Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre

Story Box: using archives to inspire the artist


‘Story Box’ is a project to encourage artists to explore the archive with expert support from archivists, academics and researchers. The range of archives and scope of their content has already provided inspiration for artists. Writers and playwrights have developed writing based upon the lives of people within the county which are documented in the archive, while visual artists have responded to the textures and physical nature of the archive. ‘Story Box’ was initially a project which began in February 2013 but has become an ongoing part of the business of the archive. This is due to the popularity of the sessions and the emergence of lasting partnerships.

Partnership working

The project was initiated by a partnership between the archive service and the Wiltshire Arts Development team. Partnerships have emerged with the writing development agency for the south west, with theatres as well as with independent writing groups and the local colleges.

Funding sources

The project was initiated with no budget. Resources are being sought to develop residencies and to produce publications. Artists working through the Story Box programme have brokered funding agreements with publishers and theatre and further ideas and projects are being developed.

Challenges and opportunities

  • Finding the right language to engage artists in developing the idea
  • Selecting the most appropriate documents to inspire artists to undertake research within the archive
  • Describing the origin of the documents and interpreting the historical periods within which they were created

Responding to the challenges and opportunities

The result of this work was to support artists to undertake their own research into the archives, and to engage with the groups who use them.

  • artists found talking with volunteers and students, research groups and societies as fascinating as the focus of their research
  • The History Centre facilitated conversations to take place between various research projects, to identify appropriate projects for artists to engage with and locate other groups and within the wider community for artists to meet
  • The History Centre has developed a series of ‘research days’ themed around the First World War to support artists to develop project ideas and identify potential funding sources for emerging partnerships. The focus upon a specific timeframe enabled the History Centre to support artists to learn about the historical context and to place the documents that they are interested in within a broader context
  • The History Centre made use of various social networks and online platforms to share the work that has been done and to showcase what has been created. The Arts team have built partnerships with various art form specific development agencies to support artists to take ideas forward and create new works

What were the outcomes?

  • Story Box has engaged over 40 artists in working with the History Centre. This has resulted in writing and performance of new plays, development of novels and biographies and the development of visual arts projects. It is anticipated that an artist group will be formed in the coming months and that participatory projects will commence soon
  • Story Box is at an early stage but almost 300 artists and creative practitioners have been involved in the project through social media and it is anticipated that the number of artists engaging with the History Centre will continue to rise as the programme continues

What went well? What didn’t go quite as well?

The History Centre has developed an understanding of how to engage creative people with the archive. The main lessons were:

  • the archive is too vast a collection for a single project to engage with artists. Story Box is therefore about developing a relationship with artists and exploring the potential of the archive
  • make a space and facilitate access to the archive on an ongoing basis, do not ‘prescribe a project’ for artists to fulfil. Many artists reported that they had wanted to work with the archive for many years but didn’t know how to approach the ‘institution’. A simple open day for artists would suffice to make first contact with a large number of artists. Most artists wanted the chance to be introduced, shown the landmarks and given the skills to navigate the archive on their own
  • share knowledge and passion with artists and share what motivates the staff, volunteers and users. Artists respond to these personal stories and are excited and engaged by what drives them to devote so much time, energy and passion to working in the archives
  • take time to pick out some key stories from the archives to whet the artists’ appetites and show them the potential – in particular individuals’ stories capture their imagination. Artists seem to respond very well to 3D objects as well as 2D archives, so there is a lot of potential for joint working with museums in future
  • make connections and support networking for the artists, by making time for informal discussion or use open agendas. This can be time consuming and often will happen outside of formal sessions

Developing this work in the future

The History Centre will:

  • communicate with artists on all its work, leaving it up to the community of artists to respond
  • include a dialogue with artists at a very early stage in project development, and will give time to consider including creative strands, especially when these will engage with new audiences
  • facilitate the development of an independent artists group who attract their own funding and develop their own work
  • continue to offer seminars and events that interpret selected materials from the archive to reach new artists and explore new ways of working

Find out more on the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre website or read the Arts Blog about Story Box.