In conversation with…

In our December feature we meet Archivist Fleur Soper; Collection Development Manager at The National Archives. We talk emerging collections, performing archives and the importance of ARLIS. And boxes, of course…

Archives at Night: Suffering is one long moment (Image credit: Joao Dos Santos)

How did you end up an archivist?

Because when I first heard of a reading room, it sounded like a great place to spend time, and I was always intrigued about collections: what do they tell us, what stories do they hold?

An opportunity arose to work on the 1901 census records way back in 2001. We were working on data and indexing, cross-referencing with original documents. It’s where I first got a handle on data structures and hierarchies. I then worked in digital preservation and alongside our conservators. I was privileged to see so much technical work going on with physical and digital documents. I worked as an assistant and communications officer, promoting and sharing this work through PR, press and events. I built further skills in digital preservation and became a web archivist in 2007. I gathered and archived websites across government in partnership with wider collecting institutions including the British Library, Wellcome, National Library of Wales, National Library of Scotland and the European Web Archive. All of these organisations were involved in the UK Web Archiving Consortium (UKWAC).

I joined Archive Sector Development in 2009, and began a Masters in Archives and Records Management at the same time. I qualified in 2013, and now have a wide ranging role to support development of collections held in many places, mostly beyond what we describe as the established archive sector. This is where I get to meet so many people and so many collections.

Talk us through a typical day for you at work:

I’m an archivist, specialising in arts archives, diverse histories and collection development. As Collection Development Manager, my focus is mainly on collections outside of The National Archives, held in many places by organisations, groups and individuals. My current focus is on ‘Emerging Collections’, working with institutions who have records but who need support and advice to help them to develop those records into an archive and to make good decisions about the future of that material. As part of this work I am particularly interested in working with organisations who have a diverse outlook and portfolio to ensure that the future record truly represents all communities. I try to balance my approach, so that in each case the archive collections are supported and sustained over time.

A large part of my work involves advising people on good practice in caring for their collections, and providing ideas for development, partnerships and funding. So I might be at my desk writing up notes to deliver this advice, or I might be at an external meeting for a network such as Art Libraries Society, Association of Performing Arts Collections, Film Archives UK or Community Archives and Heritage Group. Though most likely, I will be on an advisory visit to a small organisation or group, with their own archive collection, which they know is important, but also needs targeted advice and action to make it safe, well understood and usable now and in the future.

Tell us about inspiring or surprising items in your collection:

We recently produced a performance for Archives at Night, ‘Suffering is one long moment’, telling the story of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment. This is a famous case, though it was surprising and at times very poignant to go back to the original documents, and then to work on the performance. The case itself and the retelling of the story raised important issues of sexuality, identity and justice. The performance was produced and written in-house based on first-hand accounts from Oscar Wilde’s petition to the Home Secretary on the conditions in Reading Gaol, and letters from his supporters, relatives and complete strangers:

Oscar Wilde’s petition to the Home Secretary

Catalogue reference: HO 45/24514

‘For more than thirteen dreadful months now, the petitioner has been subject to the fearful system of solitary cellular confinement.’

Letters to the Governor of Reading Gaol

Catalogue reference: PCOM 8/434

‘What perhaps will give him the most pleasure, that his mother is wonderfully well.’

What was surprising is to have these very direct stories first hand, hidden stories from a famous case, though giving new insights when retold in a performance.

What would be your dream acquisition?

We collect official records of UK government, which does restrict our wider collecting. But it does give us some rich and often unexpected collections. As my role focusses on collections held beyond our organisation, I thought about what I would like to see collected elsewhere.

I would love to see a popular music collection be acquired somewhere really accessible, like a major national, regional or specialist archive. The Rolling Stones, for example, have their own major archive collections, which were used to great effect at the recent exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, and then went over to New York, which is fantastic. The V&A hosted a sell-out exhibition on the late and fascinating David Bowie. I’d love to see a major collection from a band like The Cure secured for the future, celebrated in exhibitions and be used for learning and inspiration.

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

I couldn’t possibly say. Though it would probably be something like ‘why don’t archivists collect this….’ When in fact, there is probably an archive or museum for most areas of culture and interest. Some are better represented or more accessible than others, and that’s where my role comes in, to help people to develop rich and diverse archive collections and make them more available.

 Which artist or designer would you most like to meet?

This is of course a tricky question as there are so many. My favourite artist is Kurt Jackson, and I did get to meet him and his family team. We talked art and archives, and how valuable it is to seek advice on artists’ archives and their wider collection. I was in awe!

Keeping with the Cornwall theme, I would have liked to have met Barbara Hepworth, as she was a Yorkshire lass who moved to Cornwall and enjoyed great success with her sculpture. She drew inspiration from the landscape and people around her. We are fortunate to have a rich seam of her correspondence in public and private hands. What I found from this is that she was incredibly generous, in her donations of public art, particularly in St Ives, but also to individuals. At art exhibitions in St Ives, Barbara Hepworth would find out which artists needed a bit of help financially and purchase their work, as a collector, and also to give them a bit of support.

One great tip for people starting out in archives?

Archivists are some of the most dedicated and creative people you will meet. We need to be able to make the best use of often limited resources. You will need to love collections of many kinds. You will need to love boxes, folders and order in a digital and physical sense. You will need to love working with people of many cultures and interests. And that I think is the best thing about it.

The best benefit about ARLIS/UK & Ireland?

I take part in vital networks including Art Libraries Society, Association of Performing Arts Collections, Film Archives UK, and Community Archives and Heritage Group. These are really important networks for sharing ideas, skills and support. They help to sustain very important collections looked after by very dedicated people and help their often limited resources to go further. They also help to identify collections at risk and help collections to find a home, or be better cared for where they are.

The specialist focus of ARLIS helps to bring the right people and skills together to make a real commitment for art library, archive, and wider heritage collections. We can all give a little bit of our time and expertise for a greater impact, and specialist subject networks such as ARLIS help to sustain and support current and future heritage and research collections for everyone’s inspiration and enjoyment.


Alexandra Duncan, London College of Fashion (UAL)