Archiving the Uncollectable Museum Education and Memory Loss

Memory loss, struggles in communicating our work, changes in mood, apathy, confusion, difficulty in building our own storyline, a failing sense of direction, being repetitive, struggling to adapt to change... is gallery education suffering from a failing memory? Probably, but this is not the end of the world. Early diagnosis can help us find treatments to reduce the symptoms. Archiving learning experiences is one of these treatments but archives respond to each institution's specificities. Factors such as size, amount of activity, urgency, priorities and space, play an important role in the organisation and decision-making process. The purpose of this paper is to address how these variables produce an archive that matches the learning teams' and audiences' values and agendas. At the same time, this text is intended as a means for making these symptoms less damaging in the specific case of Tate Learning.

Kidsplay 1 installation

John Gingell, Diane Setch and David Weightman

Children at the Kidsplay 1 installation 1973

Tate Gallery

© Tate Public Records Photography

During the course of my PhD research (provisionally titled ‘Archiving the uncollectable. The meCHive protocol for the creation of archives for educational activities in museums: Tate and the Pedagogical Museum for Children’s Art as case studies’), I have studied how different museums deal with these symptoms in a variety ways. Archiving learning experiences is one of these treatments but archives respond to each institution’s specificities. Factors such as size, amount of activity, urgency, priorities and space, play an important role in the organisation and decision-making process. The purpose of this paper is to address how these variables produce an archive that matches the learning teams’ and audiences’ values and agendas. At the same time, this text is intended as a means for making these symptoms less damaging in the specific case of Tate Learning.

The ideas presented in this text are based on a collaborative and exploratory research project guided by Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate. The research methods used to gather data for analysis are as follows:

  • Six interviews with Tate Learning London convenor
  •  Three interviews with Learning staff
  • Two interviews with gallery  education related specialists
  • Two interviews with Tate archivists and four interviews with archive users.
  • Discussion groups at Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool
  • Surveys to sixty potential archive users
  • Item study in the archive
  • Participatory observation in the archive

With all these methods I have detected issues, analysed them and suggested changes. In this process I have used Tate Gallery Records and Archive with the purpose of understanding Tate’s educational history. The following section sums up the story I have built from evidence found in the archives.

Tate Learning looks as young as ever but… where did the last 101 years go?

During my three-month Learning Research Secondment at Tate, it became clear to me that some of the ‘symptoms of memory loss’ mentioned above have been detected at the Tate. Considering that it was 101 years ago when the first educational activities where held, I am not surprised. But it is an opportune moment to collate the remaining materials in order to assess what has been happening during this period of time. As Victoria Walsh pointed out in conversation with Simon Wilson during the interviews as part of the Tate Encounters project,’1 ‘it has been difficult to assemble (the history of education) while looking at the documentation in the archive or Library. What constitutes the history of education? Is it the marketing materials or the audio-visual or the gallery records? There is quite an erratic history in the archive. 2

However erratic this history seems when looking at the evidence kept in the archive, this is what we have to work with to imagine the educational development at Tate. In the following text I will describe, according to what can be found in the archives; one of the many stories we could construct.

It all began with one person, Samuel Teed, who in 1914 was appointed as the first Official Guide at the National Gallery of Millbank, later known as the Tate Britain. The Official Guide conducted two parties daily around the galleries and a limited number of special visits could also be arranged. 3 Nothing else can be found from these first years until 1920 (the gallery was closed from 1915-1920) when Edwin Fagg was appointed as Official Guide. We know that some educational events took place from this moment to 1950 because they were mentioned in the Board of Trustees’ minutes. ln 1923, we know that the Secretary of Evening Lectures Association applied for permission for lecture parties of about 30 students to be conducted by the Official Guide in the Gallery from 6-8pm (an early version of Late at Tate) 4 ; there was also a discussion about the pay rise for the Official Lecturers in 1924 5 and it was granted in 1925 6 ; a request for stools for the official lecturers was placed in 1929 7 (approved that year and revoked in 1936). This is not to mention more mysterious events that took place such as the delivery of a lecture on January 30th 1931 by the Marqués de Merry del Val Minutes of Meeting of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, 6 January 1931, Tate Public Records, TAM 72/10 p.409. These scattered fragments are the only evidence of the first 36 years of education at Tate.

