'In Exchange: putting archives to work': Archives and the student learning experience

The Museum at Central Saint Martins collects and cares for material relating to the history of Central Saint Martins and its founding colleges, St Martin's School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts/Design and makes it accessible for research and study to the public as part of its Study Collection.

Summary

The acquisition of 45 boxes of material relating to the Fine Art Department at St Martins School of Art in 2010/2011 prompted staff to explore new ways of resourcing some of its collections work and whether some of this work could be integrated with course work offered by the college.

The outcome was an annual project, now run as a formal course module, which is undertaken by students from the MA Culture, Criticism and Curation students. Students initially attend a series of talks and workshops on archival history and theory, object handling, cataloguing and exhibition theory. Then working as a group, the students work with small amounts of uncatalogued material, ordering, mapping and listing the material before curating an exhibition based on the material . 

The project runs February to April every year for each new cohort of students.

Challenges

  • For most students this was their first experience of group work and they struggled with the 'storming' phase of the project, which seemed to them chaotic 
  • Addressing student concerns about how group work can be assessed fairly. Although not part of the final degree award it is mandatory for students to pass the module and some of the students found the assessment process stressful

Responding to the challenges

  • Students came to the decision themselves to elect a chair, pitch ideas for the final exhibition, then vote for one idea and commit to delivering that idea whatever their personal preferences to resolve the initial disorganised start to the project
  • Developing a holistic appraisal to assess individual students' contribution to the exhibition, by observing students working, assessing the formal presentations made by the group, and taking into consideration self assessment reports made by individual students.

Outcomes of the project

  • Students developed skills through practical experience by curating an exhibition
  • A significant amount of archival material was ordered, listed and housed in protective sleeves by the students
  • Exhibition curated by the students helped raise the profile of the museum and archive
  • Feedback on the project was overwhelmingly positive and the students generally felt they had a much better understanding of archives as well as gaining new skills by taking this module
  • One student commented: 'I never imagined myself interested in working with archives, but now I do!'

Learning from the initial project

  • Introducing students to the concept of group work and nurturing them through this difficult initial phase in future projects
  • With the possibility of larger numbers of students taking part in future projects, there will need to be increased direction at the start of the project, for example asking students to elect a chair from the start
  • Building in frank feedback sessions throughout the project so there is a safe and carefully managed environment for students to air concerns or issues in future projects

Find out more about Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection