As a part of my Museum Studies MA student placement, I spent the summer semester of 2023 working with Newcastle University Special Collections. My work focused on the Sir Terry Farrell Archive, using born-digital materials from the collection to create an online exhibition. I chose to focus the theme of this exhibition around the redesign and restoration of the Great North Museum, formerly the Hancock Museum, which was completed in 2009.
What’s in an Archive?
When someone mentions archives, you might imagine famous library scenes in films, such as Nicholas Cage plotting to steal the Declaration of Independence in National Treasure or Rachel Weisz playing an adventurous librarian at the Cairo Museum of Antiquities in The Mummy. While normal archival research doesn’t typically lead to the more action-packed moments featured on the big screen, it can uncover new and surprising information.
Archives are collections which contain documents, pictures, and other small historic artefacts. Born-digital materials are documents that are created digitally. As technology advances, they are being added to archival collections alongside physical collections. This includes emails, document scans, and even digital artwork/renderings. The Sir Terry Farrell collection includes both physical and born-digital items. Having worked with physical collections in the past, I was excited to use this opportunity to explore the digital materials available and see how working with born-digital objects compares with physical ones.
Sir Terry Farrell & the Collection
In 2021 Newcastle University Special Collections began a two-year project to catalogue the extensive archive of the postmodern architect and urban planner Sir Terry Farrell. Sir Terry Farrell grew up and studied in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he received a degree in Architecture from King’s College (now Newcastle University).
Farrell’s collection, which he gave as a long-term loan to the university, includes thousands of items relating to the creation of his iconic designs such as the MI6 Building in London, the Embankment Place development above Charing Cross station, and the Beijing South Station in China. While part of this collection is made up of physical objects and documents, it also includes a significant number of born-digital items including digital photographs, project documentation, and online correspondence.
Working with Digital vs. Physical Collections
Born-digital archives contain all sizes and types of documents. In architectural collections, such as the Sir Terry Farrell Collection, physical blueprints can run large. I’ve seen blueprints that, when fully open, take up the length of nearly a whole conference table. With so many design variations, there can be multiple versions of the same blueprints for a single site. Digital files allow researchers easier ways to see these documents while also showing the more detailed aspects of the documents and taking up less physical space.
Physical archives can remain safely in storage and be maintained through conservation. Digitized files require periodic updates to keep them accessible for viewing. Some documents can’t be adapted if they were created on older versions of software. If they can be converted, they may not appear in their original format. Those that can’t are at risk of being lost forever.
Physical archival documents can be fragile and need protection through conservation. Digital files don’t need conserving in the same way as physical documents. There is no need to patch up tears or glue things back together, but they do require file format transformations to be kept accessible. CAD drawings (Computer-Aided Designs) often use proprietary software. The use of proprietary software in files, like CAD drawings, can make them inaccessible once archived and require specialist software to access them. They will also need to have copies kept for preservation in the form of jpg/tiff/pdf files. These transformations can take up significant amounts of storage space. For archivists, this may be problematic as their future work will require them to make sure that files are always up to date. For researchers, such as myself, it may mean that there is a limit to what we can access. At the rate that technology is improving, digital collections will have to be constantly maintained to preserve them for future use.
I truly enjoyed my time at the Special Collections Reserve. This project was a great way to learn more about working with born-digital materials in addition to learning more about archival research. I have seen how archivists are handling the addition of born-digital archives to their collections and what it means for how they’re preparing to accommodate future collections. How to best preserve these digital archives is still a concern, but they also present a new challenge for archivists and researchers in how they will approach collections work as future technology develops.
This blog post and accompanying digital exhibition, Making a Museum: Creating the Great North Museum (Hancock), have been created for Newcastle University Special Collections by Kara Anderson as part of the Newcastle University Museum Studies MA placement programme. Images used in this blog post have been used with the permissions of Farrells and uses material kindly loaned by the Sir Terry Farrell Foundation.