Learning in the Archives

Archives Outreach and Education Work
Birmingham Archives & Heritage’s recent outreach and education activities.

For quite some time Birmingham Archives & Heritage has been leading the way in outreach and education work within the heritage sector. We have been working towards greater inclusion and representation for a number of years. Some might remember Black Pasts, Birmingham Futures (1999-2007), still talked about today. ‘Black Pasts’, as it was affectionately known, in partnership with Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery and the University of Birmingham, was at the cutting edge of heritage and broader cultural engagement.

The work we currently do, in outreach and education, is part of that tradition and a continuity that goes back even earlier, with the service’s mobile history van! However, it’s difficult to assess the value of the work we are engaged in, as there are few opportunities to reflect and share thoughts, ideas and practices with colleagues both within the service and across the sector. We understand that this is crucial for enabling us to develop and shape what we do to meet demand, to be relevant, and even to lead the way…

Recently, Birmingham Archives & Heritage received a visit from members of the History Centre Team, from the Herbert Museum, Coventry. They were interested in our community engagement and outreach work. It was clear that there were similarities in the needs of the moment, both from a service perspective and, crucially, from the perspective of the communities of our respective cities. The visit provided the opportunity to learn about each others’ work, philosophies and practices. It helped us to evaluate and validate our work – some of the best engagement work within the broader heritage and cultural sector is taking place within archives services. The team from Coventry were significantly impressed by the nature and extent of our work! It was also clear that there were not enough occasions where professionals and practitioners were able to share and celebrate work.

The problem of under-representation of outreach and education work taking place within archives services (and similarly, Record Offices and Libraries) hasn’t gone unnoticed. In contrast, outreach and education in Museums, Historic Sites, and other similar locations, have been better promoted. Organisations such as the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) have supported this body of work for some time. 

To put our work into an appropriate context, it is worthwhile pointing out that our outreach work seeks to engage with the city – and by that, we mean all possible groups, needs and interests (though not all at once!). The service also engages with important and often challenging, social and cultural issues. We have to. We have a role to play. Doing this isn’t easy, but it ensures our relevance and that our activities remain at the forefront of the developing life of the city and the intricate relationships that may entail.

The importance of this work, and the need to promote and share this experience, brought us to work with GEM towards holding an event that could bring interested parties together. Focusing on learning, education and outreach in archives and similar contexts, the result was the GEM Learning in Archives Event on Thursday 16th February 2012.

Birmingham Archives & Heritage contributed towards the programme with two presentations, drawing on the Community Archives Skills and Cataloguing Programme and the Children’s Lives Project delivered respectively by Rachel MacGregor (Senior Archivist) and Nikki Thorpe (Outreach and Education Officer).

Rachel spoke about the recent programme of community engagement and training that the service has been delivering, as well as our collecting remits and policies, and the varying formats in which archives exist – drawing attention to more traditional sorts of material through to digital, including issues of defunct technologies such as mini-disc. Rachel spoke about collecting from the service’s perspective (material that represents life and work in the city) and from a community project perspective (generating and collecting material that tells the story of that community or project).

As a direct response to the needs of community initiatives, Rachel spoke about the Community Archives and Skills Training Programme. Initiated almost a year ago, it was conceived as a means to become more representative, in terms of engagement, collaboration and inclusion, and gradually within the collections themselves. The service had become increasingly aware of the gaps in the collections relating to groups living and working in the city and the programme was a response to the fact that the city is rapidly growing and transforming in a variety of ways, including demographically. The service worked with community groups to develop a programme that met with these aspirations, and with partners, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. The programme provided an introduction to archives, the service and how to access it, as well as advice on community projects and collecting. A ‘mock’ archive and database were used to train participants. Groups are now completing the databases and we hope in due course to receive collections through the programme.

Delegates at the GEM event showed a deep interest in the programme, including some who are hugely interested in participating in it in the future. We will report on the Children’s Lives project in a future blog…

Finally, as a note from myself, it is worth pointing out that this programme came about as a result of the openness and progressiveness of the service. Not only has outreach, education and learning been actively promoted, it has been actively supported. Without that commitment, much of the work would not be possible. It enables the development and enhancement of the service and helps it to remain both relevant and progressive. This work is part of an active tradition within the service – one that goes back decades. It builds on what the service knows and has learned. It comes through an eagerness to engage.

Izzy Mohammed
Outreach Officer – Birmingham Archives & Heritage


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