2013 PSQG Forum has 'anniversaries and commemoration' theme

The 18th Public Services Quality Group Forum was held on 6 November atLondon Metropolitan Archives. More than 60 people attended

The theme for the day was ‘Approaching Anniversaries: Celebration and Commemoration’ and there were ten speakers. The aim of the day was to share both the opportunities for the archives sector to use anniversaries as a way to raise awareness of services and collections and the challenges  that may lay in wait. As one speaker put it: ‘one person’s commemoration is another’s catastrophe’.

Stephen Scarth from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland talked about some of the challenges faced by PRONI during their ‘decade of centenaries’ . The period 1912 to 1922 was one of deep historical significance for the island of Ireland and the reverberations were still felt across communities with very different narratives of that time.

Stephen outlined the key historical events: the Ulster Covenant of 1912, when more than half a million signatures pledged to take ‘all means necessary to defeat’ Home Rule; the start of WWI, when those fighting both for and against Home Rule believed that loyalty to the British crown in war would serve them well; the Easter Rising of 1916, the execution of the leaders and the establishment of Sinn Fein; the end of WWI; the escalation of violence from 1919 to 1921 and Partition.

Stephen gave fascinating examples of how the 50th anniversaries of these events had been handled and communicated in the 1960s. The language was highly emotive from both sides and there was ‘no acknowledgement of each other’s narratives’.
Today, PRONI’s work is guided by principles of ‘facts, consequences, perceptions and understanding’ and PRONI works in partnership with all communities. ‘No one community owns the past’.

David Prior spoke of the ‘rhythm of anniversaries’ as both useful and inevitable when one worked at the Parliamentary Archives. All Acts of Parliament from 1497 were in the archive and so there were many opportunities but also the potential danger of anniversary overload. The archives had in the past tended to commemorate ‘big constitutional’ anniversaries and while this was still relevant, recent work had been far more about outreach and making the workings of Parliament more relevant to the citizen. This was often less about big anniversaries and actually more challenging and often more work.

Matthew McMurray, Archivist at the Royal Voluntary Archive and Heritage Collection, described the history of the archive of the biggest voluntary movement in British history (there were more than one million WRVS volunteers in the Second World War). The archive – of immense size and historical significance – has had a troubled history and been vulnerable to changes of status and strategy in the WRVS, which was a Crown Service until the 1990s then a charity, and to being forgotten and ignored. 

Matthew had exploited the anniversaries of the foundation of the WRVS in 1938 to draw attention to the archives and change perceptions from some that the large archive was ‘an asset , not a liability’. The recognition from the UK UNESCO Memory of the World programme of the significance of the archive had been beneficial and the launching of a public catalogue to the archive was another key milestone. It had been pleasing, that in rebranding itself recently as the Royal Voluntary Service, the charity had looked to its archive for its look and revived its traditional colours.

Dr Ellie Pridgeon spoke about the highs and lows of an archive working within a large museum – the Science Museum – where the written word played a very small part in the exhibition galleries. The Library and Archives had put on a significant exhibition on Alchemy and had also curated a smaller exhibition on Babbage (including the digitisation of Babbage notebooks and other manuscripts).

Conscription for WWI began in 1916 with the Military Service Act. The majority of records of those who appealed against going to war were destroyed after the war. The records of those appealing at the Middlesex tribunal do exist and are held at The National Archives. They are being sorted, catalogued and digitised; this will make them name-searchable for the first time. David Langrish and Chris Barnes spoke about the work and the historical significance of the ‘small project’ (there were approximately 110 boxes of material covering nearly 9,000 tribunal hearings). The work is sponsored by the Friends of The National Libraries and the Federation of Family History Societies and volunteers are very involved in the project.

‘Pick an anniversary – any anniversary’ said Dr Adrian Gregson of Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Dr Gregson made the strong point that funding was the driving force behind many decisions and that funding, for, say, a timely exhibition usually offered no help to fund ‘core work’ like cataloguing or digitisation. Audience engagement – and new users – was the ‘big win’ which must always be kept in mind.

Wilfred Owen was a major figure for Shropshire and Mary McKenzie of Shropshire Archives explained how the poet would be important for their WWI commemorative activities. The archives would be joining in the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Lives of WWI’ project by working on Shropshire stories. There were also plans to recreate the experiences of War Trenches by digging new trenches.

One of the most famous criminal acts of the 20th century was the Great Train Robbery of 1963 when £2.6 million was stolen from the Glasgow/London mail train. Adrian Steel and Gavin McGuffie of the British Postal Museum & Archive explained the difficult line they – and others who held such records – had to tread.  The Great Train Robbers had been romanticised by many and the facts of the case subject to constant re-interpretation.

Adrian and Gavin were conscious of many things in their custodianship of the files, not least that they owed Royal Mail staff a duty of sensitivity when dealing with arguably the institution’s most famous incident.