Going up to the floor above the library feels like entering a space separate from the rest of the College. It’s peacefully quiet, with a spill of light seeping onto the corridor through the glass walls and windows of the archives office. Aleks Stanek paid a visit to speak to Neil Parkinson, who looks after the RCA’s Special Collection.
Tell us a bit about your role as the RCA’s Archive and Special Collection manager, and the responsibilities and challenges which you face.
I look after all of the unique, valuable and lovely things from the history of the college - which is quite a long history, but most of what I have is from the 20th and 21st Century. It’s information which is integral to the history of the college, it tells people - the researchers of the future and of the now - what goes on here, or why things were done a certain way. But what we acquire and keep takes on many different forms. There's a large art collection, for instance, 1, 500 or so paintings and sculptures, and there are also some 12, 000 prints dating back to the start of the 20th century. Then there’s the evidence of programme restructuring as well as of the changes to the technological and economic developments; paper-based material such as minutes, accounts and internal reports. And recently, we have also added digital stuff to the archive.
Because all of this stuff tells us something about the college - it’s documentary evidence, really - there’s a certain responsibility to make sure that our collection fairly reflects the goings-on within the school, that we’re not slanted in this presentation or have gaps of missing material. Gaps are an example of something we try to avoid but are always confronted with. There’s always bound to be some gaps in archives, just as there are holes in the flow of documentation. We’ve had parts of the archive destroyed in the Second War World and those are gaps we can't ever fill. So with a lot of the official documentation of the changes, the archive tells quite a top-down story. It may tell us how the college management, for example, implemented things. It doesn’t necessarily present the side of the students’ response or what the students were concerned about. For this reason, we have a separate section of the archive, the student papers, which tell us the parallel story and provide insight into controversies such as the student protests of the 60s. If you were to piece together the most complete reflection of reality, you would look at both of these sections, and then try and find where they meet in the middle.
Yes, there is a lot of responsibility to make sure the contents are accurate. But there’s also the responsibility to balance access with the preservation issues. Every archivist wants for their archive to be looked at, but there are handling issues with fragile materials and data protection. The fundamental principle of archival work is finding the equilibrium between freedom of information and other conflicting concerns.
I’m wondering about the documentation of student activity in the archive. Could you give us an overview of student-run publication in the collection and tell us about how these publications co-existed?
The College has always had a very rich history of publishing because you’ve got so many talented designers and creators here. Even before the school of graphic design opened in 1948, there were always fantastic student magazines. The earliest one we have is from 1898, and it’s a beautifully designed arts and crafts publication titled The Beam. In the 1910s and 1920s there was the very prosaically named but also very beautiful, woodcut and engraving-filled RCA Students’ Magazine to which all of the notable students of the 1920s contributed, and by that I mean everyone from Edward Bawden to Eric Ravillious and Enid Marks. One-off magazines were also produced - there was a single issue of a magazine called Gallamound Free and two issues of one called The Mandrake. So some would be very short-lived and are now precious collector’s items as examples of what someone like Eric Ravillious was doing during his time here.
The most significant student magazine which everyone still talks about is Ark, founded around the same time as the School of Graphic Design. The Ark was a partly subsidised project, but it was truly a student-led endeavour and it reflected the students’ desire to produce something recognised a serious journal rather than just a school paper. They were very successful; it received a lot of attention, went on to be positively reviewed in the press and was sold to subscribers all around the world. There was always an editor, an art editor, and an advertising manager, and it was RCA students who designed the featured adverts, which was very unusual. The magazine ran for decades until the late 70s, so you can really use it to chart all the changes in technology, student concerns and design. For instance, the pop art movement is beautifully represented in Arc with lots of little inserts and collages and such things - the whole thing is indicative of the changing times. And at the same time as Ark was coming out, the Student Union was also producing its own newsletter Newsheet which in a way was kind of completely the opposite, as it was much more of a mass produced, indiscriminately handed-out satirical, argumentative publication. The Newsheet was about students talking to other students as opposed to students presenting their work to the outside work. Ironically both publications were often made by the same core group of people, but the intended audiences were very different. They’d sometimes talk about, essentially, the same thing, but they would talk about them in a very different way.