After 1950, the gallery records offer more information about what was going on at the time. Information on lectures can only be found from 1968 onwards and the documents that convey this information (letters of various kinds: requests, complaints and acknowledgements) give us a taste of activity occurring at the time. This period could be considered successful in terms of the lecturers as they were highly valued by the audience 8 It is interesting to note, that when a member of the public requested a lecture outside of the official programme, the names and addresses of the lecturers were sent directly to the home address of the person in question. Tate did not have economic capacity to manage the organisation of the lectures, therefore they encouraged members of the public to make arrangements with lecturers privately 9 A number of important names were found on this list including Lawrence Alloway (who coined the term ‘Pop-Art’) and Laurence Bradbury, who had his own followers or ‘grupies’, as they were described by Michael Compton 10 According to the letters, this group of enthusiastic individuals wrote to Laurence Bradbury congratulating him on his lectures for adults and children and asking for more. 11 This group also  expressed their disappointment  when Laurence Bradbury’s name was not included on the lecture list. 12

After 1968, publicity becomes another source of information that complements other sources. Publicity was presented in the form of leaflets to be handed out to visitors or appeared in the form of labels displayed in the galleries. This material is important in terms of positioning education in the interphase between the audience and the museum. In this interphase we find that the lines between communication, visitor services and publicity blurred. The way different types of visitors were addressed, gives us information about the nature of the relationship the museum was building with the visitor.

The 1970s brought about many changes to the organisation of educational activities as Michael Compton was appointed to the newly-created position of Keeper of Exhibitions and Education, and Simon Wilson was appointed as Head Lecturer. Michael Compton then travelled to the US and saw how the ‘docents’ worked there. ‘Docents’ were, according to the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, the first museum in the US to have this post in 1906 and are described as ‘persons of intelligence and education who would act as intermediaries between Curators and the many who would be glad to avail themselves of trained instruction in our galleries. Through these docents, as it has been proposed to call them, the heads of departments could instruct many more persons than it would be possible for them to accompany through the galleries…’13 After studying what other museums were doing in terms of offering educational activities, Michael Compton created two sub-departments from scratch. Coincidentally, having a Head for Exhibitions and Education during this decade brought many ground-breaking projects for different audiences. For children, the Chenies Street Gallery organised activities where children were led to appreciate the works through a physical response.14

Installations such as Kidsplay 1 (Fig.1) in its first version (1973) and second in 1974 that attracted the national and international media.  These installations were followed by a third version titled Tate Games (1975) targeted to an intergenerational audience. Visitors were able to manipulate machines, playthings designed for the most part to relate to works at Tate. Designed by John Gingell and David Weightman, these installations included performances and games devised by Howard Romp and Adrian Chappell. In 1976, Simon Wilson, Head of Education with the technical assistance of Cliff Evans, organised the first video art exhibition at the Tate. Praised by the critic but criticised because it was displayed in the lecture room when it was considered that it should have occupied a space reserved for important exhibitions.15

The voluntary guide’s scheme was also launched in this decade in addition to experiments in performance, poetry, video-cassette creation as educational resources and the organisation of the first Sculpture for the Blind exhibition. These events are fairly well documented through strategy texts, a few photographs, film, audio, publicity, developmental documents and large quantities of letters of acknowledgement, complaints, suggestions and other correspondence between the parties involved.

At the beginning of the 1980s, as Education became a separate department under Simon Wilson, educational activity continued its rapid growth. Poetry (Fig. 2), performance, teacher training and the more established formats like the lectures and courses provided an ever-increasing audience. Although not entirely consistent, the documentation from this decade is remarkable in terms of the strategy and formats

Poet David Gascoyne during the poetry reading in The Muses Meet programme 1987

 The Muses Meet programme 1987

However, there is little to say from 1990 onwards if we consider the materials catalogued and available in the archives. Until 1999, policy and programme documentation can be found but in a noticeably decreasing state. The situation becomes more difficult in relation to the last fifteen years as only publicity material and audio recordings can be accessed.

