Forethought and a research strategy enable creative research – Theatre Collection and Cultural Collections, Bristol University

Theatre Collection is an accredited museum and archive service based in the Faculty of Arts at Bristol University. It was founded in 1951 to support the establishment of Drama as an academic discipline and now includes around 140 named collections and archives from the late 18th Century to today. In 2020 it was awarded Designated status and the breadth of its collection enhances its role as an outstanding research resource.

Jo Elsworth has worked at the Theatre Collection at Bristol University for the past eighteen years, first as Keeper and then Director. She is also Director of Cultural Collections based in Library Services and has developed a well considered strategy for research based on opening up the collection to a range of interested groups.

A fertile ground for new knowledge

The ethos of the Theatre Collection is that the contents should not only be accessible for anyone to use, but also to encourage interactions between the different sectors and communities who wish to use it.

…the heart of what we do is the collections, it’s our job as the curators of the collections, whether we’re curators, archivists or other information professionals to let people have access to those collections and, for us in the Theatre Collection, the access might come from different communities.

A genuinely collaborative approach often involves drawing people together from different sectors and communities in order to work with the collections and potentially each other. The collection attracts interested individuals from the academic sector, the cultural and creative industries and “…because we are an accredited museum, a lot of our access comes from the public”.

So, we’re enabling all those people to access the collections. I think this is why we’ve got a strong track record in getting grants in. If we then enable those people, those communities to interact with each other as well as with the collection then you can make new stuff happen.

It is hoped that a cross pollination of thought will happen and new perspectives and understanding will be created through those relationships.

A model to inspire cross sector collaboration 

In order to stimulate and encourage such a collaborative attitude the Theatre Collection developed a model for an ‘IDEASpace’ (Inspiring, Dynamic, Engaging Arts Space). It visualises the journey of information taken from the core of the collection to the outer circle and its emergence of knowledge in four categories of outcome: academic, creative, social, and unexpected outcomes.

And the really important one for me, the one that makes us all get out of bed in the morning, unexpected outcomes…so, what happens when you mesh amazing people together with amazing collections, amazing stuff happens.

This model “has enabled us to be able to turn the dial round to any of those outcomes and then go for the most appropriate funding sources”.

IDEASpace model

IDEASpace model (Courtesy University of Bristol Theatre Collection)

For instance, if the target is social outcomes:

…we would be talking to the National Lottery Heritage Fund saying we’re working with our public communities and creative practitioners making new stuff happen. If the target is academic outcomes we’re probably going to AHRC, so an example there would be our recent Capabilities for Collections grant. For creative outcomes we’re probably talking to the Arts Council.

Because the model has already set a framework for the use of types of information and the communities involved it makes writing bids for research grants a more straightforward and logical process.

The model in action – cross sector collaboration

National Lottery Heritage Funding was secured for a project that explored the past of Bristol Old Vic and helped them to develop a new sustainable business model with heritage engagement as a key component.  “Protecting and Sharing the Heritage of Britain’s Oldest Theatre, 2016-2021” was a collaboration led by Bristol Old Vic with Bristol Archives – the local authority record office -, and the Theatre Collection. It was:

…all about putting the heritage of that amazingly beautiful theatre back into the theatre and helping them look back in order to look forward with a new business model. The project was properly collaborative…

Jo Elsworth describes the feeling of working in that way. At first it was difficult because an understanding of different ways of working in each sector had to be developed. However, as the project progressed working together became much easier and very rewarding. It was:

incredibly enriching but also how incredibly intensive it can be to work really cross sectorally like that…

The outcome demonstrated that the content of a collection based in a university faculty has even greater impact when shared and used as collaborative research with outside partners.

Pillars of the Past installation at Bristol Old Vic. Production photograph, Miss Ever’s Bpys, 1998

Pillars of the Past installation at Bristol Old Vic. Production photograph, Miss Ever’s Bpys, 1998 (Courtesy Bristol Old Vic and University of Bristol Theatre Collection)

… actually it’s not just about breaking down the boundaries between academic and information professionals within universities, it’s about helping university collections whatever form they are, libraries or collections, work with partners outside of the university and how enriching that is.

Reversing roles

An example of what could be considered a more traditional form of library project, demonstrates an occasion when a library can take the lead and then invite academic staff to participate at a later point in the research. In Spring 2018, the Theatre Collection was awarded funding by the Wellcome Trust to catalogue, conserve and make accessible the Franko B archive.

The project, Challenging Archives: Delivering research access, public engagement and the curatorial care of the Franko B Archive, 2018 – 2021 culminated in a public exhibition and symposium in 2020, together with the publication of a comprehensive online catalogue. Jo Elsworth was the Principal Investigator and Julian Warren, Keeper of Digital and Live Art Archives, Theatre Collection was the Co-Investigator.

Academic staff and students were invited to contribute to a seminar, workshops and exhibition based on the archive at the dissemination stage. The overall curation of the exhibition was a shared process as first Medical Humanities students, then University staff LGBT group, followed by Postgraduate Human Geography students and their tutor, and finally, Art History and Theatre students added their input.

…so actually it was one where the situation was reversed. We wanted to put multiple narratives into the exhibition so we ran workshops with different groups of people, for example, we had the university inter-collating medical humanities students come in and we invited an academic to come in with those students and help us curate the exhibition.

The way that the project was managed exemplified the use of the collaborative model. It was “enriching” and the participation of academic staff by invitation has generated a longer lasting relationship between collection and academic staff:

… it’s very much our ethos. If we go back to that collaborative model, IDEASpace is what happens when we put these different people from different professions in a room and we share our practice and we think about what next.

Flyer for Franko B’s Archive exhibition

Flyer for Franko B’s Archive exhibition (Courtesy University of Bristol Theatre Collection)

Benefits and challenges of collaboration

This case study highlights that it possible to break down perceived barriers of non academic members of staff taking the lead in research as PI and Co-I. A particular enabling factor is the location of the collections within an academic faculty. If those communities who access the collections can also interact and collaborate with each other as well as collections then something special happens.

However, there is still a “critical issue” to the way that collection staff are costed into projects.

In AHRC project proposals led by academics either from inside the university or outside, professional services are listed as “Directly Allocated” or “In Kind”. This raises two difficulties, justifying taking on the (unfunded) extra work to senior managers and identifying what the In Kind costs really are:

My worry is if we get more and more stretched it will become harder to justify this to ourselves and to our senior managers and decision makers. 

And we find this quite hard sometimes identifying what our in-kind costs are, so we tend to base them on very physical things …if we licence that image [that we own copyright on] it’ll be £30 and we’re giving this project access to 100 images … free so that’s the equivalent of you know, £3000.

Nevertheless, Theatre Collections staff are dedicated to facilitating collaborative research and that they have “a real responsibility to collections and to our collective endeavours to do so” and they are “determined” to achieve that goal pushing boundaries as they go.

Some of our best projects have been when we’ve worked with creative technologists or companies like the Bristol Old Vic and I would still class that as research as we’re pushing at the boundaries of what is possible to do and how to do it.

Lessons learnt

  • The creation of a well considered, planned model for research outcomes enables and realises opportunities for collaborative, funded research
  • An attitude that allowing a wide access of different groups to collections stimulates unexpected outcomes
  • Libraries can take the lead in research projects and secure sustainable relationships with academic staff
  • Boundaries exist only to be challenged.

Further Information