In this feature article, Hannah Riggott talks about her experience as a project archivist and how she tackled her project.
The Hepworth Wakefield opened in 2011. The development on the banks of the river Calder is one of the most successful new galleries in the UK and has won numerous awards. The gallery holds a major art collection inherited from Wakefield City Art Gallery which closed in 2008 and the archive collection supports this. Prior to my appointment the archive was uncatalogued and still stored in the boxes it was transported in from the old gallery. The collection is significant as it represents the history of art in Wakefield, which is the birthplace of major 20th Century sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The city also had close links to the sculptor Henry Moore, who was born in nearby Castleford. The archive contains a large volume of correspondence from these artists, as well as artist files pertaining to each artist in the collection, photographs and correspondence relating to Wakefield City Art Gallery. There is also a collection books from the personal library of Barbara Hepworth which are stored in the archive and also required cataloguing.
I was employed with funds from an Arts Council grant for three months. The initial aim of the project was to arrange, catalogue and repackage the material to make the archive accessible so that it could be used by gallery staff in the course of their work. The collection had already been assessed by an archive consultant and I was able to refer to his report. I was also to oversee the participation of a volunteer who would be arranging and cataloguing Hepworth’s library. I was the only archive professional working on the project but I worked closely with the curatorial team and was always guided by what they wanted to get out of the project and how they envisioned using the archive as a resource.
I spent the first week of my contract looking in boxes and trying to get an idea of the collection and how I would arrange it. It was daunting task, but I had the consultant’s report and a box list to help me. Even though I had such a short time to work on a sizeable collection I still felt it was important to take my time and make a proper plan of attack. There was no real original order so I decided to divide the collection into three main areas; Personal Papers, Artist Files and the Papers of Wakefield City Art Gallery. In the absence of any dedicated archival software the plan was for me to catalogue on an Excel spreadsheet. I was given the responsibility to design the spreadsheet myself and I used ISAD (G) to ensure that I was capturing all the essential information.
I began with the Artist Files because they were highlighted as a priority by the gallery staff. The Artist Files were stored in four filing cabinets and arranged in alphabetical order. There is a file for each artist who is represented in the Wakefield Permanent Art Collection and these files are used so regularly by gallery staff that they are more like current records than archives. I maintained the original alphabetical order, catalogued them to file level using the NCA Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names and repackaged them into new archival files and boxes. Keeping the files in alphabetical order means that staff members can still find files quickly without having to use the catalogue, but the catalogue creates a record of what records are there. After I had completed the Artist Files I moved on to my second priority, the Exhibition Files from Wakefield City Art Gallery. I felt that these records were likely to be a popular and useful resource for the staff at the Hepworth. I created a file for each exhibition there was material on and arranged them in chronological order. They provide a full picture of the old gallery’s activities up to it’s closure and include posters, photographs, promotional material, exhibition catalogues and letters from artists. When I had finished this task I catalogued the papers relating to Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The Hepworth is in possession of numerous examples of their work and there is a large volume of archive material to support this.
Once I reached this stage my job got more difficult. I was left with the part of the archive that I had named The Administrative Papers of Wakefield City Art Gallery, which includes all the material that was not directly related to individual exhibitions.There is everything from 1950’s staff records to copyright requests and learning resources. There was no original order to this material and I found creating an arrangement quite challenging. I began to arrange it in a very simple chronological order but it quickly became clear that a more functional approach would work better. My contract was due to finish at the end of October 2013 and I was running out of time. Luckily it was extended until 31 March 2014. This gave me more time to finish the arrangement and cataloguing of the last part of the archive to a better standard and also to take on extra work. The first month of the contract extension was spent completing the original project. I then had the opportunity to work with two different depositors; Dr. Sophie Bowness, the granddaughter of Barbara Hepworth and members of Wakefield Permanent Art Fund. Dr. Bowness was making a deposit of important original archive material from the Hepworth Estate. I was responsible for arranging and ordering storage for these important documents, as well as cataloguing them. The second group of depositors I worked with were members of a charity who had been affiliated with Wakefield City Art Gallery. This charity had been responsible for assisting with the purchase of art for Wakefield’s permanent collection and their archive is an important part of the history of art in Wakefield. I worked closely with these depositors, giving them regular updates on the way I planned to arrange and catalogue the collection. They were very happy with the outcome of the project and pleased to see their archive accessible at The Hepworth.
This project was my first professional job after completing my postgraduate diploma at Liverpool University. In many ways it was daunting to start with a role where I was the only archive professional but I also think it enabled me to grow quickly in confidence. I had to trust to my own judgement and have faith in my training. I also found it enlightening to work closely with people who are not record-keeping professionals, especially those who would be the eventual users of the archive. It is always useful to think from the prospective of the user when you are cataloguing so this was incredibly helpful.
In the final week of my contract I conducted sessions to introduce staff to the archive and to show them how to use the catalogue. These sessions were overwhelmingly positive and it was really rewarding to get good feedback and to see how enthusiastic everyone was as they explored different ways the archive could be used in the course of their work. I finished the project feeling very satisfied with the outcome. I felt that I achieved the objectives required and that I had contributed to the development of the gallery.