The National Archives ran some fantastic Big Draw events this October, creatively embracing the theme of #DrawnToLife! As part of their prgramme of events, they chose to pay tribute to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. With themes of harmony and togetherness at the core of the workshops, the National Archives welcomed people of all ages to come along and leave messages of peace and hope on a collaborative positivity mural.
We loved the sound of their Drawn to Life events, and were thrilled to be able to catch up with not one, but two of the individuals behind the National Archives' Big Draw programme! Shikha Sharma and Emily Morris told us all about their work and why visual literacy plays a key role in the world of archives and historical documents...
We hope you enjoy the interview!
Hello to you both! Could you perhaps start by telling us a bit about The National Archives and your work there?
[Shikha:] "The National Archives is the official archive and publisher for the UK Government, England and Wales. Our collection is one of the largest in the world. It spans over 1,000 years of history and contains over 11 million documents, including treasures such as the Domesday Book and Shakespeare’s will.
"I’m the Events Manager here and I’ve been in post since January. It’s been a pretty whirlwind year with lots of amazing projects. I work to deliver a programme of public events that hopefully demonstrates the breadth of our collection, from the medieval world right up until the modern day."
[Emily:] "I’m the Family & Young Persons Programme Officer. Along with the Education team, I’m responsible for designing and delivering the Time Travel Club family events and activities, as well as creative projects for young people at The National Archives. I sit within the Education and Outreach department and we also work with schools and community groups."
How do you approach your public events and educational programming, considering how vast and varied the material you hold is?
[Shikha:] "We’re really lucky in that we have a creative team of records experts who are always engaged in new research. This allows us to programme talks based on their diverse interests, from Tutankhamun to Queen Victoria, or from the fall of Cardinal Wolsey to the victims of Jack the Ripper.
"These events are often supported by document displays which means that visitors have a chance to view original material related to a topic. For example, we recently held a wine tasting evening about South African wines, where we displayed a petition from nearly 400 wine merchants in the Cape as well as a letter written by Nelson Mandela while he was in prison.
"A lot of our programming also links directly to our exhibitions, so this year we’ve had various events about the Cold War, many of which have allowed us to revisit the 1980s and be a little bit playful - including a 1980s themed late event complete with retro video games!
"Next year I’m really excited about the possibilities around our new exhibition ‘With Love’ which opens in February."
[Emily:] "In the Education team, we work to make our collection as accessible for families and young people as possible, through informal and creative learning. We design creative activities such as sensory storytelling and craft and history missions, to make it possible for families to learn together. We research the collection to find themes and ideas which we hope they will find fun and unusual.
"For example, you may not expect to find Alice in Wonderland prints in our copyright series! We use material like this to create a sensory storytelling adventure.
"For young people, it’s about offering themes which they can take control of and create something from, based on their own interpretation of the records. For example, we’ve previously made a film called Suffrage Tales, where young people used the unique collection here to create a film about suffrage.
"We always put archival documents at the very heart of our programming. Everything else stems from there.
"This is the same for our schools programme. All workshops, from KS1 through to KS5 put the collection right at the centre of the sessions. Students are encouraged to develop their own enquiry skills based on the evidence they see and to come up with their own questions and conclusions."
Why is it so important to make these collections accessible and available, and preserve them for generations to come?
[Shikha:] "We believe that archives are for everyone and that they can change lives for the better. Archives are for everyone because they are about everyone - past, present and future. We’re the home of the nation’s story and our obligation therefore is to connect with the biggest and most diverse audiences possible in new and innovative ways.
"We felt that The Big Draw Festival was a really good opportunity for us to help our visitors creatively engage with archives in a different way."
I understand that the National Archives works across different sectors with creative practitioners, artists, group leaders, academics and historians to develop various educational workshops. Could you tell us a little more about this?
[Emily:] "For our most recent film, Mental Health on Record, we worked with filmmaker Nigel Kellaway and mental health first aid trainer Jon Bartlett and experts/colleagues from Richmond Borough Mind. Whilst the film was directly rooted in historical documents about mental health from the 19th and early 20th century, working with Mind and Jon meant that the young people had the opportunity to discuss contemporary experiences too. Nigel is the key creative lead on the project, and co-plans, directs and produces the film.
"For the Young People’s Programme in particular, we find that working with creative practitioners adds an extra exciting dimension and authenticity to our projects. It shows that they are not just about the outcome (although the films are brilliant!) but about the creative and emotional journey that young people take during the week."
One of the main components of our work here at The Big Draw is promoting the influence of visual literacy in all walks of life, not just within the visual arts. Recent research suggests that developing a creative mind-set is becoming more important than ever! What is your opinion on the role of visual literacy in interpreting historical documents?
[Emily:] "The archive is full of beautiful and fascinating documents, which are not just written words. We have photographs, maps, design books, pictures, drawings, posters and objects too. Therefore developing visual literacy is an essential skill for anyone hoping to interpret historical documents. Artwork for the Ministry of Information propaganda posters, maps of London, illuminated Tudor plea rolls and photographs of suffragettes are all key to our school workshops. They allow students to see that archives are not just full of written information, but that anyone can come here and access all different types of documents.
"Our Family and Young People’s Programmes seek to help people develop their own visual literacy by creating things like animation films and graphic novels. We often find that our younger visitors’ imaginations are full of ideas and questions about documents and history which no adult would ever be able to come up with!"
This year The Big Draw Festival is celebrating ‘Drawn to Life: Creativity & Wellbeing’. We want to encourage accessible, inclusive and intergenerational opportunities for individuals, groups and communities to come together and champion the ever increasing evidence that a more creative life really can improve our health! With this in mind, what are your thoughts on the healing powers of art, and how does it resonate with your programming at the National Archives?
[Emily:] "When we’re running our young people’s projects, one of the things that they always say is how relaxing it is to be creative and to take time away from their phones and social media and even how it feels therapeutic. Conversation flows really naturally when everyone is beavering away painting, drawing and constructing film set pieces. They remark that as they move through school, there are less and less opportunities to take time to be creative, so it’s always really rewarding for us that we give them a chance to do so.
"One of the best things about the young people’s project week is seeing their confidence grow. Something similar happens when we run our Time Travel Craft Clubs - free drop-in craft afternoons for families, where children and adults sit together and get crafty. It’s always a great atmosphere!"
Could you tell us about your #DrawnToLife events this year? Were there any stand out moments for you?
[Shikha:] "This year marked 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War which represented repression and political and social division. The western side of the wall was covered in graffiti whilst the eastern side remained bare due to restrictions on freedom of speech. Today only parts of the wall remain, and these serve as a canvas for messages of peace, hope and unity.
"As part of our The Big Draw event, we wanted to pay tribute to the peaceful revolution of 1989 when the Berlin wall fell, and embrace this spirit of harmony and togetherness. The idea was to create a positivity mural where people could come together to leave their messages of peace and hope on a collective graffiti wall.
"We ran two drop-in workshops where people of all ages could come along and leave their mark. The nicest thing for me was when parents brought their kids and talked to them about the fall of the wall as something that had happened in their lifetime, but of course not something their children remembered. It was really great to see them working together using things like stencils and paint pens and generally getting stuck in! By the end, the wall was covered in everything from doves of peace, jumping cats and messages of love."
[Emily:] "We also ran a couple of activities based around doodles and marginalia, which is the name for marks made around another document. We ran a workshop called ‘Doodles and Daydreams’ where we looked at different types of drawings found in documents and reflected on what it means to be creative in this way. For example, why do we doodle and what do we think about when we do?
"We also ran a craft club, where families used images of marginalia to inspire their own doodles and drawings and then finished them off with lots of crafty material such as stickers, gems and stencils. A stand-out moment was seeing the building buzzing with lots of enthusiastic illustrators and new visitors!"
What about The Big Draw Festival inspired The National Archives to take part? Is there any advice or guidance you would give to someone considering organising their own event?
[Emily:] "It was great to be able to participate in a national festival that a lot of families already knew about. It gave us the chance to open up the collection in a different way. I’m not sure many people would expect us to have such fabulous inspiration to draw from.
"In terms of advice, I think that anything to do with drawing or being creative is important. It doesn’t have to be contemporary. Be imaginative when considering what resources you might have and go for it!"
[Shikha:] "I felt really well supported by The Big Draw team and was carried along by their enthusiasm – particularly when trying to link the Cold War to an event that is all about facilitating health and wellbeing through drawing.
"I think getting a bit messy and creative is good for the soul, and hopefully our event made people feel differently about archives as a place they could come along to and do something unexpected. I hope we’ll be taking part again next year!"
Thank you Shikha, Emily and the team at National Archives!
Interview by: Matilda Barratt
National Archives is one of our Big Draw Festival 2019 Sponsor Partners.
Have you been inspired by this interview with Shikha and Emily, and The Big Draw Festival 2019 theme: #DrawntoLife? Why not join our global Festival in 2019? Registration is now open! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.