Royal Society of Arts


Eve Watson - Head of Archive

Founded in 1754 by William Shipley, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, more commonly known as the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) is a society committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges. Notable past fellows include Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Hawking, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Nelson Mandela, David Attenborough, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, and Tim Berners-Lee.

Eve Watson is Head of Archive at RSA and talks with us about the challenges that come with managing a hosted archive. She talks about her hopes for the archive's future and the importance of digitisation in future proofing the collection. She also talks about some of the gems from the collection including letters from a forgetful Karl Marx and a country postmistress with a heartfelt fondness for silkworms.

Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

hello and welcome to the Max Communications 2020 Podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is Faith Williams and I'm joined today by Eve Watson head of archives at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce otherwise known as RSA he would you like to introduce yourself and how you came to be where you are today yes well I actually joined the society as a relief archivist on a two-month contract that was almost nine years ago and I've been there ever since and it's a fantastic archive and it's it's a really good organization to work for I'm a professional archivist and I've been in excess of 20 years so how'd you spend an average day in your current role right an average day my current role is it usually starts with checking the emails and because we do get a lot of requests from international researchers academics students requests from staff and so the first thing we do is we check what areas we're going to have to source information I split it between my systems myself and that's that's the first task so what type of video do you deal with in the archive both in terms of physical format and and its content well to begin with the material in the archive is it's very very diverse you name it we've probably got it it covers this from a society's founding founded by William Chappell II in 1754 and it goes right up to the present day so it's it's all the usual suspects we have have an early library collection of about 600 books which was originally about 6,000 and they cover aspects that the society was interested in and over about a hundred year period we have minutes from the first meeting onwards to present-day we have what we call our transactions and we have huge amount of letters which cover all sorts of subjects when we started when you typically set up a thing called the premium award scheme which covered six categories now P people always associate us with art it's in our title but actually the six categories were much more wide-ranging than that they did cover art we called polite arts we call it polite art still although it covered Fine Arts from the decorative arts but it covers other subjects such as agriculture and chemistry colonies and trade my new factors and mechanics so the materials that we have for the first hundred years is very broad it's very rich and it's it's really fascinating part of the archive so that's kind of sort of how they viewed sort of art in the Renaissance where it's interconnected with other spheres of learning it's not just specifically painting or anything like yes yes the polite art section was quite specific William Shipley who was a an art master and a drawing master he felt that we were lagging behind the continent you know our standards of drawing and painting so he literally decided that the awards that were going to be given in the polite arts would be given to young people so we had categories between fourteen and eighteen eighteen and this was to encourage an improvement in actual drawing and painting but he also offered Awards on rewards to particularly young ladies who came from well-to-do or title families and this was not that you know okay a lot of people a lot of women at that time did color painting and drawings but this was not to increase their level of skill it was actually to produce patrons of the Arts that's really cool helping them yeah and that was written I thinking in the first the first of the documents that were produced by the society oh wow so who kind of accesses your archives nowadays then well it's a mixture of international academics writers television production companies and of course students we provide a lot of material for students and dissertations people who doing their students doing a PhD etc and of course we provide material to staff when staff lets out on doing or working on a project we look for precedence within the archive and see if any of them are a useful starting point for the research that the interns and etc or involved then and cross referencing and stuff like that so obviously PhDs you have you kind of look at a new proposal are you involved to that kind of thing so you can kind of make her great students good career like what they want to you can tell them know it's been done before well we can advise we don't get involved a main involvement I would say is finding material that fits with the subject matter that they're writing a dissertation on we can give advice but we really don't get involved with what students we have a good idea what students looking for but we're not going to sort of say and all I think you should do it this way yeah yeah what's the world's kind of interesting things you've been asked for that's a difficult one because we get asked so many different across so many different topics as I explained the amount of categories that we have