NADD photo series: Entry points to archives
Over the past half year, Johannes Schwartz and Bart Lunenburg visited Allard Pierson, LIMA and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum to explore and photograph a number of archives held at these organisations. Their task was to develop a photography series. Broadly speaking, the aim of the series was to give a glimpse of what is meant by Dutch design and digital culture archives and make visible some of the material housed by the partners of the Network Archives Design and Digital Culture.
Our main touchpoints at each location were a handful of individuals – a conservator, one director and a head of library & archives. With these peoples’ experience guiding Johannes and Bart’s research into the material they ended up photographing, we found our engagement shifting from a focus on the anticipated outcomes to a reflection on the process itself; how is it you do archival research? In what ways can you access and learn about material kept in archives? What lenses do students, researchers, artists and others who might be curious have available?
We therefore present this photo series as a reflection on this process of delving into archives. Next to the images, we’re excited to share a few snippets from the people who made it possible and pose some of the questions the process has foregrounded to us for future studies and discussions.
On our very first archive visit, Mathieu Lommen, conservator at Allard Pierson, received us with a few blue boxes on a trolley at the institute’s reading room at the Oude Turfmarkt. These contained a cross-section of the kinds of things that might be interesting to both photograph and to have photographed – that is, taking into account the ranging interests of photographers, a network representing archives and an institution holding a collection of them. A detail that is visually engaging to a photographer doesn’t necessarily align with the aspirations somebody working at an institution has for the material held therein. In conversation, Mathieu noted down the items that Johannes and Bart agreed to work with on their next visit at the end of the meeting.
During this meeting we mainly sat back and learned a lot from Mathieu. Requests like ‘do you perhaps have something that’s a bit more like…’ produced another box or two, wheeled out from behind a shut door. Allard Pierson’s graphic design and typography collection alone spans over 40 designers’ archives. In terms of selection and direction, the resulting images from these archives are co-created by the conservators who know what’s in them and where to find things.
In response to one of our questions on process, Gaby Wijers, director at LIMA, stated that the way you guide someone through an archive depends on the request. Some people come with specific questions about concrete works or archives; these are often just as concretely answered. In other cases it’s the team at LIMA that can offer to do some preliminary research and preparation. The preparation entails making sure that relevant material is ready to be viewed and that the researcher is briefed on the underlying system.
Michiel Nijhoff, head of the library and archive at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, pointed to the relevance of digitised content. The kinds of specific requests that Gaby Wijers spoke about can today be formulated with a link to an entry in an online catalogue. By now everything in the Stedelijk’s library and museum collection has been listed online. Some quick numbers: that’s currently data on 180.000 books and 100.000 objects. Plus over 300.000 documents on exhibitions and acquisitions for the period leading up to 1980 have been digitalised and can be viewed online directly, through Amsterdam’s Stadsarchief (city archive) or Stedelijk Museum’s Library portal.
Against this digitally-mediated day-to-day in archival research, Michiel said that the images taken by Johannes and Bart at the Stedelijk evoke a nearly nostalgic character. Inventory cards with handwritten notes or stamps are rarely still used for daily administration of the archive or library, therefore becoming a kind of tribute to the past of the underlying processes in these organisations themselves.
During this photo series we delved into a number of archives managed by organisations dedicated to the task. Some questions we were confronted with were for instance: what is the role of a conservator or other intermediary in archival research? And how might this transform with a steady move towards more and more digitalisation? But we also could not help but ask: how can you approach archives in ways that expose and explore their multi-dimensionality – and, linked to this, what might some pathways to and opportunities for discovery be?
As entities that are far from static, one of the reasons archives are interesting is precisely because they’re unpredictable.
This text was written by Alexandra Barancová, who works on the Network Archives Design and Digital Culture and co-developed the series with Johannes Schwartz and Bart Lunenburg.