Fortnum & Mason


Rachel Howse Binnington - Deputy Archivist

Fortnum & Mason is a business that actively thrives on its heritage. Rachel Howse Binnington, Deputy Archivist with the company talks to Max about the central role played by the archive supporting aspects of the business ranging from logistics and warehousing to ensuring historical accuracy in any building renovations. She discusses the hurdles that have been overcome in digitising the archive, the role digital preservation has played and her hopes for the future.



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hello and welcome to the max communications podcast where we are celebrating world digital preservation day held on the first Thursday of every November this year it falls on the 5th of November my name is Faith Williams and i'm joined today by Rachel howes binnington deputy archivist for fortnight mason hi Rachel would you like to introduce yourself and talk about what you do at Fortnum mesa hi faith um so my name is Rachel house binnington and i am deputy archivist i work alongside dr Andrea Tanner who's been the archivist and heritage um elections manager at Fortnum's for 25 years and she's officially been imposed as company archivist for 11 years and the company has been in business since 1707. the archives there was an archive survey done in the mid-80s which i think is the first point at which the business was like oh corporate memory we need to get a handle on that um which is not unusual i think in companies that are that that haven't had a chance to pause and really take stock and evaluate their histories um and from that that then led to dr tanner coming on as a volunteer on saturdays and then led to her coming on as a full-time member of staff and then a year and a half ago she got me it's very exciting very exciting for me because i had worked at fortnum's um 10 years prior in the customer experience um customer relations team and had really loved the brand really loved the business and loved the fact that it was a business that actively uses and thrives on its heritage so why do you believe that digital preservation is important for the fortnum collection for the fortnum's collection because a lot of the material that we have in our business archives is heavily used for research product development enhancing the customer experience and in protecting our heritage and our brand identity we couldn't do the level of outreach and customer support that we do without a digital preservation strategy and without digitizing we just couldn't do it um we don't have enough people and we don't have enough original material that we could share around the business and having it digitized and having those images available in a central place we're slowly building up a heritage catalog and a digital asset management system separate but linked um sorry i don't know why i'm using my hands nobody on the recording can see that um that will that allows us to reach out to all facets of the business that come to us for information and come to us for research so that's logistics that's warehousing and packaging that's design marketing hospitality retail the gamut of what happens in the business use the archive services and use the collection so i should say something about our facilities and historic building preservation because that falls within our remote we work alongside our facilities management team to manage the physical structure of the building so brick work cornicing paint um woodwork all of that has to be historically accurate and we have to make sure that we're completely on point because it's enlisted building and we're responsible for for managing that aspect of its history so in terms of your strategy it sounds like a lot of the usage will be internal does that guide how you you target material what you prioritize yes it does um we have a strategy that we project out 18 months so when i came on board i did an overview and i wrote a three to five year strategy with an 18-month immediate projectile projection of what we would be doing and that immediately got usurped because it is also driven by business need so i've just fast-tracked um having all of our menus from our restaurants digitized which was we knew was coming but we thought we would have a year and a half or so to do it but covet has completely changed the structure obviously none of our restaurants are open right but we're doing takeaway food and we've recently teamed up with a delivery service so you can if you're in central london i think it's out to zone two you can order through supper and have fortnums delivered to your doorstep you can either have the meals cooked or you can have them hot you know pre-prepared for you to cook and finish at home and we needed to be able to look at what we've done before to just increase our offering and come up with new and inventive and yet i don't want to say nostalgic but something that makes you feel like it's reminiscent of the experience that you'd have at fort month so having those menus done now mean that my executive chef who is going to be on site at fordham's can go through the menus and be like you know what this is what we were doing in the 20s this is what we were doing in the 30s we're doing sandwiches again you know for people to take away what kind of sandwiches how what is the twist that we can do what was woolstein recommending that we would do when he would do his live cooking demonstrations but it also means that people in the marketing team can sit at home and work remotely and engage with the menus in terms of a design element in terms of wording we're very particular about our brand message and the fortnum style um and so the menus are a clear indication of what that style should be because it they're they're they are representative of our love and our passion for food and celebration if that makes sense yeah so covert has had but it was not expected i should say that we had to fast for a huge impact on your strategy then it did it did and it happened very quickly so and it only happened as fluidly as it did because i had an intern who started in september and we were able to put her immediately onto the menus because at the same time we were doing a digital preservation of our shop windows and our visual visual merchandising so both of and the visual merchandising and the the shop windows were also business driven and we needed to have it done because we were using photographs we were digitizing photographs from a third-party design team who work with us as well as our own so we have material that we needed to get back to them and yet it also had a timely it was also time sensitive and you didn't want to have to choose between the two but what that