Theoretically, I understood the term ‘co-production’ before attending the Gerald Aylmer Seminar on the 11th March 2020. Terms like ‘co-creation’, ‘participation’, and ‘collaboration’ have often come up as I have learnt about archives. However a day of hearing from academics and practitioners from a variety of perspectives, covering theories and case studies, has given me a much better understanding of the terms, with more nuance, more examples, and inevitably, more questions!
I gained a wider understanding of the sheer range of benefits which can be generated by co-production, as well as a deeper understanding of the ethical issues and tensions that need to be considered throughout this work to ensure effective development for all involved.
The structure of the day was designed to encourage thought around three key questions. The first session therefore set out these questions, with Catherine Clarke, Ayshah Johnston, and Victoria Hoyle offering thought-provoking insights into:
- What is co-production?
- When is co-production most effective?
- Is co-production useful or exploitative?
While all three speakers came from different angles, key themes were already emerging, such as the significance of the journey for all participants; the importance of empathy as part of the process; and the language around use and value.
The next session built on these questions under the heading Structures, with Sara Huws’s account of the development of the East End Women’s Museum being particularly inspiring. She discussed how ‘building vital and exciting connections between collections and communications’ requires practical considerations, such as providing food for your collaborators, and ensuring that meetings can be slotted around childcare.
Kristian Lafferty then spoke about collaboration as part of the process of partnerships with Ancestry – an important practical consideration for many archives. Under the theme of Practices, Errol Francis discussed The Memory Archives project from Culture&, which invited participants with dementia to engage with archives through food, music, and smells – a feast for the senses to welcome new audiences into archival spaces. Museums and archives, Errol made clear, should be a place for humanity, not just objects.
Rosa Schling from On the Record then shared both the enormous benefits and distinctive challenges of the organisation’s oral history projects. Bringing together multiple perspectives is often powerful – but such views don’t always sit nicely together.
Mike Esbester and Karen Baker discussed the Railway Work, Life & Death project describing it as collaborative, and ‘on its way’ to co-production but not there yet. Discussing the challenges, both practical and ethical, showcased that co-production should not be viewed as a solution in itself. In this case, the emphasis was on starting with a clear and consistent project for collaborators, rather than leaping into an unsustainable co-production.
After lunch, the theme was Outcomes, and Dr Sarah Lloyd began by looking at the potential transformative power of co-production. In one project, talking to children they asked the question ‘What happens to kids like us?’ This highlighted how different perspectives can transform historical awareness.
Stef Dickers from the Bishopsgate Institute spoke engagingly about the ways in which collecting can be collaborative, including the important question: ‘Who am I to make decisions about how people should tell their own history?’ As archivists, this is an impactful reminder – and Bishopsgate’s varied methods of collecting protest records are well worth investigating!
From the other side of the archive, Martin Spafford spoke passionately about his work as a teacher, including six different projects in which his students engaged with archives. He brought together records, donors, and students, which enabled the students to see the humanity behind the records: ‘the connections across the generations became powerful.’ He showcased how this allowed students insight into how evidence-based history is pulled together, and extended an invitation to them to join in the process.
The final review session brought together some of the key learnings from the day. Firstly, the utter importance of empathy and humanity: Ayshah Johnston argued that ‘if respect is at the core of our outreach, we cannot go wrong.’
Secondly, that the infrastructures in which we work, including the conference format enjoyed by all today, may well be excluding groups already engaging in co-production. Although Ayshah challenged academics who just assume groups are hard to reach – her experience at the Black Cultural Archives has suggested that many groups are keen to engage.
Finally, a resonant practical issue: that this co-productive and collaborative work is increasingly on the institutional agenda, but ‘there is less emphasis on preparing people to do it.’ Throughout the day, the importance of understanding the emotional and human ramifications of this work were emphasised and re-emphasised. The practicalities behind these things, such as infrastructural longevity, respect for participants’ time and needs, and staff training were at the forefront of many of these projects. It was clear that there needs to be a space to discuss and understand failure, as well as best practice.
The closing words from Margot Finn of the Royal Historical Society were a lovely conclusion to a thought-provoking and deeply inspiring day: ‘history has such an ability to bring people together.’
This is a very brief summary of some of the talks I heard at the Aylmer seminar – for other live thoughts see the hashtag #Aylmer20. Enormous thanks to The National Archives Research, The Institute of Historical Research, and the Royal Historical Society for organising the day.
Georgie Salzedo, Sector Development Manager: London and Business, The National Archives