CEMPER - Centre for Music and Performing Arts Heritage in Flanders (the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) supports anyone who has questions or needs regarding the mapping, documenting, preserving, archiving, valuing, safeguarding, research and public presentation of performing arts heritage. However, we want to do more than problem solving for individual cases. We also take proactive, structural initiatives to the benefit of more than one party. Often, online platforms are created as a part of it.
Supporting sustainable care for archives and collections: TRACKS - toolbox and guidelines for the preservation of archives and collections in the arts (*)
TRACKS started in 2013 as a collaboration between partners from the arts and the heritage sectors in Flanders, aiming at supporting the artists and companies with the care for their archives and collections. The TRACKS partners wanted to develop an online platform, yet from the start we did not want to limit ourselves to providing online information. The online platform was to work at its best in combination with discussion meetings, trainings and customised advice, and we organised many of them, as a collective of partners, using the brand name and logo of TRACKS. In this contribution, I will only focus on the online part of our collective project.
The idea behind a website devoted to the specific target group of the arts field—not only the performing arts, I should clarify—was that it would enable us, firstly, to develop the specific content that was needed and expected by the arts field. Secondly, it would allow us to translate the specialised expertise developed by heritage professionals, such as archivists, into instructions which are accessible to non-archivists working in arts organisations. The platform, therefore, could be considered as a bridge between the arts and heritage field, with traffic going in two directions.
An important financial and conceptual incentive for the development of the platform comes from the Flemish government. The legislation for the funding of arts organisations in Flanders stipulates that “taking good care of your archive” is a necessary condition for structural (that is: multi-year) government funding. Yet a clear and easy-to-understand list of what this should mean in practice is still lacking. The TRACKS partners were asked to define this by drawing up a limited list of guidelines. Once these guidelines were published on the online platform, the government administration could refer to them in its regulatory documents.
The target group of the online platform, however, is (and should be) broader than only the organisations receiving structural funding. One could argue that not- or badly funded artists need even more support for the archiving and documenting of their artistic practices, at least if one wants to ensure that the future “collective memory of the performing arts” is more diversified than only the canon of “big shots”. Moreover, the “basic preservation” guidelines only cover basic issues, while many organisations also have questions about more specialised topics. For that reason, the list with expected results and indicators for the intended “basic archive preservation” is only one section of the platform, to be reached via the link at the left end of the top navigation menu.
The real nucleus of the platform is the page with the visualisation of the clustered guidelines. The seven clusters of guidelines are:
Vision and policy:
This cluster constitutes the pink “heart” of the page, as the development of a vision is the start of everything. Related guidelines are: “Create a vision around the archive and/or collection(s)”, “Establish written objectives and actions for archive and/or collection preservation” and “Make agreements and determine who is responsible for what in archive and/or collection preservation”;
Guideline “Survey your archive and/or collection”;
Classification and description:
Guidelines “Optimise your classification”, “Create an overall classification structure” and “Make a description of your archive and/or collection”;
Guidelines “Preserve your analogue and paper archive and/or collection well” and “Preserve your digital archive and/or collection well”;
Determination of value:
Guidelines “Remove duplicates and versions with no added value” and “Determine the value of your archive and/or collection”;
(Re)Use and rights:
Guidelines “Know what rights are associated with documents and objects in your archive and/or collection”, “Clarify the rights on documents and objects”, “Make it easy for people to find your archive and/or collection” and “Bear in mind current standards when digitising”;
Guidelines “Find out where you can get help and information relating to archive and/or collection preservation” and “Know where and how you can find a new storage place for your archive and/or collection”.
The page with the clustered guidelines is the nucleus of the TRACKS platform. At its heart, the “Vision and Policy” cluster is coloured in pink.
Each guideline is structured in the same way: first an explanation of what the guideline means, why it is important, and when it is best to start working on it. The paragraph dealing with how to realise the guideline refers to a set of specific tools that offer more information and context, as well as templates, manuals, procedures, roadmaps and software. The tools are also presented in thematic groups on a separate tab “Tools” in the top navigation menu. They are currently not available in English.
Details of a TRACKS guideline page.
Next to the guidelines and the tools , the platform also provides a description of relevant projects which can serve as inspiring practical examples or “good practices”. These descriptions share procedures and lessons learned in an honest way. Among those translated into English, you will find descriptions of how Het Firmament (now CEMPER) helped youth theatre venue BRONKS, choreographer Ugo Dehaes and company Tristero with aspects of archiving. Next to that, you will also find projects about “knowledge securement”, preservation of scenery models, or how to work with volunteers on archives and painted backdrops of a theatre festival and a circus company. These practical examples help a lot to achieve our goals, as they are more accessible and recognisable for artists than the rather abstract guidelines and tools. And above all: They show that projects like these are feasible, “with a little help from your friends”.
