Earlier this week I spent a couple of days working in the National Arts Education Archives (NAEA).
The archive was established in 1985 to provide a documentary trace of the development of arts education in the UK and worldwide, by collecting child and student work and the papers, letters and work of key educators and artists in the visual arts, music and language. The holdings represent a major research resource which is, sadly, under-used. It’s a pity because it is a really rich resource which could help to take research in art education forward in new ways.
So what does the archive there look like and why are we interested in what collections they hold? Well, that was part of the reason for my visit. For, while many individual collections there are catalogued, many are not, so I guess you could say my visit on this occasion was a kind of survey visit, to see what might be relevant and useful to the project. NAEA hold many collections relating to child art education in schools. While these are fascinating collections in their own right, they don’t have much direct relevance to the ‘Art School Educated’ research project here at Tate.
What I did spend time looking through was a relatively small number of collections relating to major art educators Tom Hudson, Harry Thubron, Maurice de Sausmarez and Victor Pasmore. They also have material relating to the work of Eric Atkinson and Richard Hamilton but, sadly, I ran out of time. All of these educators were so significant in their teaching practice that any study of British art education needs to take account of their thinking. It was interesting to see the importance of child creativity in the thinking of these men and how that informed their own teaching in Britain’s art schools. It is always fascinating, and a real privilege I think, to be able to handle and look through someone’s personal archive.
That process of engaging with archival material does not just provide researchers with information about their chosen field, although it does do that. Just as importantly, it often allows us an insight into the thinking of these individuals that would not otherwise be possible. We always have to be mindful, of course, that archives are to some degree edited and never tell the whole story.
And that shift from a collection of personal papers in private hands to a collection as part of a public archive also changes how we look at things I think. That shift from private to public is one of the questions that interested Jacques Derrida in his book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), but I digress. The NAEA collection is based in the Lawrence Batley Centre at Bretton Hall (tucked away at the bottom of the hill in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park) and is available to researchers, students, and the general public by appointment. The archivist Leonard Bartle has worked there for 22 years so he knows the collection extremely well. It’s a bit of a hidden gem in my view.