Tate Britain preservation volunteer Aurelio re-numbering Keith Piper photographs

Aurelio re-numbering Keith Piper photographs
Photograph © Tate 2015 (Ana Escobar)

Tate Britain preservation volunteer Tara re-numbering Barbara Hepworth correspondence

Tara re-numbering Barbara Hepworth correspondence
Image © Ana Escobar, Tate Photography

Tate Britain preservation volunteer tasks include re-housing Vanessa Bell negatives

Re-housing Vanessa Bell negatives
Image © Ana Escobar, Tate Photography

Maria Kubler, Volunteer Co-ordinator for the Archives & Access project outlines below the role of the volunteers and the kinds of work they have been doing:

The Archive & Access volunteer programme started nearly two years ago. There are three groups of volunteers within the programme. The first group are the Preservation Volunteers whose role it is to work directly with various Archive collections by re-housing the material in special conservation folders and sleeves. This work also involves condition checking and numbering. As the work is very hands on the volunteers are able to spend time looking through the variety of material within the collections. For many of them this aspect has proved highly enjoyable. In addition some of the tasks required have provided opportunities to develop new skills such as the highly demanding box making task. This required the volunteers making meticulous measurements in order to create made to measure boxes for artist sketchbooks.

The second group of volunteers are the Archive Explorers. These volunteers run interactive and engaging tours in our new Archive gallery spaces. These tours have only been running since August 2014 and only take place at weekends, however they continue to gain in popularity with over 1000 visitors in attendance.

The third group of volunteers are the transcribers; a number of community groups who, using a newly built online transcription tool, will work to decipher and record texts found in the archive. This part of the programme is due to begin sometime in July this year.

For this post we are focusing specifically on the role of the Preservation Volunteer. Tara Wellesley, Ben Harrison and Marinella Franco discuss their experiences volunteering on the project thus far.

Since I have been helping with the Tate Volunteer Team it has been so interesting to learn the special ways we must handle all the documentation, photographs and sketchbooks. Each kind of material has its own unique and specialized techniques and tools that must be used in specific ways in order to handle each item in the most sensitive and careful way possible. We also had a fascinating few training sessions about paper and photograph preservation and conservation given by Yunsun which were extremely informative and engaging. It’s amazing just how scientific conservation actually is!
Tara Wellesley, Preservation Volunteer

Tate Britain preservation volunteers Ben, Marina, Tara, Aurelio and Nella sat around a table working on mixed collections

Ben, Marina, Tara, Aurelio and Nella working on mixed collections; Keith Piper, Barbara Hepworth and Vanessa Bell
Photograph © Tate 2015 (Ana Escobar)

I moved recently from Dorset to a flat which overlooks John Islip Street and the old hospital buildings. A friend told me half-jokingly to get a job at Tate Britain. Hardly likely as a 73 year old retired film producer but the notion stuck.

Now my Friday mornings are spent as a volunteer for Maria Kubler’s Preservation team. We are a mixed bunch, some Venezuelans, some Italians one American. All about a generation younger than me and many with Fine Arts degrees.

We started by making boxes out of sheets of acid free cardboard, a form of origami not suited to the clumsy or those unused to measuring accurately to a half millimetre. Kostas our patient Greek Paper Conservator soon spotted my inadequacies and tactfully pointed me in the direction of Sir Kenneth Clark’s correspondence archive. Those in his circle of intimates addressed him as K. A fine piece of casting as I am old enough to remember his ground breaking Civilization series in 1969. His Wartime correspondence as director of the National Gallery is fascinating and revealing. Despite his cut glass accent and patrician manner, so out of tune with current broadcast etiquette, his unfailing courtesy and patience in answering his vast postbag of requests from artistes, provincial museums, art historians and civil servants wins one over. He counted good manners as one of his lifetime principles and it shows. By sheer chance one set of letters from the artiste Henry Lamb triggered a personal memory. Lamb lived in Coombe Bisset near Salisbury. My parents lived nearby and were friends so I was taken as a child to his studio which was damp and cold. I recall noticing that as an old man he suffered from arthritis in his hands which was sad to see.

The work requires little artistic judgement but concentration and accuracy. The morning is interrupted by the obligatory visit for a break to the staff canteen. This used to be in a temporary cabin which had the jolly atmosphere of a wartime NAAFI. Now it is housed in the old hospital chapel where those unlucky enough not to survive their operations were presumably laid out? Despite the efforts of a no doubt distinguished firm of architects, the conversion fails to dispel the gloomy aura. Dead bodies replaced by dead fish with chips and mushy peas. The Friday menu. We enjoy Maria’s supply of biscuits and each other’s company.

In the current age of relativism it is worth stating that Tate Britain and Tate Modern are not only good things in themselves but an important sign of a civilised society. Long may they last. I think Lord K would agree.
Ben Harrison, Preservation Volunteer

Tate Britain preservation volunteer Nella re-numbering Keith Piper photographs

Nella re-numbering Keith Piper photographs
Photograph © Tate 2015 (Ana Escobar)

Being a Preservation Volunteer as part of the Archives & Access project has been an experience in every way. I was a newcomer to London when I joined the project, which gave me the opportunity to:

  • Get to know directly and in a ‘special’ way an aspect of English culture, having access to physical archive material (which otherwise I would not have).
  • To know specific and precise details of the different artists’ lives through their photos, diaries, notes and exchange of letters.
  • To know people from different backgrounds (my volunteer colleagues) but with the same interest: British art.
  • Become part of a project that will help museum visitors to have access (through high quality images) to the secrets of Tate’s archive.
Marinella Franco, Preservation Volunteer

If have any questions regarding our Volunteer programme as part of the Archives & Access project then please contact Maria Kubler our Volunteer Co-ordinator maria.kubler@tate.org.uk