Being completely aware of the fact that the lack of economic resources, staff and time to catalogue the more recent information are behind the lack of accessioned educational materials dating from the last ten years (and considering that the 30-year rule now the 20-year rule 16 allows this pace for accessioning), we can only worry about the lack of accessibility to documents whose effects are meant to inspire the educators of today. Despite the work of the Gallery Records team in answering specific requests from researchers that need to access unaccessioned materials, the absence of these materials in the online catalogue makes them difficult access.

However, in my conversations with the Learning team, we have identified a deeper conflict between two different approaches: one that has as a priority preserving institutional memory for the future in broad terms; and another that is meant to challenge the present and question the nature of archiving itself. While the first one follows a complex and long record life cycle with a centralised curation personified in the archivist; the second approach has at its core the users and considers that the audience should be part of the whole archiving process that forces the process to be updated and rethought constantly.

Through the conversations held with Tate Learning convenors, archivists, archive users and critical friends, I have considered seven concepts or categories to better understand what Tate education related materials in the archive represent now (responsibility, power, visibility and absences); and what the Tate Learning archive could potentially afford as well as represent (processes, co-creation and exchanges).

What archiving is now: responsibility, power, visibility and absences

‘Archives are never innocent.’ 17 There is a common belief that archives preserve the memory of an institution in a passive and almost invisible way, making assumptions on what may or may not be needed in the future, moved by neutral forces. However, the archiving task is far more complex than that. Archives ‘are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed.’ 18 The responsibility is huge, but the power is no less. Archivists choose the evidence that will become the scaffolding for future researchers upon which to make their assumptions.

In the case of Tate Learning, the responsibility for choosing what will be included in the archive is shared as the team members are the content creators. They follow the guidelines given by the Gallery Records team and after a first selection, records are sent over to the Gallery Records team. In terms of power, it is the Gallery Records team that make the final choice of the records that will be kept. This power, although being used wisely according to the principles of the profession, can easily be questioned when one considers that the materials archived refer to the activity of a team that is not present in the final stage of the decision-making process.

Thinking ahead in terms of what might be useful for future archive users, and with consideration of the space available within the Archives at Tate Britain, it seems clear that not everything can be kept. Therefore, one could not describe the Tate Archive as the repository of Tate history but the history of what Tate has considered valuable. This means that what can be found in the archive is as telling as what cannot.

The difficulty or ease in finding certain materials also defines the levels of visibility of the records. When using the online catalogue, finding learning materials through the same categories as the rest of the materials produced, can be challenging. Whereas for works done by artists, it makes sense that people looking for a certain item would look for it through its title or author, in learning activities, the features through which a researcher might look for an item would usually be ‘activity type’ and ‘audience’. The fact that there is no field for these categories, makes it difficult to find certain records and means that researchers need to look through each collection until they have an idea of how to find what they are looking for.

The main reasons for the absences and invisibilities seem to be due to the lack of space and time, but their effects on the preservation of the Learning memory are the same: when something is not documented and archived, ‘it is as if it never happened’ 19

Archiving Tate Learning: conceptual map, 2015

Archiving Tate Learning: conceptual map, 2015

Responsibility, power, visibility and absences are four concepts that, in the conversations held, were related to the archiving system currently in place at Tate. However, other concepts came up when thinking of new possibilities for approaching  the archive process.

What archiving could be: processes, co-creation and exchanges

Ephemerality, intangibility, uncollectability, performativity and temporality are all conditions that can affect any educational activity. Understanding this as inevitable when trying to materialise learning experiences is a constant when looking for evidence in an archive. It does not matter how many texts we write, how many photographs we take and videos we shoot; the feeling that we are not capturing the whole essence of what Learning does, is at times frustrating.