You describe these diverse publications, and they span decades. I guess this is a more of a question for the News Sheet, but I’m wondering do you notice considerable changes of tone or content, particularly in the context of changing social norms?
Yeah, it probably is more of a question for the Newsheet. There was a lot of upset everywhere in the 60s, and I think you definitely don’t see it as much in Ark, which is more forward-looking and more optimistic. The student newsletters of the time were much more impassioned, and there was a lot of solidarity with students in other organisations where they were various protests, such as the Hornsey Art College. There was a lot of internal criticism; sometimes this was a criticism of tutors, and this included tutors being individually named; but in a way that’s always been the case, because even when you look back at those older magazines - there is always a kind of irreverence. Those earlier magazines contain caricatures of the principle William Rothenstein, or staff being made fun of, but I think it was a different tone, a different, kind of affectionate, gently ribbing sense of humour that would be familiar to readers of magazines like Punch, let’s say. But then we get to the 60s, 70s and 80s and this criticism becomes much more, I said impassioned, or let’s say, more forceful. And in the 70s and 80s, the anger is not necessarily directed at the college, but it could be directed at the wider political landscape. Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979, and the 80s were a very difficult decade for art education and a very challenging decade for the college. This is reflected in a lot of the student newsletter at the time. There was also an angry issue about the Falklands War at the time - in 1982 I think - so the students were engaged with the outer world. It wasn’t parochial, it was dismay at the state of the world in general.
Is there any publication or piece in the archive which is your favourite, and why?
I don’t really have favourites! It’s very hard to name favourites because everything is inherently interesting to me, particularly if it’s helping to answer a specific research question or if it’s building up a bigger picture. But certainly, among Ark, there are some absolutely amazing issues, and certainly one which people cite is Issue 32, as it was published at the height of the pop art movement and contains a lovely publication within a publication called The Kit of Images which is a sort of collage by various students of the time who were very involved with the pop movement - people like Peter Phillips and Derrick Boucher (please check spelling). It’s a nice example of the imaginative approach to the concept of a magazine that students took. What was also nice about having a different art editor behind each issue is that each team tried to do something else than their predecessors - so you got this really rich run towards the end of the 50s, and into the mid 60s, where there were all kind of paper stocks and fold outs, or metallic overlays, and this was such a breath of fresh air after the rationing of depressed post-war years. Suddenly, a decade or two later, there’s this real explosion of colour, of optimism in typography, and so on. It’s a world away from how Ark started. It was already very beautiful in the 50s, but it had a very different style, and the first issues of the Ark almost look like they were pre-war, or like they were done on a budget; they’re melancholy, retrospective. Then suddenly a switch is flipped and it becomes very forward-looking and upbeat but also open-minded. It’s easy for us to now project onto that, to say, ‘well, that was the 1960s, of course it would have been open-minded!’ But it’s also fascinating to see how indicative something like a student magazine can be of the things we now associate with the early 60s and swinging London.
A well-known procedure of increasing access to archives is digitisation. I’m wondering about your take on it; are there qualities to be gained or missed in the process?
It is absolutely fundamental to collections now and has been for a couple of decades, that digitisation is used as a way of increasing access. We really agree with that and in the past we’ve made digital images of all the artworks in the painting collections, and we’ve made them available on all different websites, for example at art.uk. We’ve digitised a reasonable amount of our material in the past but digitisation is very costly and can be quite complicated, especially if you have to work out who has rights to a particular work. I’m happy to report to we are currently a few months into a major three year digitisation programme. We had some lovely philanthropic funding from the Foyle Foundation, which gives grants to special collections and museums; they really loved the range of our collection and its potential to be digitised. We were able to buy a gigantic, preposterous flat bed scanner capable of A0 scans and we’re about to buy a book scanner as well. We’ve also recruited a project officer who joined us from the Henry Moore Foundation. She was working on Henry Moore’s digital catalogue over there, so she’s used to all the different formats we’ve got. She’s already done an amazing job of transforming our print collection - the 12, 000 prints that I’ve mentioned - that have always been in an old, rusty chest, or drawers so heavy you couldn’t even open them. She’s organised all of that by size and year, so we’ve had everything re-boxed and she’s working her way through scanning everything.
