University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Summary of activity

The Theatre Collection at The University of Bristol is one of the world’s largest archives of British theatre history and Live Art. The Collection comprises over 140 named collections and archives and it holds artworks, audio visual material, costumes, designs, set models, playbills and programmes of this ephemeral art form.

In 2021 the Theatre Collection received funding from The National Archives for ‘Records at Risk’, a project which aimed to support theatre and live art records facing challenges as a result of Covid-19. The impact of the pandemic on the performing arts sector was severe, and the Theatre Collection were concerned that records could be lost; records, especially digital records, were vulnerable to deterioration without ongoing care. In a bid to help preserve the cultural history of the theatre industry they appealed to individuals and companies concerned about their records to seek advice on how to ensure they are preserved for the future.

Paused video clip of a woman displaying a black and photo sealed within an archival polyester sleeve.

Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Challenges and opportunities

Covid-19 presented a significant risk to theatre records across the country. As a result of the pandemic individuals in the industry were deciding to retire early or leave the sector. The Theatre Collection had already been offered a higher number of collections than usual and they recognised that significant changes to leadership across the industry would mean that theatre records were vulnerable to loss or disposal. In response to this challenge, they devised ‘Records at Risk’, a programme of support for theatre records at risk in the community.

Through this programme the Theatre Collection planned to offer advice and support in caring for archives and create relevant guidance on relocating records. It was targeted at organisations and individuals who needed help with caring for their archives, both digital and analogue.

Initial research into the impact of Covid-19 on theatres across the UK highlighted a gap in support for freelancers working in the industry and for some performance companies. In response to this the team revised the emphasis of the programme to ensure it was open to artists, backstage professionals, designers, directors, photographers, practitioners, producers and writers, as well as organisations.

The team identified a way of reaching people through membership organisations within the industry. They were conscious that it was a very difficult time for the theatre industry and therefore careful consideration was given to the promotion of the project. There was an emphasis placed on offering practical support to individuals, and records deemed to be of immediate risk were prioritised for intervention. Several Zoom meetings were held with membership organisations to promote the project, including the Association of British Theatre Technicians. At these meetings the Theatre Collection team outlined how they could support individuals and provided some basic information on how to care for records.

The team thought it would be a straightforward project which involved supporting records at risk by finding them a home or adding them to their own collection. However, the project developed into something broader and longer-term, working with people in the industry to highlight what records are and how they can be best looked after.

Outcomes for service users

Records at Risk is an ongoing project and has required much longer-term investment than initially envisaged. Support for the sector and individuals continues as the impact of Covid-19 is still being felt by the industry. The project has played an important advocacy role, raising awareness of records and archives and the research value they hold.

For the Theatre Collection, this project highlighted how important it was for them, as a collecting institution of theatre and live art material, to understand the theatre industry in the present and the individuals working within it. Gaining this understanding enables them to support sustainable collecting and prevent the loss of vulnerable collections which are vital to the cultural history of Britain.

The Theatre Collection continues to reach out to people working in the theatre industry and supports them to think about how they care for their records now. As part of this work they held an online seminar in collaboration with the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) about Caring for your Records.

Through the project, resources were developed to support people caring for theatre and live art records. This included guidance on donating material to the Theatre Collection and other repositories and advice on looking after your own records. In addition, the Theatre Collection has taken in material as a direct result of the project.

What was learned from the process?

Through Records at Risk the Theatre Collection learned how to adapt their offer to meet immediate and pressing needs by focussing the programme on individuals and performance companies. Putting an emphasis on support for freelancers enabled the Theatre Collection to strengthen and build new relationships with the sector. It also ensured that individuals working in the theatre industry were equipped with the skills and knowledge to take care of their own records.

The approach taken for this project was very proactive, responding to emerging reports relating to the future of the theatre industry and adapting the programme in response to needs identified.

The resources created encouraged the Theatre Collection to go back to basics. For the team it highlighted the value of communicating the importance of records and archives to record holders. The team created explainer videos on what records are and why they are valuable. These resources have a long-term value and continue to be available from their website and through the University of Bristol’s YouTube channel.

Key advice

The key piece of advice the Theatre Collection would give to anyone thinking of taking on a similar project is to be adaptable. Being open and willing to learn was key to the success of the Records at Risk project. The team recognised that they had to take a multi-stranded approach in responding to the significant challenges within the theatre industry. They could not be too prescriptive with the project if they were to successfully engage their target audience.

The overall aims of the project remained but the activities had to be adapted as more information became available. At the outset of the project the team had not considered putting together information videos, but they soon discovered through consultation that this was something which would be useful to people, a resource that they could access in their own time and which would remain accessible beyond the length of the project.

There was flexibility in how the project team worked and within the funding agreement. The Theatre Collection wanted to improve the reach and relationships they had with collecting bodies and individuals around the UK in a way that was collaborative. They worked with individuals and organisations to establish the best home for collections. In doing this they acquired a greater understanding of the collecting policies of other organisations, and they built stronger relationships.

How will this work be developed in the future?

The work from this project continues and has already had an impact on other areas of work. The resources on the webpages have been improved and continue to be a source of information for anyone seeking advice on how to care for or donate theatre and live art records.

The team found that information from newspapers could be a good source of information on potential records at risk and they will be monitored in the future. The team will also continue to improve their interactions through social media, as this proved an effective means of communication throughout the project.

Records at Risk is a project which has developed beyond its remit of responding to Covid-19. It is drawing attention to what the Theatre Collection was already doing and supporting other holders of theatre collections by raising the profile of archives of the arts. It has provided the team with a direct communication channel to the theatre industry and strengthened their networks. This means they now have a built-in understanding of what’s currently happening in the theatre sector and are better positioned to respond to arising needs and ensure the safeguarding of cultural collections for the nation.