However, in all conversations held during this study one element became clear. Even if a Learning archive is never going to be complete, our main goal is that it allows for as many thoughts, interpretations and provocations as possible. With this in mind, I propose the question: what should be archived and by whom, to whom should it be directed, and how should we archive? I have tried to answer these questions through conversations with the Learning team and archive users. However, the complexity of the answers indicates this is the beginning of an ongoing discussion and in no way a final conclusion.

Knowing the main features of learning experiences as described above, the tools that are considered to be most effective in capturing the essence of the learning activity are video, photographs and research papers. The reason behind choosing video and photography is the assumption that these two tools best capture processes. Understanding ‘learning as a process, not an object or an outcome’ 20, make these tools the most suitable ones. The research papers, have been recognised (by convenors and potential users) as complementing the learning process that takes place in the present but has its consequences in the future. Research papers have been defined as good tools for capturing those future reflections that are a result of a deeper analysis that need time to arise. Considering that the Learning teams at the four sites and the users and potential users involved in the conversation were clear that these formats are what best represent their work, it is surprising that only a small quantity of this material can be found in the archive. The fact that the Learning team ‘is not putting as much material out there is because they have the feeling that it has to be edited. So, what occurs is that the recording of a talk does not get posted because no one has the time (or budget) to edit it.’ 21 The need for a space that could be easily searchable where these materials could be uploaded has been pointed out by many convenors.

Thinking about the potential user and asking ourselves about the roles usually involved in the archiving process, I wonder if the museum as a public institution should be open to co-creating records. The first archive user is always the content creator, who should that be? An audience taking part in a learning activity is not a passive element in the process of creating it. Then why is the audience left aside when materialising and archiving the experience? Is the audience ‘able’ to contribute to the archive? Inviting audiences into the process of archiving may seem like an idea beyond what is considered reasonable by some. However, if ‘we are more interested in the conversations, transgressions and divergences that led to certain outcomes than the outcomes themselves’ 22 , we need to find ways of having the protagonists of this process (educators and audiences), present in the archiving process.

The next type of user we need to take into account is the one who was not involved in the activity implementation or the content creation, but is interested in the materials produced as a result of it. This user may interact with ‘the archive as a resource, but not only for educational purposes.’ 23 This person might not even know how an archive works or that there is a Learning team working at Tate. Making materials findable with the right contextualisation is one of the main challenges for an archive at this point. Thankfully, there are technologies that can help in approaching the notion of archive in an expanded sense. Semantic web technologies offer a way of making searchable and finable the information the Learning team has produced and Web 2.0 technologies provide a tool that allows for participation, conversations, transgressions and divergences. When putting co-creation into practice in archiving we are looking at co-constructing meaning together through pictures, photographs, and emails even if in this co-creation, the learning element in the process ‘sort of floats’. 24 As users choose, adapt, reject and transform what they find, this tool could potentially work as a place for exchanges, instead of the deposit the traditional archive is.

At this point, it is reasonable to speculate if the necessary tool for these exchanges is an archive or should be something else. After all, the word ‘archive’ is traditionally accompanied with certain ideas and behaviour that make it not the first tool that comes to mind when trying to establish a conversation. What has made me adhere to the term ‘archive’ is that the necessity that boosts this research is preserving the legacy of the education profession in museums and galleries. Whatever the exchange of ideas relevant to  the development of the profession at the present time- it needs to be recorded and made easy to find in the future. The challenge is finding the kind of archive that allows for this exchange to take place

Community archives and Tate Learning

After looking at all the materials archived on educational activities at Tate, one wonders, where do we find the point of view of those most affected by the activities of the Tate? Educators, artists, participants, audiences, in short where do we find the evidence and processes of the learning communities at Tate? As Tate Gallery Records focus on the institutional memory of the activities carried out in the museum (education amongst them), the experiences of the people involved are hardly ever recorded.

As archive users have pointed out, understanding the development of education at Tate through the materials preserved, offer an incomplete view that can only be complete while considering the oral histories told by the witnesses of the process. This statement becomes clear when listening to witnesses of the history of educational activity at Tate, like Simon Wilson, Michael Compton, Richard Morphet, Helen Charman, Andrew Brighton, Anna Cutler, Sylvia Lahav or Tim Marlow, during the Tate Encounters 25 sessions. The stories they tell offer a complementary view of what is reflected in the archives and the annual reports. Deciding what best represents Tate Education history needs to be decided from a fresh point of view by artists, educators and participants in order to avoid what has been a one-sided institutional treatment. Institutional memory is important but people’s experiences of learning activities should be considered of equal importance.