We are planning to make a huge amount of stuff available over the next year or two. We’re digitising all of our old 35mm slides - we have 42, 000 slides of former students’ work, going back all the way to the 1960s. The originals are going into cold storage as this will stop them deteriorating. You can tell we’re really keen on digitisation and we’re doing lots of it.
Now the question regarding whether you add something or take something away: it's definitely both. There’s the added security of knowing there’s a copy of the original somewhere, so to have the digital version removes a major worry. The other really great thing is being able to see everything all at once and being able to make connections between a variety of pieces. You couldn’t have done that when all the material was in the heavy drawers which you weren’t even able to open. It was such a disincentive from roaming through the things and taking a look through them. But being able to stand back and look at all the works at once is really amazing. The patterns and certain themes emerging in former students’ work is otherwise really hard to spot.
What is lost, is that no digitisation, however good, can really replicate the tactility of the object and tactility is fundamental to huge amounts of the stuff that we deal with, even if it’s just works on paper - prints, posters, those kinds of things. I’ve done a few workshops with the Visual Communication students based on our poster collection. We’ve scanned a lot of those posters now. Scanning can be a very good way of whizzing through, spotting the patterns and then picking out the ones of which you want to view the physical version of, to then go pick those out and put them all together. But it’s not a substitute for the physical object, because the sizes vary, as does the paper stock. Then there’s the weight, the heft of them, or how reflective or glossy they are… All of that kind of stuff is killed off by digitisation. You just don’t see it anymore because digitisation is the great leveller. It will make everything look kind of the same, in a funny way, or it will make everything look the same size, you know - colours, and so on. We do a lot of colour management to get it as accurate as possible, but it still has a funny way of, almost shrinking things. And when we have huge A0 posters, or maybe things which have been printed on a plank of wood, that’s just not properly captured, even if you were to photograph it in the best way possible, it is still a digital rectangle on a screen and we’ve all seen a lot of that.
But we would never say that those aspects of it would make us say, ‘we’re not digitising’. When digitisation first became an option to the library community, I think everybody really embraced it, but with the clear understanding that it is not particularly a form of preservation; it’s just a form of increasing access on a particular platform. For us, it’s really about collection management, as it helps us — well, because so much of our stuff is image-based, it’s helpful to have a really good digital image of something. That's because w can use this digital image to catalogue and assign a number to it, so we know exactly where the original is, and so on. And it can bring about a better understanding of the image. For example, we can investigate the exact technique that was used to achieve the effect in the 2D work. Sarah, the project officer, has been looking at old engravings under a magnifying glass, and she does quite a lot of detective work. It can then be recorded in the catalogue, with the image directly beside it. It really raises the level of knowledge and understanding about the collection.
Let’s go back to the issue of accessibility for our final question - the archives and the special collection, how accessible are they to students? Can any student make an appointment with you?
Yes, absolutely. Nothing makes me happier than current students coming to see previous students’ work, to access the stuff that they couldn’t easily see elsewhere. Absolutely anybody can come. There is an appointment system because I get very booked up, and I want to make sure I’m around and that I can guide the students through the material things. But most of the time, people just send me an e-mail, tell me roughly what they're interested in. I pull some stuff together for them, give them a general introduction, and then I kind of leave them be with their research; I’m not looking over people’s shoulder or anything like that. It does get very hands-off quite quickly, but I am here to help if I'm needed. Also, anybody from the outside world can come. It’s important that we preserve the legacy for the wider world. I know it sounds very noble and lofty but it is really important. Most places don't have, for instance, a full set of the issues of Ark. Other places have some issues but it’s rare to be able to see them all one after another. So, its very useful for anyone who’s researching, let’s say, student magazines at art colleges in general, to be able to come here and see absolutely everything. We are open to everyone - you don’t even have to be a researcher with a capital ‘r’. We’ve answered genealogical enquiries. People have come to look at Ark to come up with ideas for a 70s style set design for a film. You can’t predict how people will use these resources, but the important thing is to keep them, so that people can come and use them.