Paolozzi Panam Bag
GMA A40/2/20/23 Pan-Am air sickness bag with Paolozzi sketches and ms on verso. (c1970s). Courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Archive.

The notion of ‘footnoting the archive’ suggests ideas of layered interpretations of the Archive. Archival objects—particularly those held in the collections of artists where the purpose of creating a record centres on capturing instances of creativity—often contain the potential for multiple interpretations, readings and narratives other than their perceived main use. These other interpretations remain muted for much of our interaction with archive collections because of the responsibility of archivists to provide access to primary informational value. ‘Footnoting the archive’ also implies the presence of the ‘footnoter’—the agent approaching the archive with the intention of providing parallel points of access or interpretations to the material. It is through this shift in perspective that alternative explorations of collections can take place, allowing for a deeper, more multifaceted understanding of the archive.

The interpretation of archives and associated records by the individuals designated as their ‘gatekeepers’ has always been an area of interest to me. It is a certainty—as much as the archivist is duty-bound to remain impartial—that biases inevitably creep into any interpretation of records. There will always be particular perspectives within records that are reflected with more prominence in catalogue descriptions, and any attempt to provide access to records in search rooms or through displays will be governed to an extent by the personal preference of the archivist and the needs or perceived interest of the visitors.

Evolving interests in history (such as a surge of interest in a particular past exhibition) can trigger a narrowing of research focus on an archive’s holdings, leading to greater prominence for particular records. This in turn creates more demand to see those over others. As a result, archives become notable for their holdings of particular records, and a ‘greatest-hits’ list emerges. Popular visitor requests feed into the archive staff’s choices of the material most often presented to visiting groups. The material collected around the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in this archive’s holdings is a primary example of this cycle. [1] Thus for every well-thumbed photograph album there will be many left untouched for decades.

Egyptian and possibly Hellenistic Greek artefacts from GMA A35/1/4/08 Peckover
Egyptian and possibly Hellenistic Greek artefacts from GMA A35/1/4/08 Peckover: box marked ‘Peckover Souvenirs’. Courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Archive.

In a similar way, core narratives for documents emerge, and perceived ‘primary informational uses’ calcify around archival objects, resigning other potential readings to the margins. This process on the whole serves its purpose well—documents have to be retained for their primary informational value—but once a record is catalogued in such a designated way we risk diminishing alternative interpretations of such objects, and therefore the availability of alternative uses for them. I am aware of this when working with and providing access to records, but I don’t think these preferential readings can ever be completely avoided. It’s important, as an archivist, to remember that there are muted voices present, and to be open to alternative interpretations and access points when working with collections.

Similar to a footnoted text,the archive is best viewed as a complex system of primary and secondary information: every discrete item (the unique, primary article of information) has a number attached to it which in turn refers to a layer of interpretation or justification for the item’s presence within a collection (the catalogue entry). So much of my role involves providing interpretation from these catalogue descriptions for items in the archive, whether for visiting researchers or standalone displays of material.

As well as using these descriptions created by earlier archivists to facilitate interpretation, the role also requires me to create catalogue entries for new or under-described material based on the context of a collection and any information I can glean from the text itself or documentation that may have arrived with it. The archivist is thus in the trusted position of interpreting the items under their care without bias—so far as is possible. Of course for the purposes of a public archive such as this one the emphasis of description has to be on the evidentiary and informational value inherent in the primary use of a record. However, something I’m interested in is the alternative interpretations that could be made of it. For example, some records are written on repurposed scraps of paper, packaging and other ephemera which all contain other information (previous notes; labels; evidence of earlier, original uses). These tend to be ignored, or, alternatively, recorded but not taken as part of the main context of an item where it doesn’t relate to the context of the subject of primary interest to us.

For instance, it appears to have been common practice amongst many artists—Eduardo Paolozzi comes to mind—to grab whatever was at hand to make a quick sketch or to jot down some notes; this inadvertently ensured that hotel stationary, draft copies of letters or screenplays and even aeroplane vomit bags are preserved for posterity when these materials are transferred to archival care. The ‘wrong sides’ of such items are obvious in the context of the main characters of this archive,and for that we avoid them—but that doesn’t erase the existence of the obscure facts that alternative readings of objects afford us, such as which ‘waste disposal bag’ PANAM were using circa 1970s [2], how Ford were advertising their latest cars around the same time [3],or what food the Consort Restaurant at the Roxburghe Hotel in Edinburgh was serving in 1992. [4]

GMA A39/8/14 Slides/negatives Posters (glass slides by various artists not ASHLEY). Courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Archive.
GMA A39/8/14 Slides/negatives Posters (glass slides by various artists – not ASHLEY). Courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Archive.