Deciding what best represents educational experiences in the museum is not something that could be solved from the archive perspective only. This has its implications for the way education professionals document and reflect on learning, how we could better materialise processes so as to allow for different interpretations, how we ‘dig where we stand’ 26and reflect from our personal experiences. Investigating from the place we are in, regardless of whether or not we are museum workers, curators, educators, artists archivists, academic researchers or participants. All these roles play a part in the learning community of the museum and as such, all these voices must be present as different pieces of the jigsaw of Tate Learning. This would not only help us in understanding what education at Tate has been, but also what it is now and what it wants to be in the future.

Understanding Tate as a learning community led me to identify a specific type of archive: the community archive. The community archive answers to the requirements highlighted by the different people interviewed and involved in the learning process at Tate and outside Tate. Defining a community archive has proven challenging. What I am using here is the broadest and most inclusive definition possible. The community archive is a process of ‘democratising’ the archive which, according to Raphael Samuel, Stuart Hall and others ‘is part of a broader mission to democratise and introduce complexity into the national heritage.’ 27 Democratisation is understood here as an ‘on-going process, not one that could be completed, but would be a constant task, evolving, changing, always continuing as society itself changes and evolves.’ 28

This definition has much in common with a broad definition of a participatory archive as ‘an organisation, site or collection in which people other than archive professionals contribute knowledge or resources, resulting in increased understanding about archival materials, usually in an online environment’ 29 described by Kate Theimer. In this definition, institutions are open to dialogue and discussion about what should be included. However the sense of ‘belonging’ and ‘ownership’ of the records by the community is not as explicit in the participatory archive definition as it is in the community archive. This fact alone increases the energy of the community archive and as a result contributes to the ongoing cycle of engagement. This kind of archive is usually created when communities go through a rapid and significant change.

This is certainly the case for Tate Learning. Since 2008, Tate Learning has been undergoing a transformation, placing Learning more at the heart of the organisation and making visible the values and rewards, the ups and downs 30. The outcomes that are emerging from this transformation need to be made explicit. But it deserves to be told not only by the institution. It deserves to be told by the protagonists in a democratic way and preserved in a repository that allows for all these voices to be heard.

Memory loss, struggles in communicating our work, changes in mood, apathy, confusion, difficulty in building our own storyline, a failing sense of direction, being repetitive, struggling to adapt to change… are above anything else incurable. Museum and gallery education departments, as overwhelmed with the present activity as they are, find it difficult to spend time on securing the legacy of their activity. That is why it is so important that we develop tools to make this preservation process rewarding and pleasant to the protagonists.  This way it will be easier to cope with the symptoms that threaten museum and gallery education history. History is important because its results are still with us. The current changing process at Tate Learning will someday be history. If this history, made up of so many stories, is not preserved, from where will we build our reflections?

 Sara Torres Vega is Predoctoral Researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid

This paper is the result of a Learning Research Secondment hosted by Emily Pringle Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate and funded by the Complutense University of Madrid, 2015