has meant is that for the next six months i don't have a digitization budget because i've burned through nine months worth of digitization unexpectedly but in a weird way it works out with kovid because i wouldn't be able to get into my collection anyway to pull the material or i'd be doing it at home and that would be so labor intensive that it would be nine months before i even got it finished you know because we're talking about hundreds if not thousands of menus what would you say are the biggest challenges you've come across with your digitization i would say format a lot of our material is wonky in size age and condition um which is part of why we outsource a lot of the digitization because your equipment is just better than ours and you're able to capture it at a higher dpi um and time i work two days a week my boss works four days a week you know we are stretched and and i say that we work those hours but we work more than that and we are stretched very thin on the ground in a positive sense i mean it's great that we have the demand that we do for what we do um but it takes energy to run a digitization program because it's not like you're just going out and scanning this stuff you then you then have to manage it after you've created it and you have to make sure that people can get access to it and that they know where to look to get access to it that the channels that they're looking at are actually up and running for two months we couldn't get we had issues getting um into one of our sites to actually view our images that was just this kind of perfect storm of the laptop that had most of the the vpn access was being sent out for repair dell didn't repair the laptop they sent it back unrepaired but didn't put a ticket in saying that they had you know i mean it was just kind of one of those perfect storms why didn't we know this wasn't working but because nobody was able to go into their actual hard they're actually hardwired machines i mean i t we're running we're trying to troubleshoot what was going on but even they were confused and it was really just down to this one laptop that isn't the case anymore now have diversified and we've broadened that out but i'm also the only person well along with tim schofield who works with you guys i'm the only person who processes the images at the moment internally so if i've got a backlog of other work like research that i'm doing for marketing that takes precedence over processing the images so it's a balancing act and i would love to be able to dedicate more time to it i'm hoping over the next few weeks that we'll have more images online and available for people to peruse internally we don't tend just because of business confidentiality to share the business archives with anyone who hasn't been granted access but we will occasionally reproduce material from the archives for customers or we will use direct images in marketing campaigns and we have created bespoke product that we've sold in store based off of bowdoin images or that kind of thing at the moment we've got some really lovely christmas ornaments that are based off of bowdoin drawings nice um so there's a lot of tie-in between what we have in the collection and how that gets used for business continuity and for business development and that's why we digitize because if we didn't especially now we'd be stuffed because we couldn't even get into where we are to show people what we have that they can use what kind of feedback do you get on on your projects with what we've digitized to date everyone loves it because they can come in and they can they can come online and they can see exactly what they need to see and they don't have to wait for it i think that's the big thing is that what we've noticed is that there just isn't patience and business turn around anymore and we want to be able to meet that expectation um there's always going to be an element of well it's it hasn't been scanned yet because that's just the way archives work like i i'm always going to have a backlog there the day that i don't i'm wandering around like toby and west wing going i don't have anything to do is the day that it's time to find a new collection because clearly i've missed something um but we started with the things that we're getting the most heavy physical business use and are working our way back through the collection so for us it was our christmas catalogs then the rest of our our business catalogs um our commentaries which are really lovely thing that were sent out in the 20s and 30s that just kind of talk about what we're offering in store um and we're the first example of junk mail portnums is the reason that you get circulars through your door we figured out that if you didn't seal the envelope you got chargeless postage and we need to have a use of that we we could be the blessing and the curse whenever you open up your mail what else have we done we have some original orders um like for shackleton's exhibition and we've got king edward's return of merchandise when he abdicated oh gosh yes yeah yeah because he sent back a whole bunch of stuff um and we've had those digitized because we use them and we've had surrogates reproduce because we use them in talks like if we're having a dinner and a specific kind of as part of a tour experience you want people to be able to look at the surrogates and give a sense of of the the actual documents themselves and you can see that through a screen but if you're in the room you want to have a physical it just the physical surrogate i think is a nice touch um we are moving on to some of our smaller pieces of art and artwork that designers have done for us over the years again that's not going to happen until i think second or third quarter of 2021 um in part because we live through our budget unexpectedly but necessarily just yesterday we got the bill for the menus and we were like oh yeah they were they were big those were a big ticket item we we knew that they were going to be big we just did and we didn't realize that we'd have so many and when you're looking at the menus they could be from the same month but things change by what's available so you have to look at the date at the bottom of the menu to make sure that there isn't a difference and it is the small thing like it will just be one change on a menu that's been printed but that impacts remarkably on what we were offering and we wanted to capture that so we we have done that and what that did do also is it pared down in the physical stock of what we had in the archives and gave me surrogates that i could take back into the business and say okay look i had 15 of these different menus you guys can have 13 of them i've kept one in a spare and those are