This article first appeared in the Journal of Design History, vol.13, no.2, Summer 2000, pp.151-159. It is reproduced by kind permission of the Oxford University Press and the Design History Society.
The National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC)
Research Fellow, Digital Archiving and the Applied Arts
NEVAC Archivist and Researcher
In 1992 Michael Hughes and Walter Keeler founded the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC), at the University of the West of England, Bristol, (UWE).1 Having long lamented the lack of adequate materials for teaching about the crafts in the twentieth century and realising the need to record craftspeople before their testimonies were lost, Hughes and Keeler set about filming and making sound recordings.
Early on it was recognised that the task of recording all of the crafts was impractical because of the breadth of the subject:
When we first started there was a naïve notion that we'd do all of the crafts and as soon as you start to interview people you realise that just to interview one person, when you have small resources, it takes a long time. What our strategy then must be is to establish prototypes both for how you interview, for how you make the recording, for how you interrogate it and so on. Since we happen to have strong ceramic connections, and since ceramics is quite well developed in terms of the variety of discourses, which intersect in it, [we felt] that ceramics would be a good place to start looking at what was going on.2
In making this decision, at an early stage, NEVAC was able to use ceramics as a prototype to allow others to become involved in the project, and then to expand the prototype to fit other areas of the crafts.
Working with an advisory panel 3 the aims of the archive were set out as follows:
To gather materials which would act as a resource for those researching the nature of the crafts…These materials would characteristically be in the form of video or sound recordings of people intimately associated with the development of the crafts in Britain in the twentieth century…[and] to develop means of access and dissemination and to develop methodologies for the fruitful interrogation of the texts.4
Initial funding for the NEVAC project came from the Crafts Council and was given on the understanding that the craftspeople to be filmed were of the older generation, in order that their stories were not lost. The archive is now funded by UWE and NEVAC has come under the umbrella of the Digital Media Laboratory at the University's Faculty of Art, Media and Design. With more secure funding, the archive has begun to film a wider range of craftspeople, with no particular emphasis on the age of the interviewee.
NEVAC currently contains interviews with more than 40 craftspeople. These are made up of 60 hours of video recordings and 110 hours of sound recordings, (see appendix for full list of NEVAC holdings). Initially, both film and sound recordings were made on analogue tape and a rudimentary cataloguing system was used. In the early years of the archive Hughes and Keeler undertook NEVAC duties during their own time. It was only when the archive came under the auspices of the Digital Media Laboratory in 1998 that NEVAC was able to become more fully established and formalised. Matthew Partington was taken on as Research Fellow in Digital Archiving and the Applied Arts, thus becoming NEVAC's first full-time member of staff. A new Masters Degree, Ceramics: Making and Archiving, was developed by Hughes to enable ceramics students not only to make pots but to film and interview people working in the ceramics field and to pass on the expertise NEVAC had established.
Interviews with important figures in ceramics such as Michael Casson, Kenneth Clark, Marianne de Trey, Ray Finch, Anita Hoy, David Leach, William Newland and Colin Pearson have become an invaluable source of material for researchers and UWE's students.5 As is the case with the majority of craftspeople, few have ever been formally interviewed, particularly not on film. As a result, researchers have only had written evidence to consult. The decision to film people rather than simply to make sound recordings was based on the tactile and visual nature of the crafts. 'We are interested in people's environments, the rooms in which they lived, the sort of shoes they've got on their feet, the pictures on their walls and so on and all of that can of course be done beautifully with the video camera'.6 Film, as the favoured medium for the archive, was also deemed the most relevant to our technological age and therefore to our end users.
The post of Research Fellow in Digital Archiving and the Applied Arts is a joint research fellowship with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hughes has organised several exhibitions at the V&A of work by UWE ceramic students and has worked closely with Paul Greenhalgh, Head of Research at the V&A. As a former member of staff at Cardiff College of Art, 7 Greenhalgh has a particular interest in contemporary crafts and the new post was seen as an excellent way to encourage further research in this area. One of the most important results of the relationship has been the beginnings of a project where significant figures in contemporary crafts are filmed at the V&A, being interviewed talking about a range of items they have chosen from the museum's collections.8 The first of these was the potter Colin Pearson, and it is intended that future participants will talk about several of the objects that Pearson selected. These recordings will become part of NEVAC but copyright will be held jointly with the V&A, with the intention that they will be used in future museum displays.
Running alongside the V&A partnership is the NEVAC Consortium. This is a group of institutions that include the V&A, The University of Wales at Aberystwyth, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Westminster, (formally Harrow School of Art). Hughes describes the aims of the consortium as follows:
From the beginning we wanted an archive, which would be not only a repository of testimony, but a site for debate about the crafts. We didn't want simply to accumulate a store of materials, which no one used. We needed to invent some sort of arena in which the testimony could be displayed, interrogated and debated. We knew that the task was enormous and that our best strategy was to encourage other individuals and institutions to take ownership in the project with us.9
The aim was and is, to co-ordinate and stimulate 'the gathering and processing of craft historical materials'.10 Members of the consortium have organised recordings and seminars and a particularly close relationship has been built up with the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, which has a ceramic archive that includes sound recordings of craftspeople.11 The consortium will play a major role in making the archive more widely accessible, as the electronic databasing stage of the archive project comes to fruition, (see below).