Tate Research Centre Working Papers, Autumn 2015 © Sara Torres Vega


  • 1. Tate Encounters: Britishness and British Culture in 2009 was a research project that in comprised of a series of interviews with present and past members of Tate staff and aimed to create an understanding and account of how Education practice within Tate has historically evolved from information and explanation to interpretation, engagement to participation, informal knowledge to professional research. The online archive of these sessions can be found at, accessed 5 August 2015.
  • 2. Victoria Walsh Interview with Simon Wilson, 23 February 2009., accessed 3 August 2015.
  • 3. Annual Report, National Gallery for the year 1914. p.7.
  • 4. Late at Tate is a special series of free events, talks and films that take place after the opening hour at Tate Britain.
  • 5. Minutes of Meeting of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, 26 November 1924, Tate Public Records TAM 72/7 p.123.
  • 6. Minutes of Meeting of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, 25 March 1925, Tate Public Records TAM 72/7 p.135.
  • 7. Minutes of Meeting of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery,1 July 1929, Tate Public Records, TAM 72/9 p.292.
  • 8. ‘there has been a marked increase in the number of special lectures that the Tate Gallery has been able to provide for visiting parties from schools, colleges and other educational and social institutions.’ Tate Gallery Annual Report 1967-68.
  • 9. In letters between the year 1951 and 1966, Mary Chamot, Assistant Keeper at Tate, answered many requests for lectures that were not included in the schedule saying that they had ’ a very limited fund for the purpose’ of lectures and suggesting to make the ‘arrangements direct’ with one of the lecturers.
  • 10. Michael Compton, ‘My part in the development and work of Tate Education Department’. 13 February 2009., accessed 11 July 2015.
  • 11. ‘For me Tate is Happiness. This has been brought about in large measure through the brilliant and stimulating lectures of Mr. Laurence Bradbury’ Mr Morphet, letter to Mr Rad, 6 February 1968, Tate Public Records TG 22/3/3.
  • 12. ‘I have recently received the list of lectures for April and see to my horror that Mr. Bradbury is not giving a single lecture. He is so marvelleus, so please, please, can we have him back’ Mia Rhodes, letter to The Secretary of Tate, 6 April 1968, Tate Public Records TG 22/3/3.
  • 13. Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, ‘Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience’, Los Angeles, 2011, p.19.
  • 14. Terry Measham, letter to Mrs Brennan, 13 March 1973, Tate Public Records TG 22/1/2.
  • 15. Richard Cork, ‘London Art Review: Richard Cork at the Tate Gallery’s First Video Show’, Evening Standard, 3 June 1976, p.26.
  • 16. In 2013 the UK government began its move towards releasing records when they are 20 years old, instead of 30. During 2013 The National Archives received records from 1983 and 1984, and in 2014 records from 1985 and 1986. Two further years’ worth of government records are being transferred to us each year until 2022 when we will receive the records from 2001 and 2002., accessed 14 March 2015.
  • 17. Sara Torres, Interview with Marko Daniel, 21 January 2015.
  • 18. Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz ‘Archives, records, and power: From (postmodern) theory to (archival) performance’, Archival Science, vol. 2, no. 3-4, 2002, pp.171-185.
  • 19. Sara Torres, Interview with Susan Sheddan, 12 March 2015.
  • 20. Sara Torres, Interview with Rebeca Sinker and Hannah Vallis, 29 January 2015.
  • 21. Sara Torres, Interview with Sam Thorne, 26 February 2015.
  • 22. Sara Torres, Interview with Alice Walton, 20 January 2015.
  • 23. Sara Torres, Interview with Mark Miller, 30 January 2015.
  • 24. Tate Liverpool Learning Team ‘Archiving Tate Learning,’ Liverpool, 2015.
  • 25. The Tate encounters: Britishness and British Culture in 2009 was a research project that in 2009 held a series of interviews with present and past members of Tate staff and aimed to create an understanding and account of how Education practice within Tate has historically evolved from information and explanation to interpretation, engagement to participation, informal knowledge to professional research. The online archive of these sessions can be found at, accessed 5 August 2015
  • 26. Sven Lindqvist, ‘Dig Where You Stand’, Oral History, vol. 7, no. 2, 1979, pp.24-30, 1979.
  • 27. Andrew Flinn, ‘Community Histories, Community Archives: Some Opportunities and Challenges’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, vol 28, no.2, 2007, pp.151-176.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Kate Theimer, ‘Exploring the participatory archives’, Archives Next blog, 30 August 2011., accessed 16 July 2015
  • 30. ‘Trustees wanted us (Learning) to be more integrated into the organisation, bringing learning more to the heart of what Tate does.’ Emily Pringle (ed), ‘Transforming Tate Learning’, 2013,, accessed 11 March 2015.