Artworks that Generate Archival Material: Towards a Definition

This article offers a definition of a new type of artwork that Tate has begun to collect: works that generate an ongoing ‘archive’ of material when they are acquired and displayed. Based on research carried out as part of the research project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum, the paper differentiates this archival material from those types already collected by Tate, and positions these within Tate’s existing processes, practices and spaces.

The research for Reshaping the Collectible’s Archive case study addressed works that challenge the boundaries between artwork, record and archive.1 As part of this research, we focused on a series of artworks in the collection that were acquired with and continue to generate material that the artist refers to as an ‘archive’. Our aim was to explore the intention behind this archival material in order to understand if and where it could fit within Tate’s existing archival spaces, and what practices the care of these archives called upon in the museum in order to establish a process for similar acquisitions in future.

This text offers three definitions for these types of ‘archive’ and contextualises them within the appropriate museum practices and spaces. It lays out the definition of the type of archival material followed by the collection in which it can be found. The three types are ‘generative’ archival material (the newest type, and the focus of the case study), and the much more established ‘documentary’ and ‘preparatory’ archival material.2 However, it should be noted that in trying to pin down any form of practice, these definitions will continue to unfold and evolve as more artworks are acquired, as they move through the collections, and as the boundaries of what an archive is and does continue to be challenged.

This work is complemented by an in-depth paper about contemporary art practice and its relationship to and with ‘the archive’ and archives, alongside a working proposal for the care and collection of artworks that generate archival material at Tate.3

Definition of ‘generative’ material

There are artworks in Tate’s collection that, on the instruction of the artist, or by processes that are inherent to the way the artwork exists, generate additional – usually self-referencing – archival material at each activation or display, intentionally leaving traces or remains. The generative archive material that emerges from such artworks contextualises the work and roots it in the history of its production, exhibition, display and, in some cases, audience interaction. This generative archival material can mimic preparatory and documentary material types as defined below (such as sketches, photographs of the work in situ, or press releases) but it can also include artists’ correspondence with curators and material created by audiences and participants. However, it is the fact that such materials are generated at each activation or display that sets them apart. These archives are a component of the artwork and this material is stewarded by Conservation, where it is condition-checked, catalogued and made available for research as per the wishes of the artist.

> Found in: Tate Art Collection

Tate serves as the national collection of British art from 1500 and international art from 1900, collecting artworks in all media. Since it is the activation and display of the artwork that leads to the creation of generative archival material, the decision was made to collect this generative material as a component of the artwork, and it therefore sits with the artwork in Tate’s art collection.4

Definition of ‘documentary’ material

Creating an ‘archive’ of a work is a practice used by artists’ studios and commercial galleries to track its exhibition and display. These materials usually consist of documentary images of the work in situ, interpretation, or press releases, and they increase the cultural and economic value of the work as it continues to be exhibited. Sometimes this material is included in the acquisition and if the artist has neither the intention to make this material available for scholarly research, nor is it connected to the intention of the artwork, it is usually absorbed into the conservation documentation as a record of the acquisition.

> Found in: Tate Public Records Collection

Tate is listed as a ‘Public Record Body’ and is designated a ‘place of deposit’ under the Public Records Act 1958. The Act states that Tate, on behalf of the British nation, must preserve and make available its institutional records. Within Tate, all activity involving the art collection produces documentation. This happens across departments and is an outcome of the stewardship of artworks. These records, such as documentation collated by curators, conservators or registrars, are not generated directly by the activation of the work, but as a result of Tate’s processes such as the acquisition, loan, display and care of the work. This documentation is a public record because it consists of information received or created by Tate staff, as evidence of a transaction or activity, rather than as the intention of the artwork.

Definition of ‘preparatory’ material

Preparatory material comprises items one would expect to find in an art repository like Tate Archive. It consists of materials such as sketches, drawings, sketchbooks and maquettes that support and contextualise the creation and development of the artwork, but which are not part of the final work. This material is flagged to the archivist for review with the curator, before going through the acquisition process and being accessioned into Tate Archive, where it will be catalogued and made accessible to researchers in the Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms at Tate Britain.

> Found in: Tate Archive Collection

Tate Archive is the national archive of British art and documents the history of fine art practice in the UK by acquiring artists’ and institutional archive collections. It collects all manner of media within an artist’s archive, from diaries and financial records to photographs and audio-visual material. Increasingly, incoming acquisitions contain born-digital material.


The following table summarises the material type, the Tate collection in which it is held, the Tate department responsible for its care and stewardship, and where and how it can be consulted.

Material type Generative Documentary Preparatory Published
Collection Art Public Records Archive Library
Responsible department Conservation Registrars / Conservation Tate Archive Tate Library
Consultation location Via the procedure for viewing artworks Public Records in the Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms In the Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms In the Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms