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Preserving Theatre Archives for Future Generations: ROH Collections and the Association of Performing Arts Collections

ROH Collections recently hosted a study day for theatre collections around the UK and Ireland.

By Julia Creed (Head of Collections)

4 November 2015 at 11.47am | Comment on this article

On 29 October 2015 ROH Collections hosted a study day for the Association of Performing Arts Collections at the Royal Opera House’s new Bob and Tamar Manoukian Costume Centre.

APAC brings together museums, archives, libraries, organizations and individuals who maintain and curate collections relating to the performing arts. Their members – who include the National Theatre Archive, the V&A Theatre and Performance Collection and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, among many others – carry out essential work to preserve these precious archives, for us and for future generations.

In celebration of the new Bob and Tamar Manoukian Costume Centre, newly opened earlier this month, the study day centred around theatrical costume. The day started with a tour of the Costume Centre, including a glimpse of the vast ROH Costume Collection now housed there in bespoke, state-of-the-art facilities. We discussed the value of costume in documenting performance history and the best ways of storing and preserving these precious items. Our discussion was followed by tours of the wider High House Production Park, to see the bewildering range of theatre craft and production carried out on the site.

In the afternoon we heard from speakers working on a range of projects, including ways to make costume collections more accessible. First up was Robyn Greenwood, Project Assistant at the Royal Shakespeare Company, who told us about the Shakespeare by Design Project 2013–16, run in collaboration with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which will reach its apex next year in celebrations to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. Those working on the project review and research costumes in the RSC Collection, and build crucial links with contextualizing material held in the SBT archive.

Then Joel Enfield, Assistant Digital Producer at the National Theatre, gave delegates an insight into how the NT is using digital resources to give researchers and members of the public alike new access to their extensive costume collection. Initiatives include the digitization of costume designs and wardrobe bibles from the NT Archives, and 360º-degree photography of actors wearing costumes – providing a high-definition visual record of the costumes in their original contexts.

The final presentation was a practical session discussing the challenges of storing historic theatre costumes. Sometimes a conventional clothes hanger just won’t do! The potential problems are surprisingly numerous – to mention just a few: the shoulders of some costumes are too wide; others are extremely heavy; and some costumes have delicate decoration that might need extra support. Margaret Boulton, a volunteer with V&A Theatre and Performance Collection, demonstrated how best to create padded coat hangers using inert materials that will protect and support these historic costumes.

The day provided an invaluable opportunity for specialists in theatre archives across the UK and Ireland to meet and share ideas, initiatives and experiences. Keep an eye out for the ‘Explore Your Archive’ campaign on 14–22 November 2015, when APAC members and other archives and collections across the UK and Ireland will showcase their work, online and through special events.

Find out more about the work of ROH Collections.

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