Essex Record Office

Summary of activity

Chelmsford-based artist, Elaine Tribley, created a series of posters and an art activity pack based on the Marconi Company’s Photographic Unit collection, held at Essex Record Office (ERO). The project formed part of ‘Essex 2020’, a 12-month, county-wide celebration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM). The Marconi Company was a British telecommunications company founded in 1897 which had its headquarters in Chelmsford. It was responsible for some of the world’s most important advances in wireless communication, radio and television and played an important role in the creation of the BBC. Focusing on objects featured in photographs in the archive Elaine produced a series of artworks placing the objects into the landscape around the Essex Record Office. Two of these works were displayed at Chelmsford Station to coincide with the British Science Festival being held in the city.  

Abstract poster of telecommunication machinery superimposed on to the landscape around Essex Record Office

Image credit: Elaine Tribley and Essex Record Office

Challenges and opportunities

Essex 2020 provided an opportunity for ERO to explore the Marconi collection further and open it up to creative interpretation. With support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, a digitisation and oral history project ‘Communicating Connections: sharing the heritage of Marconi’s wireless world’ was made possible. This enabled ERO to digitise part of the collection.

Alongside this a researcher funded by the British Society for the History of Science created a range of resources from the Marconi photographic collection. These resources provided a greater idea of the breadth of the collection and, used in conjunction with the digital files, provided a vital resource for the artist in residence. These became invaluable when the Covid-19 pandemic hit just as the artist was due to start the residency.

ERO had not undertaken an artist in residence scheme before but wanted to open up the collection to creative interpretation. Chelmsford City Council, which joint funded the project, facilitated a connection to local artist Elaine Tribley.

Elaine was unable to be on site when the pandemic started. However, it was possible to download images and send them to her.

Originally Elaine was going to run sessions in schools but that also had to be changed as she couldn’t make in person visits to schools. This part of the project was changed so Elaine created a key stage one and two activity pack which is still available for download.  

Outcomes for service users

While it’s mainly based on anecdotal evidence, it is believed that this project and wider Essex 2020 activities were successful in generating a sense of pride in place and in raising awareness about the history of Marconi in Essex.   

The key deliverables from the project were a series of poster images and an educational activity pack for Key stage 1 and Key stage 2.

The posters created by Elaine were developed using images from the Marconi collection. They are abstract posters depicting machinery and text. There is no explanation or curator’s note about the works, the intention being to raise questions for the viewer. However, the posters do have a QR code which links to the Essex Record Office blog, enabling people to discover more about the collection.

The posters were displayed on advertising hoardings at Chelmsford railway station and to some extent had the appearance of being regular advertisements. Again, this was intended to create uncertainty and a degree of disorientation. They were put on display at the same time a science festival was taking place at Anglia Ruskin University. This added to the profile-raising of Chelmsford as a place with a significant history in telecommunications.  

‘I not only wanted to bring these objects to our attention, challenging their place, Marconi’s place in our future, but I also wanted to celebrate the fact that this incredible collection of photographic history is right here in our own City.’

Elaine Tribley, artist

What was learned from the process?

Giving the artist freedom to explore the collection worked really well. Not knowing what Elaine would create but trusting in the creative process was an important part of what made this project work. It also worked well that Elaine had an existing relationship with Chelmsford City Council.  

While it wasn’t an anticipated part of the project, it was possible to pivot quickly from in person activities such as being in the search room and classrooms to virtual work because of recent digitisation which had been undertaken.  

One area which ERO would like to have had more impact with is in promoting the poster artworks. They were displayed during a period of Covid-19 restrictions so there were fewer people travelling by train and visiting places where the posters were showcased. Had the project taken place at another time ERO believe they could have done more to highlight the artwork and generate a greater interest in the history of Marconi in Essex.    

ERO had a very positive experience of working with an artist. They also took on a sound archive project at the same time with a collective of local artists. Sound recordings were shared with artists, and they were given a deadline for submitting compositions. From this an album of digital music was put together, ‘Recreating the Record’. All the artists came back with different responses to the recordings along the spectrum of dance, electronica and experimental sound. This project was undertaken as part of ERO’s efforts to expose the collections to different audiences.

Key advice

The advice ERO would give to anyone thinking of taking on a similar project is to operate a free approach with artists and clarify intellectual property rights at the outset. They recognise that it can be a bit intimidating for a local authority service to operate a free approach with artists. There may be barriers to commissioning the artists for work as creative activities won’t necessarily fit or be appropriate within standard local government budgets and commissioning processes. For example, if you want to work with a specialist artist then you won’t be sourcing a minimum number of quotes, you’ll want to directly commission the artist. For ERO, identifying the challenge and building on the existing relationship the artist had with Chelmsford City Council helped to overcome this challenge. In addition, having trust in place between the artist and partners at Chelmsford City Council gave ERO confidence to take risks in this project.

ERO ensured there was a clear and upfront discussion about intellectual property rights with the artist. The works created by the artists which use archival images (photographs) belong to the artist. The educational resources are owned by ERO and hosted on their website.

How will this work be developed in the future?

ERO are keen to continue working with artists and want to reach a point where artists will pro-actively come through the door and look to use collections. ERO would like to introduce a rolling programme of artists or scientists in residence to open up their collections in new ways and to a wider range of audiences. However, this would be dependent on securing longer-term funding for the programme.

Through this project ERO have seen that the great thing about working with artists is that it offers an interesting way of telling the stories from the collections. It offers another way of looking at the collections and sharing history. As Chris Adam, co-founder of the Resonance collective which produced the ‘Recreating the Record’ album, puts it, collaborating with the ERO was a fantastic opportunity to involve the members of the collective in an interesting project, ‘using the archives of sound to create music that embodies the spirit of revival and restoration. Combining the old with the new’.  

Find out more about this case study by contacting Martin Astell, Essex Record Office Manager, Essex Record Office, Essex County Council