Conference Summary

Sight and Sound in Religious Archives

Following a welcome from Dr Clive Field, RAG President, the morning programme comprised a range of papers on photographs in religious archives.

Jody Butterworth explained how photographic holdings are dispersed across different departments in the British Library, principally printed books, maps, manuscripts and Asia, Pacific and Africa collections (APAC; including the India office records). APAC, where the most concentrated holdings are found, have the only temperature-controlled storage – from which photographic material is acclimatised for two hours before production to readers. A current issue is the lack of integration of catalogues, making it difficult to identify photographic holdings across the collections. Another is the question of how to treat recent accessions of born digital images acquired from modern photographers.

Alex von der Becke spoke on the collection, conservation, and communication of the photographic holdings of the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre. Management of the collection is undertaken using an XML content management system, and detailed indexing is undertaken from many different aspects, naming sitters where possible. There is a rolling slideshow of photographs on the website, and photographs are also regularly featured in Salvation Army publications to raise the profile of the collection.

There followed two presentations from users experienced in exploiting photographic material.

Professor David Killingray spoke of his efforts to locate photographic records of the Black Christian presence in Britain, and the associated difficulties.

Such material exists not just for the recent past, reflecting post-war immigration, but documents an indigenous group of Black Britons over a longer timespan – albeit difficult to quantify in earlier periods.

Even historians of the Black presence sometimes fail to acknowledge its significance in Christian life. The famous image of Olaudah Equiano depicts him holding a Bible.

Professor Killingray described his treatment of images not just as illustrative material, but as sources which should be interrogated by the historian as any other documentary source.

Well-known collections such as the Church Missionary Society archive are among the useful sources. For many photographic subjects, however, it can be difficult to locate further biographical sources. Some photographs themselves survive only in printed sources.

Professor Aled G. Jones described his use of a single collection, the archive of the Calvinistic Welsh Missionary Project in India in the period 1896-1947, a private collection held at the National Library of Wales, containing photographs documenting both religious and imperial subjects – their interest extending far beyond missiology.

They form part of a wider culture of photography in the area from the 1840s, ranging across individual and group portraits, both formal and informal, of missionaries; buildings and topographical images; events; and indeed some non-Christian religious practices, especially Hindu – a valuable historical record of the pre-Partition era.

One interesting aspect is the uses to which photographs were put – including their reception by the ‘missionary public’ which consumed missionary literature, part of extensive cultural traffic between Wales and northern India producing a familiarity with India (or a contested version of India) even among those who never visited.

After an excellent lunch there was a fascinating tour of the state-of-the-art sound conservation studios in the British Library’s new Centre for Conservation, examining issues of format, carrier, and hardware.

Delegates learnt that the greatest problems are not necessarily in proportion to the age of the material, and that more recent media can present greater challenges than older analogue data. Processes include capturing an archive copy in digital form and supplying additional copies for use in mp3 format.

Clive Field and Norman James (The National Archives) reported on progress since the last Conference on the state of religious archives.

Dr Field is to publish in the next issue of Archives a fuller version of his paper to the 2007 Conference surveying nonconformist archives, including a bibliography.

He is, with the editor of the Local Historian, examining ways in which nonconformist archives can be given greater prominence.

He also reported on work by the UK web archiving consortium  <www.webarchive.org.uk> to capture nonconformist websites. The second phase of the AHRC/ESRC programme on religion and society is forthcoming.

He reported a meeting of the RAG working party with Dr Williams’s Library, the first of a series of planned annual meetings. A second meeting will be held at the John Rylands Library in the coming weeks, to cover issues including a possible exhibition in 2012 commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection.

Norman James outlined – within constraints on staff time at the National Archives – progress towards a possible mapping of Hindu archives, and an offer for further interim storage space for Hindu Archives in Oxford.

With regard to Muslim archives, the advisory service has offered advice to one mosque.

In Roman Catholic archives, guidance has been published on the care of parish records, and the Douai archive appeal is two thirds of the way towards its target. An archives assistant is to be appointed at Westminster.

In the sphere of Anglican cathedral archives, for which provision is variable, advice has been offered to Exeter and the outcome of a grant application is awaited. The Manchester experience reflects the issues in project funding, although a useful partnership has been forged with Chetham’s Library.

At the National Archives, additions are being made to the National Register of Archives based on Dr Field’s survey, generating several hundred further links.

The afternoon sessions broadened the programme beyond photographic media to other audio and visual sources.

Dr John Hargreaves described his use of an interview with Dorothy Hincksman Farrar, a pioneering Methodist deaconess and preacher, originally made for a church magazine, but which in time offered a more intimate view of her life and spiritual experiences than other sources such as sermons or standard written biographical sources, shedding light on changes in women’s position in society and within Wesleyanism over the course of the 20th century – and in fact augmenting sometimes thin sources such as published works.

Andrew Nicoll described acquisition by the Scottish Catholic Archives of films documenting Scottish Catholic life and its care in collaboration with the Scottish Screen Archive.

Dr Janet Topp Fargion finished the programme by describing the range of religious music found among the recordings of the BL, from choral and organ music in the classical music section to Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim material in the world and traditional music section, offering valuable evidence as to religious observance albeit sometimes difficult to identify via subject indexing among holdings arranged by geographical area or language. Work is in hand towards better matching of catalogue data with user needs.

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