For Explore Your Archive week, Head of Archives and Records Management Vicky Parkinson introduces her favourite item from our archive…well at least her favourite of the week!
“How do you feel about us filming a short ‘soundbite’ of you talking about ‘your favourite item’ while you are at the Conference next week?” started the email from the Head of Public Affairs at Archives and Records Association (ARA).
“Why not!” I thought, I can put my media training to use, and so I started to think about what my favourite item in the archive is. When you have around two and a half miles of shelving filled with archival material, dating back to 1636, it’s pretty hard to pick one item that’s your favourite.
It’s actually quite hard to choose just one item from an archive. The very nature of archives means you tend to consider them as series, rather than individual items. How do you single out one volume from a run of volumes containing cash accounts from the 17th century or one staff handbook from a series that contains over 700 volumes?(Side note: I did seriously consider choosing a cash book; the handwriting is beautiful and they can tell you a lot, not just how much money went in and out of the post office in any given year)
So maybe I should choose a series first, perhaps something I enjoy showing people when I do a tour of the archive? No doubt as to what that is, I love showing people our posters. Most people have hazy preconceptions of what will be in our archive before they come on a tour, and it’s fun to challenge those. Regular readers of our blog will know that we love the posters and will use them wherever we can to illustrate articles. What’s not to love about a series of posters that starts at the golden age of public relations?
Each poster is stunning in its own right, together they show the development of so many things: the use of PR in the Post Office, the changing services it provided, the issues that were important to the organisation (you just have to look at how many Post Early for Christmas campaigns there have been to realise what a big issue it is for the postal service every year), the development of design and the move to computerised design in the 1980s, to name a few. Watching people’s eyes light up when I open the draws and start bringing out the bright colourful posters reminds me what an amazing job I have.
As amazing as the posters are I love the artwork for the posters even more. In this age of technology it’s easy to take design for granted, one look at poster artwork reminds you what an amazing skill the designers had. You can see every brush stroke, see the pencil lines drawn to help keep lettering straight, see where they’ve stuck additional bits on, where there were fiddly bits that would have ruined the picture if they’d tried to paint in on directly. Unfortunately they’re also rather fragile, much more fragile than the posters, which means that we can’t handle them too much and so I don’t look at them as frequently and don’t know them as well.
Just before the ARA conference I took an artist down to the posters to give him some ideas of what we had, so that he could start thinking about how to engage a class of children in a project we were working together on. It was whilst preparing for this visit that I came across a wonderful piece of poster artwork (POST 109/158) and had a true wow moment.
We don’t have the poster for this, so this was the first time I had come across it. The colours pop in real life, and the text is bold. One of these days I will find the time to look through the records relating to poster design and see what I can find out about the artwork, and the artist, but the poster artwork itself stands on its own without any accompanying information, and little information on the poster itself. It shows the story of the GPO in the mid-1930s, and using graphic designers, it challenges the old fashioned art establishment, illustrating the pioneering go-getting nature of the GPO with its deliciously sleek airmail planes.
Ask me again in a few months time and I may very well have a different favourite item in the archive, that’s the joy of having two miles and a half of shelving containing records that document 378 years of postal history!
-Vicky Parkinson, Head of Archives and Records Management