Conference Summary 2015

Preserving the Old, Creating the New: Archives of World Faiths within the UK:
Experiences of faith communities in beginning record keeping, heritage and learning projects

The 2015 conference was held in the London Muslim Centre, which has conference facilities attached to the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. RAG was welcomed by Humayun Ansari, Professor of Islam and Cultural Diversity, Royal Holloway, who spoke of the shared challenges of faith group archives. He noted that 41% of religious archives are managed exclusively by volunteers and that there can be a lack of professional skill, and even sometimes a lack of interest in preservation and provision of access from archive owners. However, he praised the role of the 2010 Religious Archives Survey in promoting the value amongst faith communities in the UK, and also amongst funding bodies. Since the survey, there has been a promising increase in interaction between religious groups and their archives.

Eilis McCarthy continued his words by talking about the recently completed project to catalogue the archives of the East London Mosque, including the benefit of links with funders and Mosque attendees, and the encouragement of the enthusiasm of these stakeholders for the project. The ELM (founded 1910) is by no means principally an archive, but its attendees are interested in and proud of its long history. Having received a 1 year grant from the National Cataloguing Grants Programme, 26m of archives have been recorded with TNA religious classification onto ArchivesHub which is crucially a) ISA(D) compliant b) Externally hosted and c) Free. To ensure continuity beyond the end of the project, volunteers have been recruited (chiefly via Facebook), and these have been given training so that the reading room can be open to researchers half-a-day each week from November this year.

On being appointed as Education Director at the New Testament Church of God Leadership Training Centre in Northampton Phyllis Thompson has found herself in possession of a major denominational archive in need of a cataloguing project. The New Testament Church of God (known as Church of God outside the UK and Caribbean) has 7 million members worldwide, and arrived in the UK in 1953, where it has developed as a Black Majority Church. There is something of a denominational reluctance to perceive heritage study as mission, and a lack of engagement with the fact that archives were donated to the centre on the understanding that they would be open to the public. It is also necessary to build up relationships with the academic community to promote the scholarly credentials of the collection. Currently the archive is open 1 day each week, and funding bids are being prepared for submission to external bodies.

The Everyday Muslim Project is a volunteer-led scheme running 2014-2019 with support from the Khizra Foundation and the Heritage Lottery Fund to create an archive in a community whose past has mostly not been committed to paper. Emmy Tither stated that while the project is currently focused in London, it is intended to be national in scope. The project is concentrating on stories, both by collecting oral histories, and through exhibitions and outreach events. These stories are helping to engage with individuals who might otherwise be nervous of the intellectual aura of formal history, and the project has found a broad appeal.

Following Rachel Cosgrave’s last time in the chair for the AGM, Tim Powell brought RAG up to date on the Religious Archives Support Plan. The 5 year plan of 30 objectives is now complete, and advice and training has been made available for non-professional religious archivists. The profile of religious archives has been much improved both within faith groups and archive groups, but resourcing remains a major stumbling block. A new ongoing support plan of 20 objectives has been drawn up, but there is no longer a designated staff member at TNA whose sole responsibility is religious archives. The new pan will therefore need to be underpinned by working parties from RAG and other interested groups.

John Wolffe gave an update on the Building on History project, which began as a scheme in the Diocese of London focusing on training activities with teachers, clergy and parish historians. In phase 2, the emphasis moved to non-conformist denominations and other Abrahamic religions, concentrating primarily on Black Majority Churches and Muslim groups, as these are the least established historically in the UK, and required the most assistance. It is planned that phase 3 will be international in scope, and appropriate funding is currently being sought.

To finish the conference Tali Krikler from the Jewish Museum spoke about developing workshops for schools on the British Jewish perspectives on World War I. Aimed at a non-Jewish audience, the materials selected show differences of opinion within the early 20th century Jewish community on British-Jewish culture and British v. Jewish culture, and consequent participation in the war by looking at the multiple identifies of 3 individuals. Tali noted the importance for heritage professionals of seeing the ways non-professionals interact with historic material.

Anna James
Librarian, Pusey House