in the archives and they've been digitized i'm quite happy for you guys to cut up taste spill whatever you want on those go forth and go forth and trash them they're not they're not precious in that sense and then we have things that customers have sent us over the years and we digitize letters and um receipts and we buy we'll buy in material um because we have a lot less in the collection than you think that we would um dr tanner probably spoke to the material that was destroyed in the second world war and then we had a theft out of the back of a fortnum's ban in the in the late 50s that kind of decimated things like ledgers we are working on our shareholders minutes and our directors minutes but again those wouldn't be available to the public anyway um but for us from a business history standpoint it they are invaluable because the detail of what we're carrying and what we're looking at carrying in our relationships with suppliers those are important they're important not only for our history but they're important to dictate how we should be treating our suppliers today we have a certain reputation to uphold and we want to make sure that we're doing that the only way that we can do that is to look at our elders yes so you your strategy is to digitize the past keep your collection your archive collection focused but still have a wealth of material to draw upon yes yes and so we then also look i mean we do have contemporary material in the collection um that we don't have available as born digital for whatever reason we didn't get it back from suppliers we didn't get it back from the creators or it just got deleted from the server and all we have is the physical and we digitize those as well and that's the heritage perspective the digital asset management that is really looking at our board digital files that are getting produced and trying to figure out where the intersect between what needs to come into heritage and what needs to stay within the business and developing those retention schedules which is going to be a very slow process it was identified as a business need when i was there in 2010 it has been repeatedly done you know um identified as a business need and it and it is it is accepted that it's pressing it's just finding the time the staff and the resources to do it because we run we try to run a pretty you know lean and mean ship and that means that you don't always have time to stop and do the things that in terms of your heritage archive i know some of it will be kept back for your own purposes and to maintain your brand but how much of it is available for just the general general public um it's on a case-by-case basis so if you write to us and you tell or you contact us and you tell us what you want to use it for and what you're looking for odds are we're going to let you we're going to let you have a look at it like we're not we're precious about it but we're not secretive about it we don't have a viewing room at the moment like the collection isn't dark but it's not on site at piccadilly at the moment and it isn't as open as either andrea or i would like it to be in that sense i think from a visitor's perspective it would always be there would be key things that we would we would display for tours if you had a specific research need and that was supported by the business and you had gotten clearance from our board or from the fd then we would happily have business research use of the archives um we had some very interesting discussions the resurgence of um justified concern around black lives matter and um the colonial legacy and relationship of fortnums with the empire because let's face it there's a relationship and we we've you know we've taken we're in the process of taking a lot of care about researching that and looking into it and also recognizing that at some point we will have to bring in external researchers to help us examine that because we're not neces we're in some respects we're too close to it to really see and we're protective of it right like it's our baby so we want it we want to acknowledge that there are awkward moments and that there are things that even within the context of history probably weren't done well that we were part of but we also want to protect our baby yeah it's that really awkward painful dichotomy i think when you're looking after heritage collections and you know that there's there's something uncomfortable you can't turn away from it you have to acknowledge that it's there and then it's part of part of the story but how do you do that and how do you do it in a way that's that's respectful of the questions that are being asked now but also cognizant that times were different yeah i'm saying i'm not saying times were right they were different yeah it's interesting that that filter or that kaleidoscope that emerges that has to be examined you know and i'm not necessarily the right person to be interrogating the material in that way it is as i come with my own yes it's been obviously it's been um an eventful year but there's been a lot of looking backwards and looking forwards at the same time and kind of what cues you want to take from history what you want to learn and what you want to carry forward into society have you noticed a kind of um renewed interest in archives this year particularly not from that standpoint or from the standpoint of looking i mean we as a business immediately realized that we needed to take us to take a pause and take a moment to really look through who we were and who we are um but we hadn't really seen and we haven't really seen that much of a questioning about that from from our customer base um and i don't i don't know where it is being driven or why that it that hasn't been more of a thing um i think it will become even as as a just kind of ad hoc general oh i wonder what their relationship with empire was in x i wonder how closely they were involved with the east india company i wonder you know it'll be a casual thing we have a journal that um the archives contributes heavily to images and content and i think those are the that's the arena that those questions will start to come out of and i think they'll come back into the collection and that's when we'll we'll interrogate a bit more and we'll look a bit more closely and we'll be able to pull from the material that we've already digitized and also look at where we can go forward i've got a lot of audio and a lot of av stuff that i need to have digitized i just don't have the budget or the capacity to save it like i don't have this i don't have server space really for it and because we don't know what's on the content right like i'm talking about vhs's and betamax from the 70s i don't know what's on them so i