On the page with the clustered guidelines, you will notice that some are checkmarked. They form the criteria for the aforementioned “basic archive preservation” demanded by the government from multi-year subsidised organisations. The other guidelines are equally important, but they are not compulsory as far as the government administration is concerned. It is of crucial importance for us to make sure that the expectations from the administration towards the arts organisations remain realistic. Therefore, most of the basic preservation guidelines refer to low-cost actions: knowing what you have, what you want to do with it, what rights are associated with it and, where and how you can find help. Reporting back to the government each year, multi-year subsidised organisations relate to the basic preservation guidelines using the “comply or explain” principle. This means that, for every guideline, an organisation can choose to follow it or provide a very good reason as to why not. Arts organisations have the entire subsidy period within which to put these guidelines into practice and can therefore work in stages. By the end of the subsidy period at least one action must be initiated for every guideline or an explanation given as to why this has not been done. In the list with expected results and indicators, moreover, a distinction is made between guidelines that only apply to archive and collections developed during the subsidy period in question (A: active) and those that also apply to the past (R: retroactive). Even if these obligations are only intended for the multi-year subsidised organisations, they will at least make a difference for this part of the performing arts field and hopefully be inspiring for others.
“Document your performing arts”: YouDoc
In 2015, Het Firmament (now CEMPER) organised a conference with the title #DocumentingPerformingArts. How to Capture Creation and Performance (with detailed report in English). Performing and visual artists, heritage representatives, academics and interested parties reflected on questions such as: Do the archives assembled by performers and companies contain the information one wants it to contain? Is there a need to create additional documentation before, during or after the artistic creation, about aspects of the rehearsal process, the performance itself, or its impact? How might this promote the transmission and study of ephemeral artistic practices? How can this remain feasible for performers and companies? Some participants expressed the need for a “framework” with very concrete and practical guidelines on how to document artistic practices. Others believed that it was impossible to give generic instructions about this, as artistic practices and working contexts were too diverse. We opted for a mixed approach and launched www.YouDoc.be (currently only in Dutch) as a platform-under-construction. YouDoc offers, on one hand, a generic but rather abstract framework for orientation, and on the other hand, a tagged and diverse list of useful tools and inspiring case studies.
The search module with drop-down boxes on the homepage of YouDoc
The first ambition was to make artists realise that there are many more possible answers to the questions “what”, “why” and “how” to document than many of them would have thought at first glance. The three drop-down boxes in the search module on the homepage allow to explore many different combinations of methods, motivations and aspects to document. Pressing the search button for the desired combination of elements leads to a list of tools and case studies relevant to your search. This is how we want to realise the second ambition of YouDoc, that is to inspire the users and to make them aware of what has already been done and developed in this field by others. For now, the platform contains only a limited number of tools and cases, such as a methodological description of the “free oral multi-perspective witness report” and a case study about the role of documentation in the creation process of kabinet k, a dance company with and for children. You will find the overview of all tools (including a number of English-language tools) and cases via the top navigation menu. We hope that users will help to enrich these sections by means of the contact form.
Other examples of online platforms used to share information and to facilitate the (re-)use, research or safeguarding of performing arts heritage
- The online platform for intangible heritage in Flanders (only in Dutch) serves to give visibility to the rich variety of intangible heritage in Flanders. On the platform, communities, groups and individuals can register the intangible heritage element they are involved in. For some of them, a next step might be to apply for the Flemish Inventory of Intangible Heritage or even the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The elements on the Flemish Inventory are marked with a star. Moreover, safeguarding methods and good practices or reading tips are shared via the platform (marked with a light bulb). About “intangible heritage”, see also my previous contribution.
- CEMPER collaborates with partners to add data about artists, companies, shows and theatre venues to Wikidata, articles to Wikipedia and images to Wikimedia Commons. We co-organised a number of Wikipedia edit-a-thons, events where Wikipedia articles are edited. We will experiment with ways to make the “open data” from these three databases helpful for historiography and online publications.
- The lack of a central performing arts museum or archive in Flanders, implies that its related heritage is scattered all over the region, being preserved in a variety of public and private places. In a few months, we hope to launch an online guide or finding aid which advises users on where to search for performing arts archives, collections, sources or documentation, both online and offline. We will not only integrate a list of institutions and websites, but also provide roadmaps on how to search for sources when dealing with exemplary research questions.
- Another useful platform “under construction” is a public metadata catalogue for audio-visual heritage in Flanders, to be launched by the Flemish Institute for Archiving (VIAA) in October. This will be one of the side-effects of the digitisation and long-term archiving of Flemish audio-visual heritage by VIAA (see also my previous contribution). Many performing arts organisations provide the audio-visual content for this project, next to heritage and media institutions. The content itself cannot be made public without copyright agreements, but the public availability of metadata will already be a strong stimulus for the research and re-use of audio-visual traces from the past.
As a concluding remark, it should be stressed that some of the online platforms I have presented have a significant “weak spot”. Once they are launched, they require a lot of continued effort to add new content, to keep this content up to date, to keep everything up and running from a technical point of view, and, above all, to maximise its use by the target groups. How long will this remain possible? This being said, most of these platforms are the means, not the end. They need to be part of a larger, hopefully more resilient, programme of offline, face-to-face interaction with communities and target groups. Only by investing in this interaction, the way society deals with the heritage of the performing arts can be improved.
(*) The section about TRACKS is partly based on an unpublished text in Dutch by Bart Magnus (VIAA/PACKED)