within the archive it can be anything from why did somebody come to London at a particular date did they visit the RSA and where they actually in London on that date because somebody wanted to know if the most internationally renowned person on making designing the crayons that we use at the time the Pascal crayons and gentleman came over from Switzerland I believe and someone was producing a piece on him but there was a gap was a gap in his diary they didn't know what he was doing they felt he could have been in London and we did the background research we actually found in our minutes that he actually came to the house we have a huge write-up on it and he actually tested a British version of the pastels and agreed that they were of equal standards to the Swiss pastels so we were able to fill in a hole that had been sitting there for almost 200 years what a coup are there any particular challenges you would say with managing this archive we're a hosted archive and that invariably can raising issues fortunately the archive is is in a very good position within the organization and we when I first arrived there was a feeling that we were going to end up being siloed that fortunately has not happened and we are a valuable part of the society we do work with the staff we work with our fellows and we have in excess of 3,000 30,000 fellows and so I think that was the one thing that concerned me most when I arrived the other thing is the archives are very much under resourced there's only myself and not having assistant archivist who's a newly qualified artist but I've only had her this year so we've been running the archive really myself is alone art and a lot of our kinds of situation it is quite difficult because obviously you can't undertake the size of projects and the amount of work we would like to can you explain what a hosted archive means for you rather than otherwise well we are part of an organization and we are only here because the organization is prepared to have their history ordered and so have their information available and available to the general public so we are part of we are within an organization if the organization decided we don't need the archives they'd be perfectly within their rights to say give it out to another institution to look after so that's exactly what it means are you based in London itself then yes yes although as you can see I'm working from home in fact the house reopened this morning for the first time in 15 weeks and the staff are on a structured get in and get out so we don't have too many people in the house and getting time home how big is your collection how much space does it take in and in the site you are we have one large strong room it holds a collection of oil paintings and prints on rolling racks and we then have quite a large amount of shelving static shelving and then we have a smaller strong room that holds rolling racks which means we can get a lot more material into a small space so and then of course we have the archive office so we actually have quite a sizeable chunk yeah and we're not in the basement what are your hopes for the future of the archive Anne well my hopes are I can future-proof future-proof the are carly's and we're very much and I have been very much since I've been at the archives and working with digital because everything it's creator gets to a certain point where is integrates become a non-viable item to be handled so what we need to do is we need to make sure that we have visual representations of everything and that we we're I mean we have tens of thousands of letters per million and we need to make sure that we have a scan of the original so that people can see signatures and they can see the the way the letter was laid out but also we're working with this hopefully next year they're going to start a major project where we're hoping that we can transcribe the lecturers transcribe our minutes which are obviously again handwritten and basically extract the information and we're putting out and our digital images into a digital repository in the hopes that that will be these are our presentation masters the hope is that this will preserve the digital versions and that means that we don't have to in fact handle the physical quite as much as we have they are you still adding to the archive then we add materials an archive is a collection of material relating to the the day to day business etc of an organization the organization is still very very active although different ways to when you start with and the aim is that we take the material in really as a record management material but we reappraise and then materials that we do want to keep you heard of charity we will then put into the digital repository because the majority of material I'm receiving currently is surrogates so your archive even though people might think of you as worse arts incorrectly and but you don't actually kind of have you know walls walls of paintings and stuff like that it's all kind of smaller information filled items we do have paintings in fact we the great room includes a series painted through his paintings almost a mural by James Barrie and which goes around the whole of the room we also have paintings that we have commissioned over the years we have a 18 of the Queen which is on show but then we have material that we obviously it's much more archival we have paintings that at various times we commissioned by our various presidents and secretaries etc so we have we do have quite a few paintings we also have obviously all the artwork from the polite arts from premium award scheme and we've had I'd say that 90% of that scanned and that's all going to go into our new catalog which were what in your opinion in the most interesting item you have what what takes your fancy that's a really difficult one because it kind of depends it