Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

October 2013 to June 2014

The aim of the project was to introduce a new and diverse audience to the archives by demonstrating a fresh way of using archive material.

Local textile and mixed media artists were invited to study the Wittewronge family archive and produce a piece for exhibition based on the records. There were no restrictions on what could be produced, provided the piece of work was inspired by the collection.

HALS held two open studios before the exhibition opened during which some of the project participants worked on their pieces and were available to explain the inspiration for their work with visitors. Original documents which had inspired the artists were on display during the open studio days and for the duration of the exhibition.

Challenges and opportunities

HALS were experienced in attracting groups of volunteers who were primarily interested in the archives as historical sources. For the ‘Threads of Time’ project, the archive service approached art galleries and art and textile shops throughout Hertfordshire to help distribute fliers about the project in addition to the usual channels such a mailing lists, online media and the local library.

Meetings were organised every six weeks during the course of the project to balance the needs of engaging the volunteers and encouraging further work in the archives, with the need to accommodate demands on staff time. The meetings were led by members of staff who were also textile enthusiasts.

At the first meeting an archivist showed the volunteers a selection of records held at the archive service and explained how to research and handle the records and at subsequent meetings, the group were given tours of the archive storage areas and conservation studio. Participants were encouraged to show their works in progress at each meeting and share this online through the Herts Memories website.

A group photography permit was provided for the duration of the project and group members were issued with CARN tickets to allow access to the records.

With no dedicated exhibition area at the archive service, it was agreed that the pieces of work should be displayed throughout the library and archive reading rooms as well as in the education room. Project group members with exhibition experience helped mount the exhibition and clear signage ensured regular researchers were not inconvenienced by people visiting the exhibition.

Documents which inspired the works were displayed in the archive reading room for the duration of the exhibition too. The documents were protected by mounts made by conservation staff.

Promoting the exhibition was a challenge and it was difficult to attract press interest in the project but  members of the project group helped publicise the exhibition through their own networks.

The project demonstrated that archive material can be a powerful artistic stimulus.


  • of the 35 who initially enrolled 32 participated until the end of the project
  • project participants produced 40 pieces of work for display
  • the opening night event was attended by over 140 people
  • over 12 days 350 people attended the exhibition
  • participants’ comments:
    • ‘I was surprised by the archives – so fascinating. I have never been to an archive before, but I will be visiting again’
    • ‘Inspiration from the archives can take you off down routes you never expected’
    • ‘Very much enjoyed the whole experience from our first meeting to this wonderful display’
  • Visitor comments
    • ‘My first visit to the archive and a great exhibition that brings local history to life in an original and creative way’
    • ‘Wonderful to see archives being used to inspire new works of art – vibrant and exciting!’
    • ‘Absolutely blown away by the quality, creativity and the amazing way the archives have been brought to life for a wider audience’

Lessons learnt

Sharing a practical interest in a project engenders strong group cohesion. Group members  were willing to offer their skills and contacts to ensure the success of the project and were eager to share their work with each other. The final exhibition included artists’ workbooks as well as the finished items which produced a new dimension to the final project much appreciated by visitors.

Developing the work in the future

Due to the success of the project and the enthusiasm of the volunteer group, there will be another Threads of Time project starting in October 2014 and culminating in an exhibition at the archives in June 2015. A different archive collection will be used as inspiration, the Delme Radcliffe archive which relates to a family from Hitchin in the north of the county, serving a different area of Hertfordshire.

Find out more about the project.