- 23 July 2018
In the most recent issue of PMC Notes Baillie Card interviewed Archivist Mark Pomeroy on his role at the Royal Academy and the institution's 250th anniversary. You can now read this interview below.
Can you tell us a little bit about the size and contents of the RA archives, and your role there as Archivist?
To my mind the archive is about the size of a London bus, although these days it would have to tow a small horsebox additionally. In terms of contents it is simply glorious, particularly for the period 1760–1900. The official records of the Academy form the core of the archive; to these are added the records of the Society of Artists (1759–92), the Graphic Society (1833–91), and a cluster of important personal archives from figures such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffmann, Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Gibson, George Richmond, and many others.
What sorts of materials are most often consulted? Is it mainly art historians who visit the archives?
The student admission registers are the most frequently requested documents in the archive. The Academy is, as far as I know, unique among the London art schools in preserving evidence of every single student since its foundation. Printed annual reports are consulted daily, as are the minute books of the Academy's Council and General Assembly. We are in the early stages of planning the wholesale digitisation of these resources. Certainly, many of our visitors are art historians, but our public is surprisingly diverse, and our on-line catalogue is attracting an ever-widening audience. My most memorable enquiry came from post-punk legend Feargal Sharkey, who wanted to investigate Sir Francis Chantrey's love of fly-fishing.
How have you been involved in preparing for the Summer Exhibition anniversary celebrations at the RA?
The archive has been effectively exploited in support of most aspects of this year's activities, whether it be display (The Great Spectacle and Collections displays), publishing (the RA Chronicle and The Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections), learning, marketing, merchandising, or fundraising.
You have written two fascinating entries in our RA Chronicle, for the years 1868 and 1901. Which stories did you choose to highlight, and why?
I feel deeply conflicted about being asked to write history. Sir Hilary Jenkinson, father of the British archival profession, once intoned, "an Archivist should not an Historian be", and I'm afraid I do agree with him. There are sound reasons for this position. Archivists are responsible for maintaining, preserving, and making accessible the raw materials of history. If they are simultaneously participating in academic discourse their archival work can become biased. Writing also takes an archivist away from their proper work. I think I was told to do 1868. I chose 1901 as it contained a neat example of the changing relationship of amateur artists to the exhibition.
So many RA Chronicle authors have visited the archives to do research for their essays. Did their investigations bring any interesting new RA facts to light?
It has been wonderful to have so many people pass through the Library over the last two years, all engaged on the same project. I have no idea what people might have turned up, and look forward to discovering once the Chronicle launches. From conversations, I know for sure that scholars have found new avenues to explore.
Which part of the archive do you think is the most underexplored by researchers?
Everything after 1945. The post-war archive is not catalogued to a high degree of detail and so remains somewhat hidden from view. I would like to devote resources to the 1950s and 1960s and await an upsurge of scholarly interest in the inter-institutional politics of the period. Even so, large swathes of the nineteenth century are still available for exploration. Only recently I rediscovered a group of student attendance records dating from 1826–52. These provide a rare perspective on a pivotal period and lay bare the personal engagement of students with the Academy.
Is the archive always expanding? How closely does the RA document its activities today, and do you ever acquire historical material to fill in gaps?
I am records manager for the Academy as well as its archivist. This means I am a spider at the centre of a data-web created by 340 members of staff. Most of this work is digital and the archive already holds corporate records amounting to 4 terabytes of storage. The future of corporate archives is digital and the preservation of electronic records is my most significant challenge. External archives and artists' papers are acquired according to our collecting policy, which states that we accept archives that bear directly on the Academy and its membership.