Reading rooms II: Archives and special collections

Continuing with the theme of our last issue, this is a review of recent projects involving archives and special collections, connected by an emphasis on public presentation and display through the use of online digital media.


Curating archives

Over the last few years, a growing effort to increase access to visual arts archives and special collections has led to the appointment of dedicated ‘curators’ to focus on their use in exhibitions, and an expanding offer of artistic and curatorial residencies and projects supported by these collections. Tate has long played a leading role in this area, and recently co-organised with Chelsea College of Art & Design the public event ‘The future of art, archives and special collections’, aimed at encouraging engagement with these collections by facilitating informal discussion between artists, academics, librarians/archivists and gallery visitors. It also hosted the two study days organised by ARLIS UK & Ireland Art Archives Committee, ‘The Archival Impulse: Artists and Archives’ (2007) and ‘Archiving the artist’ (2009, papers to be published soon). Since its re-opening in 2009, the Whitechapel Gallery has been particularly proactive with a number of archive-based exhibitions and events, often held in the gallery of the new Foyle Reading Room. Currently, ‘This is tomorrow’ (open until March 6) revisits the seminal 1956 exhibition, with a particular focus on the catalogue designed by artist/designer extraordinaire Edward Wright, reprinted in a facsimile edition for the occasion.


Tate Archive

The future of art, archives and special collections

The archival impulse: Artists and archives. In: Tate Papers (Issue 9, Spring 2008)

Archiving the artist

Whitechapel Archive

This is tomorrow


An increasing number of galleries and other institutions offer residencies based within their archives, which often lead to an exhibition of the new work created. A recent example, ‘Out of the archives: New art inspired by The Women’s Library’, curated by Anna Colin, included work by Helen Cammock, Marysia Lewandowska, Olivia Plender and Hester Reeve, Eileen Simpson and Ben White. This is a rich area for partnerships: the Baring Archive (repository of the institutional archives of the Barings investment bank, 1762-1995) is hosting a group of artists and researchers based at the Graduate School of CCW (Camberwell College of Arts, Chelsea College of Art & Design and Wimbledon College of Art) as part of ongoing project ‘Re:Searching’, due to finish with a series of events (and the launch of a publication) in May 2011. Gasworks is currently advertising an international artist residency to work with the Special Collections of Chelsea College of Art & Design Library.


Out of the archives: New art inspired by The Women’s Library


Gasworks TRAIN residency


Online collections

Presenting and making accessible online archives and special collections has been a major (if not ‘the’ major) focus of development within the field in recent years. From offering information, listings and/or catalogues on their web pages, many collections have moved on to supplying online digital surrogates for an ever increasing proportion of their physical holdings. Tate Archive, for instance, offers ca. 5,000 reproductions of a range of material via its Archive Online. In addition to this, a large amount of born-digital material is constantly being added to existing archives. Of course, finite resources, copyright, preservation and other factors play a significant role in limiting the scope and quantities of material being made publicly available.

There are many successful examples of digitised visual arts archives, including ‘Materials of the future: documenting contemporary Chinese art from 1980-1990’ a selection of material from the vast digitisation programme of the Asia Art Archive, a pioneering organisation based in Hong Kong dedicated to documenting the recent history of visual art from the region; the ongoing project to digitise the John Latham Archive; the wide range of contemporary art documentation of the Basis Wien Archive, or the collection of artists’ books of the Joan Flasch Collection (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), to highlight a few favourites. In the UK, VADS acts as a repository for digitised visual arts collections held by universities and other research institutions. Its growing database currently holds more than 100,000 images from 47 collections.


Asia Art Archive

Materials of the future: documenting contemporary Chinese art from 1980-1990

John Latham Archive

Basis Wien

Joan Flasch Artists’ Books Collection



Most major galleries and museums now offer complete or partial online access to their art collections, for instance the V&A, via an award-winning website which includes prints and books but not material from its Archive of Art and Design; the Royal Academy, which does include archival material alongside artworks; or MOMA, which separate art collections from archive materials (a selection of the later is available via the Archive web page only). Google has recently launched (February 2011) a new digitisation programme, Google Art Project. This ambitious project presents museum and gallery art collections (currently 17) via a single web page, allowing users to ‘walk’ around the galleries using its Google Maps ‘street view’ technology, and to see reproductions of the artworks, some of them in very high resolution quality. Google’s ambition is to add more institutions and more high-res artworks to the Art Project, and it will be interesting to see how the partnership between the company and the different museums evolves, The most innovative element of the Project, the large scale use of very high resolution digital images of the artworks, will very likely have a profound impact on other digitisation programmes and generally on the way artwork surrogates are made and used.


V&A Collections

Archive of Art and Design (AAD)

Royal Academy Collections

MOMA Collection

MOMA Archives

Google Art Project


Sources of information, listings and catalogues

At present the vast majority of archives and special collections are still availble only in their physical form, and many are still not listed or catalogued, or even well identified. The following online resources are useful sources of information for this type of materials:


The National Archives

Archives Hub


Artists’ Papers Register

AS-AP International Art Archives – Contemporary art


UK Web Archive


Artists’ Files Revealed’, an excellent resource for art ephemera in libraries, including a directory of collections (slowly in progress: only one UK collection is currently represented) and best practice guidelines, will celebrate its first anniversary in March. The Artist Files Working Group (part of ARLIS/NA, but with a number of UK members) will meet during the joint VRA+ARLIS/NA Conference taking place in Minneapolis 24-26 March 2011 to discuss future progress.



[Grandal Montero, G. (2011) Resources online: Reading rooms II: Archives and special collections. ARLIS News-sheet, no. 210, March-April, pp. 3-4.]


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