In conversation with…

In this June feature we delve into the depths of the Royal College of Art (RCA) special collections with Neil Parkinson, Archives & Collections Manager. Neil is responsible for all RCA special collections, which include archives, images, art collections and the Colour Reference Library of rare books. We talk early colour mapping, secret societies and why he’d really like to see Princess Margaret in a bikini. For more information on the RCA special collections visit here.

Neil Parkinson, RCA.

How did you come to special collections librarianship?

Circuitously. After an MA in English in the mid 90s, I worked as a freelance writer and editor and ended up accidentally specialising in publications related to libraries, special collections and digitisation projects across the country. The most rewarding contract was a commission to produce a book about the incredible special collections at the University of Sussex, which include the Mass Observation archive and the papers of Virginia Woolf. The research involved plenty of hands-on experience of digging through boxes and reading unpublished letters by extraordinary people. Unfortunately, funding for these sorts of projects dried up around this time, so a career re-think was required. I’d enjoyed working with special collections so much that I thought I’d re-train to try to go into collections management in some way. City University had just launched a new Master’s that blended museology with librarianship, which sounded perfect, even though I couldn’t quite picture how I would end up using it! I wrote my dissertation on the future of special collections and this post came up a few months after I qualified. It was good timing.

Talk us through a typical day for you at work:

Every day is dictated by the enquiries and visitors that come in (no two are alike) and whatever is happening in the wider College. But most days involve a careful balance of front-of-house service provision and research support with the hidden demands of cataloguing images, managing loans and digitising documents. On one day last week, for example, I went from exploring boxes of old negatives with researchers in the morning to presenting on our new image library at lunchtime followed by an afternoon meeting with a publisher about a book proposal inspired by one of our collections.

Tell us about an inspiring or surprising item in your collection:

Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (in our Colour Reference Library) might sound like a dry sourcebook but is a fascinating early attempt to map, name and standardise the colours of the world. Abraham Werner was an 18th-century geologist who tried to define the core colours found in minerals and we have the expanded second edition (1814) in which his successor, Patrick Syme, identified animal, vegetable and mineral equivalents for a set of 108 hand-coloured samples. The samples (little painted squares) are glued into a matrix so you can read across to see, for example, that no.23, Velvet Black, is the same colour as a mole (animal) and obsidian (mineral). Other colours identified include ‘White of the human eyeballs’ and ‘Egg of largest Blue-bottle’. Like lots of colour-mapping projects, what could have been seen as a mad folly turns into an oddly profound achievement. It’s a lot more poetic and cosmic than Pantone, but probably less reliable and certainly less comprehensive.

What would be your dream acquisition?

The first edition of ARK number 34 (1963). ARK was the RCA’s well-respected and influential student journal but number 34 was a controversial issue that was pulped immediately on publication. Five issues of this first print were apparently retained but we don’t own an original so it’s an annoying gap in an otherwise-complete set. The issue was composed of satirical and scabrous photo-montages and had a strong anti-war message. One of the montages was a cheeky image of Princess Margaret in a bikini and as soon as the College management caught sight of the published version, they ordered it to be destroyed. On hearing of the loss, Richard Hamilton wrote a note of condolence to the editor, which we have in the archive, adding that it was ‘the only ARK I’ve ever seen that had any moral tone at all’. A bowdlerised version eventually came out but was poorly received and all but disowned by the editor.

What’s the strangest enquiry you’ve ever received?

Strange enquiries are always good. They drive you into the darkest corners of the collections and press the material into new uses. Our students are a constant source of inspiration in this regard. I enjoyed working with some of them a while back to try to establish if there had ever been a secret society at the College (a difficult thing to prove, for obvious reasons). They had the inspired idea of creating a fictitious archive of documents purporting to record the activities of a group of occultist students at the turn of the last century, led by the visionary artist and RCA alumnus Austin Osman Spare. I don’t know if anything came of the students’ research: after a couple of visits, they and the project disappeared into thin air and I never heard from them again, which seems appropriate.

Which artist or designer would you most like to meet?

Laurie Anderson. I’ve followed her work for about 25 years and found so many different things to enjoy in it. Her projects are deceptively seductive: there’s more heartbreak and anger there than is immediately apparent from the delivery. And I like the way she wears her learning lightly and seems so normal. I did stalk her once, trying to get an interview when I was editing a music zine in the mid 90s. She was on the ballroom of the Festival Hall, setting up one of her blackboard installations ready for the Meltdown festival she was curating that year, and I slipped her a note, earnestly requesting an interview. I’m still waiting for her call, but I know she works slowly.

One great tip for people starting out in special collections?

It’s great to love archives and artworks and rare books, and have an informed knowledge of them, but it’s even more important to love people, to be actively interested in their research, and to want to go the extra mile to help them. It is the most satisfying aspect of the job and is crucial to delivering a successful service and ensuring maximum use of your collections.

The best benefit about ARLIS/UK & Ireland? 

ARLIS/UK & Ireland offered a professional lifeline and support network when I started in this post in 2006. From the outset, I’ve been effectively a solo librarian, physically removed from the main library and with no other colleagues working in special collections. While solo librarians have a lot of autonomy (good), they often have to manage a heavy workload, operate in a vacuum, and take lots of decisions on the fly (bad), so networking is important to offset all this. Soon after I started at the RCA, I was asked to join the ARLIS/UK & Ireland Art Archives Committee and had a great few years working with my opposite numbers at the Tate, Royal Academy, Design Archives and elsewhere. We put together some interesting study days for the wider sector, looking at things like artists’ relationships to archives, but I found the regular meetings and informal discussions about our workplace issues just as rewarding. The visits to other institutions that ARLIS/UK & Ireland organises also provide excellent opportunities to network and get a sense of benchmarks for the sector.


Alexandra Duncan, Central Saint Martins (UAL)