Cigar boxes offer another particularly prevalent example of this. They appear to have emerged as a convenient receptacle in which to store glass slides over the last 100 years or so, and many have made their way to this archive and doubtless many others along with their precious contents. Often ornate with beautiful labels, they have been retained (empty and almost returned to their original state save for remaining archive labels) long after the slides were transferred to archive boxes. Have they been kept because they are aesthetically interesting? It’s often easier to default to a position of keeping beautiful yet relatively useless objects. An archivist could be forgiven for discarding them, but in an obscure manner these boxes, along with those used for storing slides littered across collections of artists worldwide, provide us with a history of the artist and the cigar box in the twentieth century. In the archive of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art they tell us about the smoking habits of the graphic designer Ashley Havinden. [5]

Alongside items we can consider to have been inscribed, there are many that remain outwardly unchanged but that have been co-opted by a narrative superseding all former narratives. There are plenty such examples in the archive of Roland Penrose, the notable surrealist collector, artist and chronicler. Within this collection there is a strange cul-de-sac named ‘Peckover souvenirs’: a selection of curiosities retained alongside the primary records of Penrose’s activities because of their status as family heirlooms adopted by him. [6] Objects such as artefacts from Egyptian antiquity [7] and a Victorian ‘hair portrait’ [8] contribute to a picture of him as an eccentric collector with an interest in the esoteric—all building a context for him as a Surrealist collector. These items, in another reading, also tell us about the material output of the 22nd-26th pharaonic dynasties and the obscure techniques used in Victorian arts and crafts, but their context within the Penrose archive necessitates that we largely ignore these narratives, and instead regard the objects as whimsical ephemera of the Surrealism era. After all, this is their most useful context here and they were accessioned on this basis.

Victorian hair portrait, 1856, from GMA A35/1/4/08 Peckover
Victorian ‘hair portrait’, 1856, from GMA A35/1/4/08 Peckover: box marked ‘Peckover Souvenirs’. Courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Archive.

So it is that such other uses and contexts for items remain added value bolt-ons to the survey of the individuals to which they primarily pertain; they’re not advertised, nor explicitly recognised, but they exist. In this way researchers in other fields who could potentially find valuable information from collections may never be connected with them. The existence of, and the potential for, alternative narratives and uses in records interests me greatly, however, in practice, working with these collections as an archivist doesn’t leave me much scope for exploring these other voices without external engagement. Here I see great potential in doing so as part of a wider, more creative, cross-disciplinary dialogue surrounding archives.

This is an area that the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has begun to engage with, recently inviting artist duo Carson and Miller to provide alternative interpretations and access points for the archive and library collections. [9] Perhaps one of the most ambitious examples of this type of engagement was undertaken in 2009 by the New Art Gallery Walsall in collaboration with Bob and Roberta Smith. Over an extended period of 18 months, artist and archive curator collaborated to interpret the archive in new ways—resulting in a significant case study and associated publication offering a ‘how-to’ manual for institutions to engage in such practice whilst maintaining the integrity of their holdings. [10] Such projects underline the importance of external engagement with the archive in opening up the field of interpretation.

Neil Ogg is an archivist and writer based in Edinburgh. The archive at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is publically accessible by appointment, for more details see the Libraries & Archives website.

All images courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Archive.

[1]GMA A35/1/1/RPA719 Surrealism in England, 1930s: International Surrealist Exhibition, London, 1936
[2]GMA A40/2/20/23Pan-Am air sickness bag with Paolozzi sketches and ms on verso.(c1970s).[fig. 1]
[3]GMA A40/2/14/29. A Ford advert. Fainted notes written on it. Illegible. (c1970s)
[4]GMA A40/2/30/94. Menu for the Consort Restaurant at the Roxburghe Hotel in Edinburgh. MS on front of names and phone numbers (1992- assumed)
[5]GMA A39/8/14. Slides/negatives Posters (glass slides by various artists – not ASHLEY) for example were originally stored in a Laras cigar box, manufactured by Por Larrañaga, S. A. Jamaica. [fig. 2]
[6]GMA A35/1/4/08. Peckover: box marked ‘Peckover Souvenirs’
[7]No catalogue entry exists for these artefacts. A 19th century inventory accompanies them: “List of Egyptian Antiquities with information given by Miss [illegible] of Egypt Exploration Fund.” One scrap of paper references at least 1 item from “The Tombs of the Kings”, meaning it’s possible that some of the items originated in Hellenistic Greece. [fig. 3.]
[8]As with the other ‘Peckover souvenirs’, this is not catalogued individually. It is accompanied by a key titled: “Wisbech 4thmo[nth] 1856.” The key then contains a pencil drawing of the hair portrait with numbers indicating the names of the 10 family members whose hair intertwines to form the ornate, fern-shaped design.
[10] Lebeter, N. How to Let an Artist Rifle Through Your Archive, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall, 2013