we're saying that we need to save them but until somebody's reviewed do we really right now they're just sitting i don't even know half some of this stuff i look at it and i think could we even open it like could we even get it does that does that vhs actually work i think that might be an american vhs do we have we have a a vhs player that will do both i mean we have tim emlin smith over at the stock room so he can sort that out for us but you know it's just kind of funny the stuff that you inherit that you think i know we're saying we need to save this but do we really because my best friend is very often the ben well part of your future uh preservation strategy is prioritizing your collections and they go hand in hand with just basic collections yeah yeah basic collection management and also what you have capacity for and what you know is going to get used there is this there is this sense of if somebody hasn't asked for x in 25 years what is the likelihood that they ever will and if they never knew it existed does it matter if they come and ask for it and you don't have it you think well that gives you a certain amount of freedom but then you also need to be able to cover your cover your bases for when that eventuality or something to be removed right sometimes the solution to that is to digitize it and then and then put it in your collection because you have a copy of it but it's not taking out physical space absolutely but but this is where i'm gonna say you know we also have to remember that virtual space takes up space and it isn't just just because you're scanning something and it's going off into the ether even the ether takes up space right there's still responsibility and care that has to be taken of that virtual space and you still have to make sure that you have the capacity to open the material that you've digitized that you can still get access to it you have to have a business continuity plan for what happens if your service provider goes out of business or the relationship deteriorates or you decide to move providers all of those things have to be factored in and it creates almost a carbon of what you've got with your physical collections management right except that you don't actually have the luxury of being able to go into the warehouse and being like okay well when i break up with you i'm taking all of these boxes and i'm moving them into a van now it's i'm going to take all these virtual hard drives this virtual server that you've put on amazon glacier and i'm going to move it over here to another part of amazon glacier because they seem to be everything yeah if it's not amazon it's iron mountain and you're like i think secretly you're all owned by the same people and we just don't realize it there's three it's like kitchen companies right everybody's got every there's like 45 different kitchen providers but when you start researching back they're all made in two factories all of the kitchen components they're all made in the same places but you still have to manage that and it still requires you know legal provision cost um metadata you know the same kind of cataloging preview that you have to take with your physical collection you have to take with your digital collection and then you have you have the extra layer of having to tie them to the physical item if you still have it or the rights issues if you or removal issues if you've chosen to to cast aside the physical you know i don't want people to just look at digitization and think oh well if i'm digitizing it and i'm getting rid of the original then i'm done because it's you're just creating another orphan and you're in i think with digital stuff that isn't looked after property properly you're in even more danger of it being forgotten because they can't see the physical item that's a good point you know it's it's just one of those things that i i do worry about and you know we can talk all day long about digitization and how essential it is and i do believe it is essential i think it's inevitable that it is the way that the sect the heritage sector is going we we see it every day right and we use them every day and access to archives i think during some during an incident like covet has shown us the value of digital preservation right but i still don't know how long it's going to last i know how long the magna carta's lasted so i can benchmark how long it's going to continue to last in its physical state but i can't tell you how long the images are going to last because i don't know what the technology is going to look like in 15 years i mean i was just talking to somebody about this the other day in 2005 i didn't have a facebook account and i wasn't taking pictures with my phone to the degree i wasn't documenting the minutia of my life and then trying to filter out what what goes into my personal archive what goes into my you know what goes into the bin what goes up on my instagram who controls my instagram after i die i wasn't thinking about any of that kind of stuff and with digital preservation that becomes a whole other issue that the business has to think about that that if the art if there isn't an archivist or if the archivist leaves it takes that knowledge with them that the business might not even be aware that it has and that worries me that potential for things to fall through the cracks and then get lost and then you've invested all of this money and you have all of this artifact and product but nobody can get to it because they don't know where it is i worry about that constantly like i said i i wake up in the middle of the night and these are the things that keep me going crap does georgina know who we've got down as our storage providers for for triad who has the master logins oh wait it's okay i sent them to i t i've gotta you know i'm looking through my email nope it's okay yeah and then i think about my email and i'm like i'm still using pst i'm still using pst files and outlook to save my emails well that's not how that should be going but we haven't progressed with that technology microsoft's still using psd files and yet i know so many people who will save attachments of material that's in the archives like we'll send images we have a huge issue at the moment where because we're at this awkward stage between a digital asset management system coming online and just being able to communicate through the business where everybody's using anything and everything they can to get their work done like yeah but we really shouldn't be transferring this and we really shouldn't be loading this up to your private g drive and we really shouldn't be doing x y and zed but at the same time there's a business need you know we're using your out your one look or