can't depends on what we're working on is any different time um we have some amazing original material from the founding of the Society which which is really very interesting we have some very interesting letters about the most requested letter is a letter that Karl Marx who was a fellow sent to the society asking what time the library opened and it's amazing how many people even though the actual content is so thin how many people want to see that letter yeah it was from him and then we had we have a vast amount of material it's come from what we call public and when we initially set up a society his first one of his first documents wrote was called to the public is okay and we always had material in the archives it doesn't come from the high in the mighty and it doesn't come from anybody with a title it just comes from people hmm aligned with our resource and wanted to be part of what we were doing and in the competition we had all sorts of amazing projects going on in fact one of the nicest set of letters which I always like to bring out when people come in is a set of letters from a lady who lived in the country and she was on the postmistress and we had asked for people to cultivate silkworms so that we could make her a milk and she wrote these wonderful letters and she called the silkworms her babies and she used to put them in trance for the fire at night and you just read the letters and it just takes you to a different world it's wonderful that phones they kind of call it slightly insane and how does your arguing fit in terms of the organization obviously you're still giving out awards and things like that do you support other teams with that we do we support the student design team and we held on to material the student design awards the name it has at the moment but it's been under various names since nineteen and basically these are design awards in lots of different categories so we may ask for something in textile design or ceramics and so we are the keepers of that material and we do get involved to a mighty small degree and with the actual deciding who's going to get the awards and the other medals obviously they're organized with the organization but we do hold them and hung copies of them so that we can have conversations come in about the awards that you do give out we have quite a large collection and you mentioned that you've got projects for transcription and you want to do more digitization but do you have any other projects going on maybe in terms of them of accessibility or putting on exhibitions or lending things I usually the tool goes out on request by another organization we quite often then material to people at DNA and we've recently had material at the Bauhaus exhibition in not here we at the moment we're not initiating any major exhibitions and we have a lot going on in the house and it it doesn't quite it wouldn't quite fit with with the unseen but we do work we produce videos and visual material that I can take out if I go out to do a talk somewhere or somebody else is doing a talk another house they can have it or we can send it out to somebody so it tends to be much more something that is digital you are being who says it's based on comic garden is that right we're just off the strand okay Street and you've just had a refurbishment is that correct one of many do you get involved in much you have papers oh I mean III heard all the all the records of the various changes to the property since we since we actually moved in we moved into the house in 1774 and we have paperwork prior to that we have the original atom brother Adam brothers plans I'd have to say that we hadn't brother brothers plans and in the archive and obviously we have lots of documents relating to how we've expanded from the original building that they built for us into the next property and then into next property etc so we know have the whole of the end of the block that's a wise now oh wow so you've put in a big big community so art artistic style cafe that's supposed to be very fancy so it's not a direct and so we say and time you know keeping a period over how the house is built or anything like that you have modernized and things like that oh we have more nice yes you will find a series of facsimile prints from the archive actually in the coffee shop and because one of the rooms was originally one of these strong ones we've we've moved across the corridor yes still find and rrdi is our role designers for industry which was a faculty in society and i hold early material of them and they have a space at the far end of the house which is quite a nice space and they can arrange exhibitions their work and it's basically known as the RDI space I mean everyone can use it interesting should come and have a look when it we open like well when it reopens yeah and so you got you can normally anyway you can visit the archive on site and but is there anywhere else you would point people in terms of website or if you've got an Instagram account or anything like that you want to showcase well we're in the process of a major rebranding which is going to probably I would imagine by the fall we should be out the other side of it so at the moment we're running with materials that we've had for the last few years and we have a website obviously and quite an active RSA website we have a space on there which is pages archived and from there there's a link through to the current catalog but they were living through okay yeah and we have you know the RSA has Facebook and Instagram accounts which we can add material to you know thank you for agreeing to watch me today Eve a very interesting to hear how much you have on site I mean it must be a shock a block with interesting items oh yes that's the problem Wow you say it's a problem for somewhere it didn't have its any other way thank you very much