Dorset History Centre: Archiving the arts

Dorset History Centre (DHC) has been actively engaged in the collecting strand of Archiving the arts since its launch. Archiving the arts has enabled the service to make significant strides in both identifying collections of interest and in raising the profile of DHC within the wider arts community across Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole. The archive service has taken stock of its collections and identified significant gaps which this targeted approach will help to fill. Acquisition needs to be balanced with the capacity of the service to catalogue and make the material available, but this will be an ongoing part of DHC’s collections development activity.

Funding for Archiving the arts was allocated from the archive service revenue budget. The archive service will seek grant funding  to catalogue any new collections.


The Archiving the arts project offered opportunities to:

  • engage with the arts community across Dorset
  • diversify the collections held by DHC
  • promote learning and engagement and to raise the profile of the service

The county of Dorset has a long history of inspiring and nurturing artists and creative practitioners. Archiving the arts has allowed the archive service to promote the idea of the ‘second life’ of their working papers which, as with other owners of historic material, is not always apparent. In 2012 the archive of the sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink was deposited at DHC. Since then, the archive service has worked with the curator of the Frink estate and used this deposit to illustrate the value of Archiving the arts and depositing working papers with the archive service.


The Archiving the arts project also presented a number of challenges:

  • explaining to arts practitioners why an archive is interested in receiving their working papers as a deposit and why others might find them of value
  • ensuring that the archive service is not  trespassing on the territory of museums and galleries – not seeking to acquire works of art on canvas or sculpture
  • protection of copyright and the commercial value of a collection
  • ensuring that the means to process collections exists so that the archive service can provide access to the collection
  • collecting digital material alongside analogue material

Responding to the opportunities and challenges

The archive service responded  in a number of ways:

  • With the deposit of the Frink collection, the archive service mounted an exhibition, including archives of the Poole Pottery and Many Spencer-Watson, another sculptor, of six large panels and original archives at the inaugural Dorset Art Fair in June 2013. This exhibition was viewed by over 1000 people and generated  further contacts with arts organisations and individual practitioners
  • Sessions for artists at DHC raised awareness of the collections at the archive service and the processes of depositing material
  • A Frink lecture at DHC specifically demonstrated the importance of the archival resource in researching and understanding the history of the artist and her work. The lecture attracted over 50 people, many of whom had close ties to the county’s arts scene
  • In terms of copyright and commercial exploitation of collections, the archive service has been as flexible and pragmatic as possible so that the depositors are clear that they retain control of reproduction rights to their work
  • DHC recruited more volunteers to tackle the prioritised the listing and processing of collections
  • DHC informed potential depositors that the archive service was interested in accepting digital content and would manage this within a digital preservation platform (Preservica) currently being piloted at DHC

Outcomes of the project

The archive service identified a number of positive outcomes as a result of the project:

  • new partnerships and improved mutual understanding between DHC and the arts sector in Dorset, including Dorset Visual Arts, Dorset County Council Arts Development Team, The Elisabeth Frink Estate, Dorset Arts Trust, Sherborne House Arts
  • the accession of one substantial and important archive (of John Makepeace, an internationally renowned furniture designer) and several smaller collections
  • community outreach and engagement – including Dorset Archives Trust
  • wider public understanding about the role of DHC through press and publicity
  • further opportunities to extend the range of contacts between DHC and arts sector – for example,  possible artist in residence
  • potential future academic involvement with the collections through PhD studentships
  • a widening and diversification of the collections held by DHC and those open to volunteers to work on

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

Participating in Archiving the arts allowed DHC to extend its work into the arts. The initiative has met with generally strong support and with the deposit of several key collections, the ‘confidence factor’ in what the archive service is doing has grown.

It is natural that artists are often highly protective of their work and as a result the process of talking to them about the benefits of transfer to DHC will be sometimes be drawn out. However, the idea of a further dimension (over and above their works/pieces) to an artist’s creative legacy is usually of great interest.

Developing this work in the future

The archive service plans to build on this work in a number of ways:

  • cataloguing newly accessioned material to ensure online availability through the catalogue and onsite access
  • taking up opportunities to talk to individuals and groups across Dorset who may have collections or know of collections of interest
  • ensuring that Archiving the arts has visibility within the service’s governance and funding structure so that its aims and objectives are understood
  • ensuring that collections are used for education and outreach wherever possible, for example, using images of Elisabeth Frink creating ‘War Horse’ (inspired by Michael Morpurgo and now located at Chatsworth) to link to work around the commemoration of The First World War

Find out more about the project.