sorry your um your one drive on on microsoft but you're using a mac at home and it's not compatible and you forgot your work laptop somewhere or your work laptop's not being repaired because dell can't find it you know and you just think work still has to get done so people are really just using anything and everything they can that's not healthy either because we just don't know what kind of surrogates we're going to end up with i'll tell you if i come across one more file named new folder and new folder 2 i'm going to hurt somebody i love it when new file new folder three is empty and it's and it's been there since 2007 i came across one of those the other day like really and you just couldn't delete it yeah or rename it i don't know image you know or steve's steve's photos well steve hasn't worked here since 2018 and there are no photos that in that folder that anybody ever needs to see steve should not have been putting those on his work drive we don't need those in the archive delete but it's just you know you don't think about these things until you're doing your digital preservation strategy and then until you're managing that strategy you know on a tactical level and you're having to make the decisions you don't really think about it yeah until you have to our process is organic in response to the business needs but we do try to make it formal and we do make sure that it's considered not just from the archives perspective like we do run it through the other departments to say all right are we actually capturing in this next 18 months what the business thinks it might need and always understanding that there's going to be another menus project that's going to blow everything out of the water and push everything else back and then it's also managing those relationships so like when the menus project took over i had to push three other projects back and i had to go to those teams and say look i know you guys were really hoping visual merchandising you were really hoping hoping that we'd have product placement from 19 from the 1970s done for you but that's not going to happen we're pushing that back because of the menus and most of the time people understand right because the business needs change and you just have to adapt but it is there's that personal relationship aspect of it too because at the end of the day i'm providing a service the business that the business is dictating and i've got five to seven departments of the business trying to dictate to me what the business needs should be and how do you filter out that noise to focus down and be like actually nobody's looked at that v and stuff from the 1970s is that really a priority and if we have multiples can we not just hand them over you know folders of some of the multiple so that they can get an idea and not worry if we don't get them back because we know we have an error in a spare of the physical until we get them digitized yeah i think it's great how clearly integrated your your both your archives and also your digital preservation um projects are with the entire fortinet mason company that's i don't think we don't have a choice really and truly we really don't and we're incredibly fortunate that because it's the business archives like we can break we've been able to bring stuff home with us like i have a processing section in my house upstairs that my kids aren't allowed into that's under lock and key so that they don't mess anything up my boss has been able to take things home to work on so we're still sorting you know photos and that kind of thing for some of these projects that haven't that are on the back burner but when they're when they're no longer on the back burner then they're ready to go yeah right and that that means that just gives us more flexibility so in a really weird way covent has been great for us because it's allowed us to spend more time with the collections because we're normally split over two locations right so we're either in woolwich or we're in piccadilly we're running back and forth between the two and to be able to actually sit down with the material and the business is a very rare treat even if you're doing it remotely yeah no it's incredible and the way that you've pivoted so quickly to accommodate changing all the changes this year with prioritizing menus and moving things back and things like that i think that's really impressive think that that also comes down to just knowing that you're part of a good team and that if you have open dialogue then it's going to be okay nothing is ever going to be ideal but if you have trust and i think that that goes a lot into your digital preservation strategy too because if you don't trust in the strategy and you don't trust in the process and you don't trust in your vendors and the people that you're working with none of it's going to work none of it's going to work and and everything everything that will crop up and be problematic becomes a problem you know the number of times tim schofield calls me and he says i have a concern about this metadata and i'm like okay well what's the concern and then i'll say well i didn't think about what you were raising but it's not an issue let's just change it because you've explained to me why and it's you know we're just reversing x for y let's do it and he's like i really expected you to need you need to take longer to think this through i'm like i really don't because you know what i trust i trust you and i can see your point and sometimes i'm literally making decisions in a 30-second window because that's all i've got in the course of my day to allocate to that so if you have a really good relationship with your providers they can troubleshoot where you might miss something and i have to be able to trust that you know what you're doing because that's why i hired you if i could do everything perfectly all of the time i'd be dead because i'd be exhausted and i would have died from lack of sleep but that's why i have you guys thank you so much for your insight today rachel it's i've really enjoyed hearing about all the all the challenges you've had and how you've managed to cope so admirably it's been well i hope i hope that that gives you an insight of what it's like to work in our business archives i'm looking forward to hear what other people have to say and how they're doing it better and what i can crib off of their cheat sheets well you know the great thing about the heritage industry is that we are quite collaborative and it's true yeah all the time i do love how we share thank you very much for joining me today rachel okay yeah i really enjoyed it faith it was great and it's great to see you again i haven't seen you in a while yes thank you bye talk to you soon bye