The ASC cataloguing forum was set up to provide cataloguers with an opportunity to share their experiences of working on different projects, and to discuss challenges or issues which arise when cataloguing a collection. Last month I had the opportunity to attend my first forum, led by Peter Morphew, who discussed his work cataloguing the personal papers of Adrian Howells, the pioneering performer and director. As a graduate trainee at ASC this was a great opportunity for me to hear about the practical considerations involved in cataloguing a new collection. The meeting allowed for wider reflection upon how best to catalogue a creative individual’s personal papers and stimulated questions such as: How can we capture and preserve an individual’s creative process? To what extent can we preserve the original order of a collection whilst making it accessible and navigable? How can the cataloguing process maintain and capture the ideas central to an artist’s work?
One of the topics we discussed at the meeting was the appraisal of creative collections. The appraisal process normally centres around extracting material that may not be relevant, significant or worth preserving. This is often a fairly straightforward process but can also become surprisingly complex. As is the case with Howells’ work many artists are influenced by their everyday life and personal experiences, which raises some tricky questions about the appraisal process. A common theme which permeates much of Adrian Howells’ theatrical work is its autobiographical nature covering ideas of intimacy, privacy and confession. This is perhaps best exemplified in Foot Washing for the Sole, a series of one on one private performances, which involved Howells washing the feet of his participants in an intimate setting which facilitated private and confessional conversations. This concept originated from Howells’ observation of foot-washing during a visit to the St. Columbus Church in Glasgow, demonstrating how his everyday insights and experiences informed his artistic work.
With this in mind, can all of the items Howells ever kept be considered significant as they may have influenced his work in some way? For example, a nightclub flyer from Bennets Bar bearing a photograph of Take That may seem insignificant, but can take on a new meaning if we begin to think about Howells’ motivation and reasons for keeping it. Does the fact that he selected, tore out, cut up and collected an item alone make an argument for its significance?
When it comes to artist’s and writer’s personal papers we must also consider that it is not simply the selection and collection of individual items which is important, but also the way in which they are collected, stored and organised. This may also reveal something about the individual’s creative process, for example, Howells had organised some of his material into titled folders, such as ‘Gay/Queer Aesthetic’, ‘Performers’, ‘Art, Visual and conceptual’, ‘Articles on culture and society including drugs, sex, violence’, all of which have been maintained during cataloguing.
The meeting highlighted certain questions that ought to be considered when deciding how best to organise an artist’s personal papers. For example, does reorganising a collection, which may break apart its original state, have the effect of distancing the collection from an artist’s working processes? Or, conversely, can applying a logical order actually make a creative collection more accessible for those who would like to work with and draw inspiration from it? Is the original organisation of a collection deliberate, and if so does this tell us something about the creative process, or could any semblance of order simply be attributed to chance? These were just some of the questions posed.
Finally, we discussed some of the access issues that are associated with some of the items from the collection. The collection holds over 70 of Howells’ notebooks, diaries and flip chart sheets of private and confessional writings which offer an insight into his personality and creative process. The items carry an obvious significance to researchers and artists, however, as with any collection, cataloguers must be aware of data protection issues. Archivists are bound by law, and have an ethical responsibility to protect sensitive personal information, meaning that some restriction must be imposed on certain materials.
At the end of the forum Peter Morphew, the cataloguer of this project and an artist himself, reflected upon his experience of working closely with the collection and its importance as a potential source of creative inspiration for others. I was struck by the idea that those working with the collection can still have a tangible link to Howells through his personal papers, which perpetuates a certain sense of intimacy with the man himself, with his work and his creative legacy.
I spoke to Peter following the meeting to ask him to reflect further upon how he felt about working with the collection and how it might influence his own art:
“In just one word, overwhelmed. I feel completely content in not knowing what to create yet. Maybe I won’t create anything specific, and just allow his complex intellectual creative process to shape my own? An art concept is subjective for each individual. In a sense I feel potentially I am the last person to have a private one to one performance with Adrian Howells. I have had unrestricted access to his incredible creative process, his deepest personal confessions. Each individual researcher/artist will place a different value on his celebrity pin ups. Yes, the academic information might be absent but they retain a sense of his personality. Now I ask myself what about my illustrated thoughts and memories? How did I make them, what was the motivation? I am questioning why I retained hundreds of previously dismissed drawings I’ve made for years. I have a refreshed approach, and whilst still in the very early stages, I am determined to find a way to visualise my personal intimate experience cataloguing Adrian Howells.”
In conclusion, this forum was a great way for me to understand some of decisions that archivists must make when cataloguing a new collection. When it comes to cataloguing the personal papers of a creative individual this brings its own unique set of questions and challenges, as I hope this brief glimpse behind the scenes at the cataloguing forum has shown.
The Adrian Howells collection is now searchable through our Scottish Theatre Archive catalogue.
For more information about Peter Morphew’s archive inspired artwork see: www.morphew.co.uk.