Unlike most archives, NEVAC produces the vast majority of the material it holds. Whilst keeping small amounts of material recorded by others, over 95% of the archive was generated directly by NEVAC. As part of a research department, NEVAC exists not only to collect but also to encourage debate about the archive and by extension, the crafts in general. The methodologies of the archive are largely a result of the fusion of Hughes' classical background, (he was involved in the Cambridge Classics schools project in the seventies), with his desire to encourage debate around the crafts.
We started without any particular theoretical position except that with my background as an historian I was quite clear that one had to be careful about the contamination of the sources and also to be very careful that one didn't set up an archive which collected materials to illustrate a pre-conceived notion of the history of the crafts. That somehow the history of the crafts had to be drawn from the testimonies given to us, rather than imposed upon it.12
A way of filming was developed which offers conventional frameworks in which the interviewee can 'produce themselves'.13 For example the subject is asked to talk about a family photograph album, which would mean that with a minimum of structuring from the interviewer, the interviewee could structure their testimony. The concern was to avoid a narrow notion of the crafts in which people only talked about techniques. 'We were very concerned to get to know who the people were, and their backgrounds, where they came from, all of those things that fed in to them and made them the sort of people they were. In fact, what sort of people came in to the world of the crafts and by producing themselves produced that world'.14
The interviewers for the recordings have so far been drawn from a small pool of people with an intimate knowledge of the crafts. These have included the critic and writer Tanya Harrod, Anna Hale from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, Michael Hughes, Walter Keeler and Professor David Hamilton from the Royal College of Art. All of these people come from the sphere of contemporary crafts, or ceramics in particular. We have found that the interviewees are more comfortable talking to someone with knowledge of their area, rather than someone without any real understanding of their work.
An important aspect of NEVAC's original vision was its 'electronic' approach. Although electronic/digital means of archiving were in their infancy, NEVAC embraced new technologies associated with the recording, storage and dissemination of any material it collected. The videos were all recorded on very high quality film but in several different formats, which made viewing of the recordings dependent on the availability of specialised video players. Early sound recordings were made on professional standard tape recorders and by 1997 all sound recordings were made on mini-disc. By mid-1998 NEVAC was in a position to begin to digitise the archive, beginning with the video recordings.15 The recordings were all digitised, left unedited and copied on to CD-ROM.16 The production of CD-ROM copies of the video archive meant that it immediately became more accessible as every recording, regardless of its original format, could be watched on any standard personal computer or Apple Macintosh.17
The digital format brought with it the ability to endlessly stop, start, pause and move around the recordings, without having to use and potentially damage the original tape. It also meant that for the first time the recordings could be accurately catalogued and entered in to a database catalogue. The modest size of the archive has meant that the digitising project has been achievable within a relatively short time. A selection of the CD-ROM's has now been published in order to raise awareness of NEVAC's work and to begin to meet our target of making the archive truly accessible.18
Stage two of NEVAC's digitising project is the setting up of a database in order to make the archive instantly accessible. NEVAC is supported by the American database company Informix, who are particularly known for their 'object relational database', which can hold virtually any type of data, including complex multimedia objects such as video and sound.19 Before we can begin to describe the videos in terms of keywords and other meta-data, we have to place the digitised video files on to a web-based database system called Mediabase. This system allows the files to be streamed using high-speed networks: therefore the video can be viewed as it is being streamed instead of waiting for it to download. The Informix database will make our digitised recordings instantly accessible via keyword and transcript searches. At present this means that on the University's Intranet, (an internal Internet), the videos can be seen at very high quality.
Once all the videos are on the system they can be split into coherent units that will allow searches on keywords and from the transcript. This will be the most labour intensive part of the project as we devise a system to allow the material to be interrogated in every conceivable way. Once all the sound and video material is entered in to the system, it is split up in to coherent units or 'objects'. An object is any segment of the stream of material that makes self-contained and satisfying sense. These are marked with a time-code to make them immediately recoverable and can be of any length from that of a full interview, down to a few seconds showing a significant gesture. Users of the database will then be able to search the entire archive based on keyword and transcript searches, which will link words to an 'object', whether it is a few seconds, several minutes or an entire recording session.
The third stage of the project is to make the database accessible on the World Wide Web. This stage will be reached once the prototype of the NEVAC database is up and running at UWE. It is hoped that wider access is also accompanied by wider contribution to the archive from beyond the present organic growth achieved by NEVAC. The databasing project is a prototype for other larger multimedia archives. It is hoped that the work done at UWE will pave the way for others to work on this exciting new approach to archiving, either by joining the NEVAC consortium or by taking advantage of the outcomes of our work in building similar archives in other areas of interest.
At present, users of NEVAC, and most other archives, have to make an appointment and be supervised as they go through the material that is currently available. With the digitising of the archive, more items are becoming accessible to users, and as the project takes off, users will be able to access the archive from anywhere in the world from the comfort of their computer terminals.
1 The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The work was part of the National Creative Technologies Initiative, at the University of the West of England, Bristol.Users of the archive have so far been students at UWE, both under and post-graduate, as well as post-graduate students from other Higher Education institutions.
17 The minimum specification for playing the CD-ROMs:
Pentium I - 200MHz MMX (preferably Pentium II)
Sound blaster compatible sound card
Speakers CD-ROM (24x speed), if Pentium II, a 12x speed is sufficient
A monitor, (15" plus)
Windows 95/98 or Windows NT
Macintosh 8500, 8600 or G3