exciting and diverse ways of reaching new audiences.  It not only investigates how archivists and designers select, interpret and design exhibits in cutting-edge ways, but also seeks to place exhibitions within the wider archive environment, looking at the nature of the physical visit to the archive and what role this can play within increasingly online forms of archival engagement.

One of my case studies is Archives+ at Manchester Central Library, where I have been talking to staff members, architects and designers, including Mather & Co.  These conversations have helped me to understand the redevelopment of the library and archive spaces in more detail, the aims behind it, and how archivists and designers have reshaped the visitor experience.  The exhibition space presents exciting new ways for audiences to engage with archives, both as real objects and through digital interactives.  The different themes within the exhibition highlight the wide variety of collections held at the archives and give visitors the chance to engage with their history and the story of their local community.

The spatial arrangement of Archives+ and the blending of different services – the café, the exhibition, the performance space, the library – encourages and enables visitors to explore archives in a speculative, serendipitous way.  The reading room for serious research is still there, but visitors do not need to have research questions in order to experience archives; they can just wander in, explore, engage… either on their own, with their family and friends, or as part of a larger group.  The space is designed to help people understand more about what an archive is and to show how relevant it can be to them and their wider community.

The use of space is a key aspect of my research, looking at how archivists and designers are reshaping the physical experience of visiting an archive.  Across different examples and case studies, I am exploring how space plays a key role in that experience, from the broad transformation of the physical building to the close encounter afforded between the visitor and the archival object.  Archives+ provides opportunity to study these different types of engagement and to address how archivists and designers are working in exciting and creative ways to attract new and diverse audiences.  As a key player in the work at Archives+, Mather & Co and, especially, Sarah Clarke have been of invaluable support for my project, along with the wider team at the archives, partners, business planners, consultants and architects, who have all generously given much time and help towards my study.

Peter Lester
Archivist and PhD candidate at the University of Leicester