Q&A with Janice Tullock, an Archives and Heritage Consultant

This month we’ve spoken with Janice Tullock, an Archives and Heritage Consultant at Janice Tullock Associates. Mather & Co has worked closely with Janice on archive projects and most recently on the Silverstone Experience,  and we wanted to delve a little deeper into what being an archivist entails and how to use them to engage with new audiences.

Q: How do you begin to manage an archive that may contain many thousands of records – can you describe the scale of the task and some of the type of work it involves and over what time period?

The best starting point for managing an archive is not to panic! We can often be faced with huge piles or rooms of unsorted, often dirty archives which haven’t been touched for a long time – although that’s not always the case. People and organisations often find managing their records an overwhelming task and they ignore the problem until they have no room left, they can’t find anything, or items begin to decay. Collections I’ve managed have ranged from a few boxes to miles of shelving containing thousands of boxes of material. Usually I’m brought into a project to care for paper records, but increasingly I help with objects, paintings, film, sound and digital records.

It’s the archive teams’ job to identify which items are worthy of permanent preservation and how to organise and preserve these. This can involve sorting items and producing a searchable catalogue, highlighting interesting and useful items. We can also advise on which material has no lasting value and can be disposed of, which is often a great relief as well as saving space. The most enjoyable step is then to work out how the organisation or individual can use the archive to benefit their business or to provide access to the public for research and entertainment. This whole process can take just a few months or several years. Usually collections will continue to grow so it’s an ongoing process.

Archives can support a whole range of business activities from marketing, business development, supporting corporate social responsibility and intellectual property rights to being the bedrock of building visitor attractions. It’s worth having them organised, preserved and accessible.

Q: What state do you usually find archives in – can you give some idea of how well or badly looked after they are?

Sometimes archives I work with are very well organised, clean and sorted, but that’s rare! I’ve worked in archives for over 25 years and I’ve seen most things. From archives in stately homes and cathedrals to corner shop basements and private homes they are all different. It seems pretty usual to store archives in basements, but these wet, dark, vermin infested places are the worst place for them.

I’ve worked in collections in some strange places. One church in Kent had a six-foot-long 19th century map wrapped around a water pipe as insulation, not ideal for preservation. For many years I worked in a basement next to a gun store and I regularly share space with a variety of insects (until we’ve saved the archives that is).  I’ve saved records from a psychiatric hospital the week before it was being demolished and once spent a week rescuing archives of medieval trade with the continent from a 4-foot-high shelf in a basement.

I’ve also had some amazing finds. Only last week I was privileged to hold a ticket to the first show that a legendary entertainer appeared in as a teenager. I also read his notebooks which unveil his private thoughts and fears and will be an amazing resource for other entertainers. I’ve read diaries and letters from royalty, politicians and major historical figures, some of which will never be available to the public. I’ve organised the archives of a premiership football club, bringing together the records establishing the club and objects recording its current achievements and I’ve worked on collections that are mundane, but essential to everyday life, like water company archives and records of local councils.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in archiving? How do you solve it?

The biggest challenge in an archive project can be gaining control. We are often asked to convert a mass of objects into a collection will be preserved for the long term, where you have identified all the items and you know that you aren’t spending money on items that aren’t worth preserving. It sounds dull but having policies and procedures in place to manage the collection brings control and then you are managing efficiently and can exploit the collection fully. You can’t use the archive to support the business without having control.

Q: What benefits does technology bring to archiving?

Thirty years ago, researchers had to visit each archive or museum to see their collections. Now we can see digitised archives from the comfort of our armchair, saving time and money. Technology also allows us to provide greater access to archives in new ways. I’m working on a project that will link archive maps for the North West of England to current maps and satellite images, so you can easily shift from 1830 to current day in a mouse click. Such a great way to get people interested in archives.

Q: Does technology pose new challenges? If so, what?

Technology presents both challenges and opportunities for archives and heritage. How do we manage the increasing amounts of digital material? How do we permanently preserve digital material? People often presume that digital material will stay accessible for ever, but it’s actually a more pressing preservation issue than saving paper. Just think back to those floppy disks we used only a few years ago. How many of these are still accessible? Archivists work to preserve this material as often as they preserve parchment these days.

Q: Where do you begin in attracting new audiences to heritage projects?

We would love to think that we could get everyone interested in every heritage project, but that isn’t efficient or effective. Our first task is usually to identify which groups of people are most likely to be interested in the project being developed, then think about why and how they would like to get involved. It’s really important not to make presumptions about what people are interested in and we spend a great deal of time talking to people and finding out their interests and why they haven’t been involved in the project before. The answers to these questions are then used to drive the project design, marketing and the interpretation planning and design by Mather & Co.

Q: What are the usual challenges/reticence/apathy you find to heritage and how do you change those?

If heritage is presented in an engaging way that people find accessible, then I don’t often find much apathy to getting involved. People want to be informed and entertained but can often be prevented from engaging by preconceptions and poor presentation. It’s really important to think about who you want to visit your exhibition and what you want them to gain from the experience.

The Silverstone Experience is an excellent example. Here our team undertook the audience consultation and research which fed into the exhibition design and the development of marketing, schools programme and family activities. People told us that they were likely to visit in mixed family groups, where not everyone was a motorsport fan, so we needed to respond to this. Mather & Co took this on board in the stories they’ve told at the Experience and I’m thrilled that groups of visitors of all types have said that they’ve enjoyed their visit.