An American in London, Episode 5: Her Maj and Archiving

What’s that you say? You want to know what I’ve been doing at the V&A? Oh, well, right then. I suppose that’s only fair.
Episode 5: Her Maj and Archiving, wherein our heroine goes through 44 boxes of paper
Now as many of you know I am in England earning a master’s degree in Museum and Artefact Studies. So it may surprise you that on my placement with the Theatre and Performance department of the V&A I’ve not worked with any objects. Instead I’ve been working with the archives. Now you may think, well what’s the real difference? Plenty.
Museum staff tends to catalogue every object in great detail (well that’s the desired goal in any case). Archivists on the other hand work to a hierarchy not unlike your typical monarchical society. Let’s take, hmmmmm, monarchies, monarchies….oh how about England? At the top is her Maj, Queen Liz II. She’s the top of the hierarchy and in archivist speak would be the fonds level. That’s the level where you would describe a particular collection you were cataloguing. I was working with three different collections but the main one was the Michael Benthall Archive. Michael Benthall was a director and producer in London during the forties through the sixties. He was famous for putting on the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays at the Old Vic and for working with stars like Katharine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh. So at H.M. Queen Liz’s level, or the fonds level, I described what the entire collection contains in general terms and how many boxes of material therein.
Queen Elizabeth = Fonds
Next in line to the throne is Prince Charlie. His equivalent in archival terms is the series level. A series is a broad heading of different categories of material. So for Michael Benthall I had nine series:  administrative documents, production files, touring files, scripts, musical scores, sound recordings, scrapbooks, photographs, and programmes.

Prince of Wales = Series
Next would be Prince William or the file level. Files are an even more specific heading of material and tend to be the lowest level archivists will go to. There must be over a hundred different files in the Michael Benthall collection. An example would be something like the Production file for As You Like It by William Shakespeare, 1950. In it would be documents relevant to that particular production.
Duke of Cambridge = File
If you really wanted to go crazy you could go down to the Prince George level or the item level. That would be something like a cast list, costume design, or a specific photograph. Thank goodness I didn’t need to catalogue to this level for Michael Benthall because there were 45 boxes of documents and photographs. I think I would have been there until next Easter sifting through each item. To be fair, I did have to go through each item in order to figure out how I wanted to organise the collection and to see if anything needed to be closed under the Data Protection Act. I’ll tell you two of the coolest things I came across. The first was Katharine Hepburn’s signature. Michael Benthall had worked with her many times and there it was, at the bottom of a note. The other cool thing I found was a cast list for a touring production which starred Vivien Leigh. Now that’s cool enough on its own but as I scanned through, at the very bottom where the minuscule parts were listed was Patrick Stewart. It must have been one of his first real gigs and it was so amazing to see his name there.
Prince George of Cambridge = Item
So most of what I did probably sounds a bit mundane and to be honest, it was. As they would say here, that’s work though, innit? I did get to shadow one of the assistant curators for a day down at the museum in South Kensington. That day they moved an enormous painting into the Theatre and Performance Gallery. It was quite fun and dramatic to watch the V&A team carry it up the stairs and through into the gallery. I also got to see a live puppet show performance as part of the festivities surrounding Shakespeare’s birthday and go on a tour of the gallery with another assistant curator. Mostly though, I was sifting through paper and cataloguing. My work should be going up on the V&A’s archival search engine though which is terribly exciting really.

So that’s it. That’s what it’s like to work in archives. Any questions?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s