Royal Albert Hall

Summary of activity

The Royal Albert Hall celebrated 150 years of being the ‘the nation’s village hall’ in 2021. Opened in 1871 by Queen Victoria, and named after her late husband, the venue is a global stage for live performances. As well as the BBC Proms, the Hall has hosted everything from the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest to film premieres, the Mobo Awards and tennis tournaments. It has also played a part in political and social change in the UK, hosting suffrage meetings, memorials for the armed forces and rallies for nuclear disarmament. Sir Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, Emmeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela and the royal family have all graced the historical hall.

Prior to 2012 there was no dedicated archive within the Hall. Recognising the significance of the approaching anniversary and rich history of the hall work began on establishing and caring for the historical collections. The archive now plays an active role in supporting the Hall’s operations from catering to building management and performances.

Image credit: Royal Albert Hall

Challenges and opportunities

Since 2012 The Royal Albert Hall has been working towards making their historic collection widely accessible. Their collection includes material relating to performances, posters, photographs, building plans, art works, corporate records and merchandising. The 150th anniversary presented an opportunity for the Hall to review its historic collections and make greater use of them.

A thorough review and inventory of collections took place, and this was followed by a digitisation project. Items with strong visual appeal were prioritised for digitisation. The process has enabled new business opportunities through merchandising and a print on demand service. It was also possible to create a commemorative book for the anniversary.

The Covid-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for the archive to raise its profile internally. While there were no live performances taking place, more attention was focused on activities which supported the anniversary celebrations. The archive was able to provide the communications team with a wealth of content for press releases. Media articles appeared in the BCC and Guardian about the Hall’s history, drawing on what had happened throughout the years.

One of the key ongoing challenges facing the archive is finding space within the building. Space for performances is prioritised within the Hall. This makes advocating for improved space for collections quite challenging. However, there are now plans in place for the archive to have a permanent new home which will include for the first time a dedicated public research space. This has been made possible due to many months and years of advocating the benefits of the archive internally. The new space is expected to open early in 2023.

Another challenge for the archive is that the Royal Albert Hall is a receiving house and therefore they don’t own the copyright of the majority of performances. They also don’t receive props or visual items used by the performers. Unless something is commercially released there are restrictions on what can be captured and shared on social media channels.

Outcomes for service users

Since 2012 the archive has become an integral part of the Royal Albert Hall. The Our History section of the website features a time machine, information about the Grade II listed building, famous performers, the Royal Albert Hall Stars and 150th birthday celebrations. The marketing team at the Royal Albert Hall have a satisfaction survey for performances and there are very high scores given to events where the archive has contributed. At present there is no specific rating for the archive itself.

There is a range of free exhibitions on the walls of the ground floor corridor of the Hall.  These can be viewed by anyone attending a performance, or on listed open days. Exhibitions have spanned a broad range of themes including Pride at the Royal Albert Hall celebrating the LGBTQ+ history of performance, and Radical Albert Hall which shared the Hall’s role as a platform for activists, protests and politics and speeches which went on to effect change far beyond the Hall’s auditorium.

The archive has also contributed to performances such as David Arnold’s ‘A Circle of Sound’. This performance took place in July 2021 and was the Hall’s first full capacity event since March 2020. Inspired by the archive and working with local choirs, schools and other community groups David Arnold created a composition which captured the Hall’s unique 150-year history.

The archive has also contributed to the Royal Albert Hall’s Songbook, a free, interactive travelling concert aimed at an older audience in care homes, hospitals, day centres and hospices throughout London and the Home Counties. The one hour concert led by Albert’s Band explores the vast musical history of the venue and features a series of songs that have been performed at the Hall by artists including Dame Vera Lynn, Sir Tom Jones, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra.

All participants of Songbook receive a commemorative book containing the lyrics to the music played and photos from the Hall’s archives.

What was learned from the process?

Since the founding of the archive in 2012 the Archive Manager, Elizabeth Harper, has learned about the importance of effective communication. The main function of the Royal Albert Hall is being a performance space, not an archive. Recognising this has enabled Elizabeth to position the collection in a way that makes sense to others and speak in a language which relates to the wider organisation and its priorities.

Elizabeth has also learned about the importance of making the archive accessible, showing people the archive face to face. This included working with the buildings project team to share plans of the building which informed a refurbishment project. The team were able to save time and money on the project by referring to detailed plans within the archive. They were not initially aware that these plans existed and were planning on contracting a supplier to generate them.

The archive now works across the whole organisation. They have supported the catering team to develop a historic afternoon tea and work with the events, technical and artist management teams to coordinate, record and capture autographs from performers. They also gather facts about artists who have performed at the Hall, including details on how many times they have performed and data about every performance at the hall. This information is made publicly accessible through an online event and performer database.

Key advice

If someone was thinking about taking on a similar project of setting up an archive within a performing arts space, then the key piece of advice would be to build in a process for archiving either from the beginning or as early as possible. Gathering data on performances can be very challenging, especially at The Royal Albert Hall where there are multiple performances every week and no one source of information for them. Establishing an archival process to capture current live events alongside managing the historic collections at the Hall has been challenging. The archive team has found social media a helpful way of collecting information about recent performances.

Another piece of advice would be to ensure you are able to share a vision with stakeholders and management teams for your archive. Highlighting how the collections can benefit the wider organisation and support the many areas of operations from business development to building planning and staff induction. At the Royal Albert Hall energy was focused on articulating the benefits of investment in the collection rather than highlighting the problems. It was also useful to benchmark with comparator organisations and showcase how other arts venues were using their collections to enhance their visitor offer. Alongside this it was also important to be aware of the limits of the organisation and to listen and respect the boundaries.

How will this work be developed in the future?

The archive team will be working towards the development of the permanent new home throughout 2022. In addition, they will continue to make sure all performance history is recorded. The work of the Hall has become more digitally focused with an increasing number of programmes and posters being in a digital only format. They will also be hosting more digital events, such as a virtual red carpet for the British Fashion Awards and undertaking more live streaming of performances. Alongside this corporate and building records are increasingly digital.

The archive team will continue to develop their digital preservation skills to ensure these records are held in perpetuity. They also recognise the need to work more closely with the IT department to ensure systems are in place to effectively capture records from the outset and work to make the content publicly accessible. This will require an investment in resources, such as digital preservation software, as well as the implementation of a digital preservation strategy across the organisation.

Find out more about this case study by contacting Liz Harper, Archive Manager